Lovely Are Thy Branches

Christmas prep – at our house – starts the weekend after Thanksgiving and goes all the way thru December 24th.  I like to think it’s deliberate – taking a month or more to drag out the “getting ready”.  Some years we’re rushed but the house always seems to get decorated, the cookies baked, the presents wrapped, the cards sent, and the food shopped.  There’s always a dinner reservation on Christmas Eve; always room in the pews at the late, late church service.  But what if – some year – we dispensed with all of that prep?  December 25th would still come, of course.  But it wouldn’t be Christmas, unless we had a tree.

I can’t think of a single Christmas in my fifty-plus years when we haven’t had a fully-decorated tree.  Whether the lights or the ornaments or the angel on top, the tree to me is the ultimate expression of the holiday season.  Christmas trees have been standing since the 1500’s (proved by a sculpted image at an estate in France).  In the late 1700’s, Christmas trees hopped the pond to America.

My affection for decorated trees dates to my early childhood in Los Angeles.  Late on a mid-December day, my mother would pack my brothers and I into the station wagon, drive downtown, and meet up with my father after work.  Near his office, hundreds of Christmas trees were being unloaded from boxcars in the train yard; some of them still fresh with snow.  You may prefer the convenience of your neighborhood tree lot, but sorry; nothing beats the childhood nostalgia of picking a tree straight from a boxcar.

Flocked tree

Since we never had snow in Los Angeles, we often had our Christmas tree “flocked” before taking it home.  Flocking means placing a tree on a spinning stand and covering it with a product I can only describe as spray Styrofoam.  As tacky as that sounds, the result is remarkably “snow-like”.  Flocking even comes in colors (but I never understood why anyone would want pink or green snow).

As for tree ornaments, they’ve been around since Christmas trees themselves.  What were once apples, candy canes, and pastries (elegantly simple, if you ask me) have now evolved into everything imaginable.  On my childhood tree, I only remember those delicate, shiny, colored balls and bells; the ones which shattered on the slightest impact.  We also had tinsel; endless garlands of thin strips of colored foil, and tinsel is a great word, don’t you think?

Christmas lights became a staple of tree decor in 1882, when an Edison Electric VP first added them to his family tree.  The lights on my childhood tree – the multi-colored “C9” incandescent standard of the time – were connected to an illuminated star at the very top.  A few strands contained transparent-colored “blinkies”.  In hindsight, blinky lights sound as tacky as flocking but somehow, they worked alongside everything else on the tree.

Here’s a little Christmas tree trivia for you.  The carol, O’ Christmas Tree, is sometimes sung in German, starting with “O’ Tannenbaum, O’ Tannenbaum…”.  Guess what?  You’re actually singing, “O’ Fir Tree, O’ Fir Tree…”.  If you’re looking for the correct translation, go with, “O’ Weihnachtsbaum…” instead.

Christmon tree

One more bit of trivia.  If you find a tree decorated with nothing but white and gold Christian symbols, you’re looking at a Christmon tree.  Blend the sounds and meanings of “Christ” and “monogram” and you come up with the portmanteau “Christmon”.  Sounds (and looks) beautiful to me.

I don’t think I’ll ever have to worry about finding a Christmas tree.  Over 35 million are produced in the U.S. each year; another 60 million in Europe.  The average cost of a live-cut Christmas tree last year was $73, and that includes a lot of really tall ones.  Someday, I won’t be able to erect a nine or ten-foot tree in my living room anymore.  No worries; I’ll just go with a table-top instead (a “Charlie Brown”, if you will).  Her branches will be just as lovely.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Sourcing the Christmas Spirit

The holiday season often feels like a sprint to the finish.  From the moment the Thanksgiving table is cleared, my brain shifts to the list of “essential tasks” preceding Christmas Day.  In no particular order I know we will a) put up a tree, b) hang the lights,  c) decorate the house, d) write and mail greeting cards, e) send packages to distant family members, f) shop for the Christmas dinner, g) bake cookies, and of course, h) purchase gifts for the family.  We don’t always get everything done.  Some years – like this one in fact – no lights get hung.  Other years no cookies get baked.  There’s never enough time, the calendar mercilessly counts down the days, and just forget about intentions of healthy eating at any point in the process.

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Thankfully all of this Christmas prep includes a few heartwarming activities.  My family and I always seem to find time to drive around the neighborhood to see the lights.  We don’t trim the tree until the week before Christmas, choosing from more ornaments than we have branches.  We watch several of those cheesy Hallmark Channel movies, with the formula love stories and terrible acting and without-fail-happy-endings.  We keep egg nog in the frig and candy and cookies on the kitchen counters.  We tune our car radios to round-the clock holiday music stations.  We never miss Christmas Eve church.

