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”.

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.

74-luminous-1

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!)

74-luminous-2

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.

The Best Branch on the Tree

Gracie lay quietly – perfectly still for what seemed like forever. Her snow hat tickled her auburn hair. Her dress – with the oversized snowflake front and center – felt worn and wrinkled, though she couldn’t be sure with her surroundings so dark. Something sharp was poking her in the back.  Above her, below her, to the right and to the left, Gracie sensed the color and glitter and shine of nearby objects.  She could not move to see them but Gracie knew they were there. After all, when you’re a Christmas tree ornament you know what it’s like to spend almost a year in a cardboard box.

73-qualms

Without warning a door opened.  Gracie held her breath, as this basement closet was home to more than just Christmas things.  But then she heard happy voices and boxes being shuffled about.  There was a quick trill of sleigh bells followed by the friendly clack-clack of Christmas light bundles.  Then there was a jolt – a bit of an earthquake really! – and the sensation of being lifted and moved.  Yet it wasn’t until Gracie sensed she was going up the stairs that she knew for sure.  Yes, yes – it was time!  December was here again!  Gracie smiled (though she always smiled no matter how she felt).  In all her excitement she tried to push back the qualms; those uneasy feelings that entered her mind every year at this moment.  Would she make it to the best branch on the Christmas tree?  Would she make it to the tree at all?

Other ornaments came to life slowly around her, yawning and stretching (those that could move, closer to the top of the box).  There was the excited chatter of anticipation.  Who would be chosen first?  Who would face the fireplace with its brightly decorated garlands and stockings?  Who would hang from the lowest branches, where you could almost reach out and touch the presents?  And which lucky ones would journey to the highest branches, standing guard just below the Christmas angel?  “Oh, hurry, please hurry,” thought Gracie. “Let us out into the light!”

Suddenly all of the movement stopped and the box top was removed.  Bright light filtered all the way down to the bottom where Gracie lay impatiently.  As the ornaments above her were removed, Gracie’s thoughts still tormented her.  Was the tree big enough?  Did it have good, solid branches?  Did they still love her enough to include her?

At long last Gracie saw hands reaching down and removing the ornaments closest to her.  Away went the Star of David.  Away went the little wooden rocking horse.  Away went the gingerbread man with his one eye missing.  Finally the whole box was upended, and Gracie and the remaining ornaments came tumbling out into a messy pile on the table.  “This is awkward,” she giggled, sprawling almost upside down.  It would take some untangling if she hoped to get noticed.

To the sound of Christmas carols and laughter, Gracie watched from the table as one after another of the ornaments were carried to the tree and placed carefully on the branches.  She had only just arrived, yet the tree was already looking complete!

“Oh no”, she worried, “I’m a little girl but I’m pretty big for an ornament.  Will there be any branches left to hold me?”

Then Gracie heard the words she dreaded most. “Okay children,” someone said, “I think that’s enough for this year.  Let’s stand back and have a look.”  And sure enough, the children danced in front of the tree, so happy and clapping.  The tree was complete and with the best of the ornaments.  Gracie felt a tear form on her cheek.  She spied Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Dorothy hanging together halfway up the tree; the perfect view of Christmas everything.  Her Wizard of Oz friends made it to the best branch on the tree this year.

Gracie felt so sad.  She wished she’d never even seen the tree.  Why hadn’t they noticed her this year?  Christmas could be so cruel!  She watched helplessly as leftover ornaments were placed one by one back into the box.  But just as she was scooped up along with a tangle of older ornaments, a wee voice cried out from somewhere below the table, “No, Momma, no!  Snow Angel needs a place on the tree, doesn’t she?”

Gracie held her breath.  Was she really a Snow Angel?

There was a long pause; nothing but silence really.  Momma looked down at the ornaments in her hands, thinking.  And then she smiled.  With a little bit of untangling Gracie was lifted from the pile.  She was placed carefully in a little girl’s hands, who promptly marched to the tree and searched in vain for an open branch.  Seeing none, she slid around to the back of the tree, facing the windows and the snow-covered fields outside.  “Here is where she belongs, Momma,” the little girl said proudly.  “Snow Angel will be the first ornament to know when Christmas comes!”

And so, there would be a Christmas for Gracie after all.  She smiled as she glanced at the branch above her and kept watch through the windows (though Gracie always smiled no matter how she felt).  Thanks to the little girl, Gracie made it to the tree this year.  Come to think of it, she also made it to the best branch of all.