by Mary Stickley-Godinez
What would Christmas be without the tree? When I was young, my mom, sisters and I spent a day or two decorating the house. But the tree always waited until my father was off work and we gathered as a family to turn an ordinary white pine into a magical, glittery confection. Then for the rest of the holiday season, our family spent all our spare moments in the formal living room, enjoying that magnificent tree by the fireplace.
Packages appeared at the base and slowly piled higher. We lay under the tree reading or playing games. Our cats climbed the branches and were subsequently banished from the room. Evenings passed with us turning out the room lights to sing Christmas carols or to just talk while bathed in the glow of the colored tree lights and the scents of pine, candle wax, and burning logs. Those days were magical to me. But they were not always the custom of an American Christmas.
Before Christianity, evergreen boughs were a sacred symbol for most early civilizations. The winter solstice, December 21-22 was the shortest day of the year and thus the longest night. And it was thought to be a dangerous night — a night filled with ghosts, evil spirits and illness. But these could be warded off by draping evergreen leaves and branches above your doors, windows or fireplace — anywhere the house could be entered.
Then towns began to celebrate a community tree around which the people gathered and sang and presented gifts to the sun god. They then burned the tree in a communal fire. Martin Luther is credited with bringing the first tree inside and fixing it with lit candles as a way to explain the Christmas story to his children. Later, for Christians, the tree came to symbolize the future cross on which the Christ Child would be crucified. Evergreen trees were also decorated with fruit and called a Paradise Tree to celebrate Adam and Eve.
But the Christmas tree remained mainly a German custom until Queen Victoria of Great Britain asked her husband, Prince Philip, to decorate a tree as was done in his home when he was a child.
He produced a tabletop tree decorated with candles, fruit, nuts and sugared candies.
The royal family was pictured around this tree in a popular magazine in 1848, and all who saw it wanted to copy them. And so the Christmas tree entered British and American societal traditions. There are a number of varieties of evergreens that make suitable trees.
I grew up with white pines and am always partial to those. I love their soft look and fragrance. However, truth be told, the branches are too flexible to hold a lot of decorations.
So it isn’t really the best variety to use. Firs and spruce both make good thick trees with strong branches and produce a wonderful scent as well. They also have nice dark green or silvery blue colors which make a great background for decorations while fitting nicely into many room colors.
Virginia Cedars are also commonly used in our region. They have a great fragrance and a soft, less formal look. But watch out! They have sharp points on their foliage that can be painful when hanging ornaments.
And lately, Leyland Cypress and Arizona Cypress have also been introduced into the tree market as they grow quickly and have a nice shape, interesting foliage and good color. I love to include both in my wreaths, swags and garlands. But like the pines, these branches are too soft to hold heavy ornaments.
When choosing your tree, make sure it is fresh. Gently pull at the needles on the branch to make sure they don’t come off easily. Also, look on the ground below the plant and see if there are any green needles lying about under the tree. It is normal for evergreens to shed brown leaves. But if they drop green, it may indicate that the plant has dried out and it will not hold up for very long.
Once you get your tree home, cut off an inch or so of the base and put it into a bucket of water or tree preservative. Store it in the liquid in a cool location away from heat or excessive wind or air. When it is time to decorate, cut another inch from the bottom and mount it in a stand that holds at least a gallon of water. Make sure the water comes several inches above the bottom of the stump. As long as the tree is on display, add water daily to keep the level constant.
Christmas trees are a beautiful part of the holiday décor. This year, pick out the perfect tree for your family and make it a central part of your holiday activities as well.
- 2 oz. bleach
- 8 oz. white corn syrup
- 2 tsp Epsom salts
- ½ tsp Borax
- 5 qts hot water
Mix all together and use in place of water for the Christmas tree. The mix will keep the tree more hydrated which will help it last longer and will also make it less flammable.