Christmas Means Decorating

christmas

The Christmas season is upon us and, ho ho ho, it’s time for decorating.  The main event for many of us is a Christmas tree, which can be real, meaning it was once alive, or artificial.  There are a variety of options for real trees.  And within each class of tree, there are choices as well.  Fir trees, for example, include: Balsam, Fraser, Canaan and Douglas to name a few.   Some real tree enthusiasts remain steadfastly loyal to Spruce or Pine.  Because a tree purchased from a lot may shed its needles before the New Year, some people cut down their tree.  Today, many tree farms allow you to roam around the selection of trees in the Fall and label your tree for cutting in December.  This eliminates all those freezing ventures, stomping through deep snow, trying to select just the right one.  Most of us who’ve cut down our own tree have not experienced an adventure equal to that of the Griswald family.

Artificial Trees – From Feathers to Foil

Alas, in my family, we’ve gone to what some may consider the dark side and now have an artificial tree.  It’s prelit which eliminates all that tension around stringing the lights. Artificial trees have been around since the 19th century, with Germany developing this new concept in the 1800’s.  The German’s used green-dyed goose feathers and attached them to wire branches, which wrapped around a central dowel rod that served as a trunk.  The poor geese were now unadorned.

Eventually, the feather trees gave way to ones made from brush bristles.  The Addis Brush Company used their toilet brush machinery to construct the trees that were then dyed green.  And then, in 1958, aluminum trees were manufactured in Chicago.  I have a clear memory of my mother-in-law’s white tree perched atop a card table with a rotating light shining on it, changing it from red to green to blue.

christmas decore

Ornaments and Tinsel

In addition to lighting, there is a plethora of ways to decorate a Christmas tree.  Some prefer themed trees using only one color.  Other trees may have a variety of shaped and colored ornaments, but still maintaining a theme such as Nutcrackers. My Christmas tree has many Santa’s from my collection and ornaments my children and grandchildren have made.  One Little Lucy ornament is quite old, as I made it when I was a child.   Notice I did not say how old.

A popular decorative item adorning Christmas trees is tinsel, which has been augmenting Christmas trees as early as the 16th century.  It was used to enhance the flickering of candle flames, which were the original tree lights.  Candles on a resin-rich tree were, of course, dangerous.  To make this custom as safe as possible, branches above the candle had to be carefully trimmed back.  In addition, the candles were usually mounted on holders that had a metal dish to catch any hot wax as it dripped.

No Tinsel For Me

My Christmas tree does not contain tinsel.  And this is mostly because of my distressing childhood memories regarding placing tinsel on our Christmas tree.  Tinsel placement was a tedious and painstaking process supervised by my father.  We were all required to do our part, carefully lining up the tinsel on the tree one strand at a time.  As a child, I could sit and read for hours, but hours spreading tinsel on the tree?  No thank you.  When I got older, I realized that if I asked to do the back of the tree, I could get away with less precise tinsel placing.  That didn’t last long as my father liked to inspect all sides of the tree.  And when he saw that my technique did not meet his standards, I was relegated back to the front.

christmas tree folk tale

Spiders To The Rescue

There’s a Ukrainian folk tale explaining the origin of tinsel, spun over and over again, from family to family in Europe.  It’s called The Spider and the Christmas Tree , and as is the case with most folk tales, there’s a couple of versions.  But they all involve a poor, down-on-her-luck widow with children and a plain Christmas tree with no decorations.  While they sleep, spiders come to the rescue, spinning webs that sparkle in the morning light.  This story is so popular that natives of Ukraine decorate their modern Christmas trees with spider webs, believing they represent good fortune.

The tale of the Christmas Spider is similar to many magical stories about Christmas traditions.  We can create our own magic with personal choices of beautiful Christmas decorations that bring us joy year after year.

Don’t Let the Coronavirus Steal Christmas

outdoor nativity

This Christmas season, the Coronavirus could be a metaphor for the cantankerous protagonist in Dr. Suess’s book How The Grinch Stole Christmas.  The Grinch is an unhappy creature with a heart “two sizes too small” wanting to ensure that everyone feels as lonely as he, which isn’t too far from reality right now. The Coronavirus is an insidious virus made up of spike proteins that act like grappling hooks, ensuring practically everyone who comes in contact with it gets sick. Yikes!  Well we know what to do about the virus, but what about feeling woeful about Christmas?  Maybe Dr. Suess’s book can give us direction.