More than twenty-five Christmases celebrated with my immediate family leads me to this conclusion: the spirit of Christmas is not born from the “prep list” I talked about above, nor even from the heartwarming activities I know will take place year after year.  Rather, the provenance of the spirit is moments that become memories, and memories that last far longer than the Christmas season itself.

I have a favorite Christmas memory from my childhood.  A neighborhood near where we lived staged an annual decorating contest between its several streets.  Not only were the houses fully adorned with lights and ornaments, but the streets themselves had Christmas themes, so decorating was consistent from sidewalk to sidewalk.  I remember one street decorated primarily with candy canes, another with bells, and still another with angels.  They even changed the street names for the season (i.e. “Candy Cane Lane”).  You always knew which street won the competition by the huge blue ribbon hanging from the first lamppost.  After touring every last street of this neighborhood, my brothers and I spent several hours at a nearby mall, purchasing gifts with the precious-few dollars we’d saved as kids.  Finally we’d join up with my parents for a late-night dinner out.  This memory of an evening of family fun stands the test of time – more than forty years ago by my estimate – and always brings a smile to my face.  This memory seems uniquely mine, as if dozens of other families didn’t tour those decorated streets or shop at that busy mall.

I have an equally favorite Christmas memory from recent years.  To slow down the events of Christmas morning, my wife and I created a trivia contest for our kids.  They stand at the top of the staircase outside their bedrooms and we start the questions.  Correct answers earn them a step down the staircase (closer to the gifts). Incorrect answers cost them a step backwards.  The trivia delayed the inevitable, but the first to reach the bottom stair won the privilege of opening the first gift.  It’s a tradition we’ve carried on for years, and a memory that will stay with me long after children stand at the top of our stairs on Christmas morning.

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Let’s not kid ourselves.  The Christmas season will always be hectic as long as there are gifts to buy and greeting cards to write and family members to visit.  But there will also be moments – some planned and some not.  And memories – some fleeting and some longer-lasting.  It is those memories that without fail bring you comfort, joy, and Christmas spirit.

De-lightful December

The Broadmoor Hotel, the five-star luxury resort here in Colorado Springs, boasts a Christmas season display including over a million twinkly white lights. The weekend after Thanksgiving crowds gather on the grounds to witness the illumination, which starts with a countdown and ends with the flip of a big switch.  Instantly the Broadmoor is delivered into the Christmas season. It’s a spectacular sight and a tradition that’s been carried on for thirty years.  I can’t imagine how long it takes to put it all together.

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Christmas lights are one of my favorite expressions of the season. I marvel at the time and energy some of my neighbors invest to produce a display that – like the one above – can probably be seen from the space shuttle.  Surely you have a similar house where you live (or a hotel) where the lights and the decorating borders on the ridiculous.  Or maybe you just tune in to “The Great Christmas Light Fight” (Mondays on ABC), where “decorating to the extreme” can win you a cash prize and the coveted Light Fight trophy.

We have a house in our neighborhood covered in nothing but purple lights.  It’s actually quite appealing but I question the choice of color.  Most people still use strands of multi-colored lights of course – more LED than incandescent these days.  Sometimes you see animals or trains or colorful scenes.  Those always remind me of Lite-Brite, a toy I had as a kid.  Lite-Brite was a simple light box fronted by color-by-letter templates.  You plugged colored plastic pegs into the template and when you were done, you turned off the lights and switched on the box to display a glowing, colorful picture.  My more artistic friends would forego the templates and make their own creations in the dark.

I see Christmas lights everywhere this time of year; not just on houses.  Traffic signals blink red and green.  Ditto airport runway demarcations.  And how about those overhead lights your drive-thru bank uses to indicate which lanes are open or closed?

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn the first Christmas “lights” were candles, glued with melted wax to tree branches in the wealthier homes of late-nineteenth-century Germany.  Electric strands came along several years later (Great Britain claims their invention); originally referred to as “fairy lights”.  Finally, several cities – San Diego, New York City, and Appleton, Wisconsin among them – claim to have originated the outdoor Christmas light display, which only seem to get bigger and more elaborate by the year.

Perhaps you’re like my family.  Other than the tree itself we’re lucky if we string one hundred (let alone one million) lights on the outside of our house.  I like to decorate a tree or two in the yard instead, but the house itself stands in the shadows.  Perhaps it’s because I fell off a ladder one year reaching across the top of the garages. Perhaps it’s because I prefer the look of the “candle in the window” (so much easier to put up!)

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Less is more in my opinion.  One of my favorite decorated houses in our neighborhood combines a simple outline of white lights on the house with a few colored trees in the yard.  That works for me.  Even a single white light will do as long as it’s bright enough.  So goes the Methodist hymn There’s A Song In The Air: “Ay! the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing…”  Referring of course, to the star of Bethlehem.  The one true and luminous Christmas light.