With Christmas already past and Yuletide still in play, I’m looking at our Christmas tree, decorated with some of my favorite ornaments, and I’m glad that we always keep the tree up and lit through the New Year to Twelfth Night, January 6. I love looking at the warm, bright array of lights, decorations, beads and ribbons displayed on the tree every year. There's few things lovelier than a glowing Christmas tree in the quiet dark of night or before dawn. There's hope and peace in it.
How long have we been hanging glittery bits and gewgaws on our Christmas trees? A glance into the history of Christmas ornaments and decorations usually points out the 16th century origin of the Christmas tree in Germany as a triangular symbol of the Holy Trinity, and as the tradition grew and spread, roses and then candles and other decorations were included. The Victorian Christmas tree was a marvelous thing to behold, with cranberry strings and handmade ornaments and candles aglow. (Yikes, can you imagine adding flaming candles to our Christmas trees today?!)
Yet the tradition of decorations and lights goes back even further than Renaissance Europe to England and Scotland and the days of pagans, Celts, Druids and Vikings. The Yule log (and the name) came from an old Norse tradition, though today Yule logs may simply be cozy flames in the fireplace (or a rolled chocolate cake with creamy icing!) – we no longer need to stoke an enormous Yule log’s fire for twelve days straight to keep the bogles away. In medieval Scotland, very early on, evergreens were still considered sacred from Druidic times and therefore not cut, but over the days of Yule, a huge log would be cut and brought in to fill the hearth and kept burning for the twelve days.
The medieval hall, particularly in Scotland, would be swagged with juniper for purification, rowan branches for luck and protection, holly for health and mistletoe for fertility and good luck for the coming year. There's an old tradition in Scotland of tying ribbons and bits of string to a tree by a healing well to represent prayers and wishes, and I wonder if some of that tradition also was transferred to the eventual Christmas tree. As for lights -- pine sap torches would brighten the hall and the best candles would be set in the windows to welcome travelers in from the cold. With the bad spirits warded off and the good spirits invited in, the old year would end and the new one begin under the best graces.
Some of the old traditions have certainly stuck with us – greenery, holly, mistletoe, berries (Australians, Anne tells us, love cherries at Christmas!), lights and candles in the windows, as well as leaving the decorations up until Twelfth Day.
So as I look at the tree in our living room today, it’s decorated with white lights, angels, snowflakes, and tartan ribbons. I’ll change the tree theme from year to year – sometimes it’s all toys and whimsy and red bows, sometimes it’s pearl strands and Victorian pretty – but I love the angels best, having collected angel ornaments for years. Glass, silver, china, brass, handmade, I like to think of those angels, and all holiday ornaments, as Christmas good luck charms - they grace the house with a lovely sense of protection and uplifted spirits for the end of the old year and the coming of the new.
What are your favorite ornaments and decorating traditions? Do you decorate for luck, and do you leave the tree and the whole lovely Christmasy chaos up through January 6th -- or do you get over the whole Christmas thing quickly and move on into the new year?
Hope your holidays are joyful - and Happy New Year to all!