The Grinch’s Plan Didn’t Go As Expected

In Dr. Suess’s book, Cindy Lou Who is concerned for her mother and twin infant brothers.  She thinks her mother is overworked.  Does that sound like a familiar theme right now?  She hatches a scheme to capture Santa Claus, so she can speak to him personally and convince him to give her mother a happy and joyful Christmas.  She instead mistakenly captures the Grinch, disguised as Santa, on his way to steal Christmas from Whoville.  Cindy Lou almost enlarges his grinchy heart and stops his dastardly plan, because of her generous spirit.  But he proceeds to steal Christmas from all the Who’s in Whoville.

When Christmas morning arrives and there are no festive decorations or presents, at first the Who’s are quite dismayed.  But then they begin singing the Christmas Song which has a lot of the non-words that Dr. Suess is so famous for, and a magical sentence that makes everything okay:  Christmas day will always be just as long as we have we.  And there’s our first line of defense against the possible loss of Christmas spirit.  We have we.

We Can Hold Onto The Christmas Spirit

By focusing on the “we,” Christmas is within our grasp.  In the story, Cindy Lou feels empathy for the Grinch and invites him to her home for Christmas dinner.  Surrounded by a loving family, he confesses that it wasn’t Christmas he hated so much as feeling alone and neglected.  One little act of kindness begins to enlarge the Grinch’s heart.

We’re not going to demonstrate empathy toward the Coronavirus and invite it into our home.  In fact, we’re doing the exact opposite.  But we can invite Christmas into our lives with empathy for ourselves and others that are feeling alone and neglected during the holiday season.  There’s a good amount of psychological evidence that when we extend kindness and compassion to others, we enlarge our hearts.

 santas chair

Decorate!  Decorate! Decorate!

We all have our Grinch moments, but we can dispel them with action that brings us joy.  This Christmas will not likely be the same old, same old holiday.  For Christmas 2020, we may need to change things up.  Instead of pulling back, maybe go all out with holiday decorations inside and out.  Outdoor decorations, like giant snowmen or Santa and his sleigh will instill a festive spirit for our neighbors and people passing by our homes.  The Journal of Environmental Psychology suggests that decorating the outside of our homes, may give our neighbors a lift and indicate to them that we’re friendly residents.

It’s likely that we’re going to connect with loved ones via Zoom or some other video platform, and for that, we can set the stage with a variety of charming and magical decorations inside the house.  So, in addition to seeing the faces of those we love and cherish, they can derive pleasure from what they see as our background.  Psychologists posit that when we’re feeling anxious, calling up happy childhood memories can lift our spirits, and Christmas decorations can evoke those positive feelings.

The Grinchy Coronavirus may have stolen some of our Christmas traditions, but it cannot steal our Christmas spirit!  We can hold on to that by filling our homes inside and out with heartwarming decorations.

Why Do We Visit Santa?

Santa chair

A Guide to Christmas Traditions Around the World

Christmas traditions are a funny concept. We are taught from the moment that we celebrate our first holiday season to participate in countless amusing, yet outlandish customs. Even odder is the fact that it rarely  dawns on us to question our participation. Speaking for myself, I never second guessed sitting on Santa’s lap and sharing my cherished wish list or posing for a photo with the elves in a Santa chair. It’s inevitable that country to country holiday customs differ drastically, however one thing is for certain: The origins of these traditions can get lost in translation.

America and Sitting on Santa’s Knee

When asked about the holiday season in America a list of immediately forms in my head:

  • Red and Green
  • Baking cookies
  • Gingerbread houses
  • Visiting Santa

However, by far the most notable holiday tradition in America is the annual trip that kids take to visit their local Santa, climb into the Santa chair, and confide in him their prized wish lists.

The story of Santa Claus was derived, centuries ago, from a monk who’s name was St. Nicholas. This monk became known for his generosity and piety as he traveled around the world spreading not only wealth and love, but also the name St. Nicholas. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that the story of St. Nicholas began spreading in American culture. In 1809, Washington Irving referenced the then Sinter Klaas (Dutch origin) in one of his books as the “Patron Saint of New York.” Soon after, the  popularity of St. Nicholas skyrocketed and by the late 1840s kids were asking to visit Santa during Christmas. In 1924, the Santa craze had hit peak popularity as people would gather from everywhere to meet the Macy’s Day Parade Santa.

Germany and Christmas Trees

The Christmas tree is one of the most widely recognizable holiday emblems. Annually, families gather evergreens to house their gifts for one another. The decorating of the tree for many families is highly anticipated and we have Germany to thank for this tradition.

Decorating evergreen trees originated in Strasburg, Germany during the 17th century. The custom of decorating trees was a German tradition used to celebrate the winter solstice for decades prior to the concept of the Christmas tree. In the late 1800’s the Christmas tree came into popularity and could now be seen all over Germany. The Christmas tree was embedded in English and American holiday tradition by the 19th century.
yule log

Norway and the Yule Log

The Yule Log is a tradition which originated in Norway. First used to signify the returning of the sun after the winter solstice. The term “Yule” was derived from the Norse word “Hweol” meaning wheel. They viewed the sun as a wheel which circulated the Earth. Today, the burning of the Yule log embodies the Christmas spirit for families around the world. The Yule log feeds many fireplaces for the twelve days of Christmas to bring good luck for the year to come.

Carolers in the Snow
Carolers in the Snow

England and Christmas Carols

Carolers are a sign of joy and light in countless cultures during the holidays. Once called “Waits” because they only sang on Christmas Eve, carolers go from house to house singing Christmas songs to their neighbors in a hope to circulate holiday cheer. This form of celebration originated in England.

Millenniums ago, carols were used in Europe to celebrate the Winter solstice.  The earliest carol was written in 1410 and titled, “I Saw Three Ships.” Briefly once the Puritans came into power in England, Christmas caroling was ordered to stop. This made the trend grow in popularity as people retaliated by singing them in secret. During the Victorian Period, caroling was once again accepted and used to signify the beginning of the Christmas celebrations in England.

 

How Did the Snowman Connect to Christmas?

outdoor snowmen

Both the “Christmas” tree and sometimes life size snowmen originated in pagan cultures.  Snowman documentation dates as far back as the Middle Ages.  Before that, we can only assume that in the dark times of winter, humans were creating art with anything available, including snow.  According to Bob Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowman, the snowman’s earliest known representation is in the 1380 Book of Hours in the Koninkijke Bibliotheek in The Hague, Netherlands.

Connection to Christmas is coming.

History of Snowmen
Snowman with charred backside in Book of Hours

In 1845, Mary Dillwyn took the first photograph of a snowman, shortly after Francis Ronalds invented the first successful device for continuous recording, otherwise known as a camera.  Not that Frosty is aware that he’s the subject of one of the first photographs ever taken.  For decades after that, variations of snowmen materialized in books, magazines, songs and films.

Connection to Christmas is coming.

the first snowman
Mary Dillwyn/National Museum of Wales

 

Snowman Suffers Unrequited Love

Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale about an outdoor snowman,  who wishes he could be indoors as he’s fallen in love with a stove.  It isn’t difficult to see the irony in that love story, which begins with a snowman standing in the garden of a manor house watching the sun set and the moon rise. His sole companion is a watchdog who lives in a doghouse nearby.

life size snowmen
A snowman receives romantic advice from dog in Hans Christian Andersen’s “Stories for the Household” (1880s) – Internet Archive Book Images

The dog reminisces about happier days when he slept under the stove inside the house. The snowman can see the stove through a window and believes it is female.  He pines for her and longs to be in the room with the stove, but the dog warns him he would melt.  There’s much more to the story if you care to read it.  

Connection to Christmas is coming.

life size snowman
North Wind Picture Archives

Don’t Count on Snowmen to Protect You

Snowmen, unbeknownst to them, played a part in one of the bloodiest events in early American history; the Schenectady Massacre of 1690. At the time, Fort Schenectady was a remote Dutch settlement under constant threat of attack.  A blizzard descended on the fort, and the gates were frozen open.  The freezing soldiers left a pair of snowmen as substitute “guards” to protect the fort when they left for shelter.  They were not aware of a looming threat.  A contingent of French-Canadian soldiers and Native Americans attacked and, unfazed by the stoic but inefficient snowmen, killed 60 inhabitants. This was well before the modern day Frosty, who we all know can come to life.  Connection to Christmas is coming.

Snowwomen Rise Up

Residents of Bethel, Maine celebrated feminism on a much grander scale than did the Dutch in the snow representation of their queen.  Ignoring the traditional genderless snowman, they constructing Olympia, who stood 122 feet tall and much larger than the average outside snowman .  Olympia was considered the world’s largest snowperson, until Austria won the title in 2008.  Bethel’s amazing snowwoman had eyelashes made of skis, lips made of car tires, a 100-foot-long scarf, and a six-foot-long snowflake pendant. Imagine if she came to life!

Connection to Christmas is here.

snowman
Dutch Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana as snowwomen in the Netherlands (1939) – Creation of the Snowman

Snowwomen Rise Up

Residents of Bethel, Maine celebrated feminism on a much grander scale than did the Dutch in the snow representation of their queen.  Ignoring the traditional genderless snowman, they constructing Olympia, who stood 122 feet tall and much larger than the average outside snowman .  Olympia was considered the world’s largest snowperson, until Austria won the title in 2008.  Bethel’s amazing snowwoman had eyelashes made of skis, lips made of car tires, a 100-foot-long scarf, and a six-foot-long snowflake pendant. Imagine if she came to life!  Connection to Christmas is here.

the worlds tallest snowman
The Worlds Tallest Snowman

It’s Here! Snowmen and Christmas

The recognizable version of a snowman, three balls of snow stacked upon each other, with stovepipe hat, a button nose and two eyes made out of coal, came to life in the Christmas Season during the Victorian era.  Prince Albert, not the kind in a can, incorporated some of Eastern Europe’s traditions into England’s.  Santa Claus and the snowman became omnipresent icons for Boxing Day and the holiday season.

Now, in the yards of homes all over the world, life size snowmen are included in Christmas decorations.  Snowmen are also found on Christmas cards and some people collect them to use as interior holiday decoration.  There are also notable snowmen like Olaf and the Abominable Snowman, but there’s one that was made famous in both song and film – Frosty the Snowman.

Christmas decoration snowman

The Christmas animated television special about Frosty the Snowman debuted in 1969. Narrated by Jimmy Durante, the film involves a magic hat that transforms Frosty the Snowman into a living being. Without ruining the whole plot, eventually Frosty and the town children wind up at the North Pole.  When Frosty eventually melts, Santa Claus explains that Frosty is made out of special Christmas snow. Frosty then comes back to life and everyone has a Merry Christmas.

The television special is based on the song, Frosty the Snowman, written in 1950 by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson. They wrote it for Gene Autry, after Autry had such a huge hit with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer the previous year.  However, unlike Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman is not necessarily a Christmas song. Nothing about Christmas is mentioned in the song’s lyrics at all. It’s just a generic wintertime song.

It was when Frosty producers decided to make the song into a Christmas special that Christmas came into the story, by changing the final line of the song.  The original song ends with, “But he waved goodbye, saying, don’t you cry. I’ll be back again someday,” as evidenced here.  On the television special, the last line is, “But he waved goodbye, saying, don’t you cry. I’ll be back on Christmas day.”  Adding a bit more marketing magic to Christmas.

A Brief History of Christmas Carols

Santa Claus with Jingle Bells carol sheet music

There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something.

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol


Of all the Christian holidays, Christmas must be the most sociable. Since at least Victorian times (and certainly before) it has been a season for family and friends to spend time together and engage in joyful group activities. And one of the most joyful of those activities is the making of music and the singing of holiday songs by outdoor Christmas carolers.

Imagine Christmastime without music or carols. It just wouldn’t be the same. And yet, ironically, in the very earliest years of Christianity there was no Christmastime to speak of, much less music to celebrate it. Easter—commemorating the miraculous resurrection of the crucified Jesus—was the main holiday of devout Christians. The birth of Jesus, by comparison, seemed an unimportant affair and simply was not celebrated.

In the fourth century, however, church officials decided to proclaim the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The history behind that proclamation illustrates the genius of Roman Catholicism for incorporating secular, pagan traditions into its religious rituals. One of those is the tradition of caroling.

Carol sheet music, The First Noël
The First Nowell from an 1879 book by Henry Ramsden Bramley
(Source)

Continue reading “A Brief History of Christmas Carols”

Before He Was Santa, Was He Sinterklaas?

santa sleigh

Dutch Influences in the Story of Santa

It is believed that Santa is a derivative of the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, which is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas was described as a serious-looking older man with a long white beard, who wears a red cape, rides a white horse and carries a large red book filled with names of children who have been naughty or nice. Sinterklaas was said to travel with an apprentice called Piet.

Before the Book of Naughty and Nice

Santa’s helpers either listened at the chimney or on rooftops. Then Santa’s helper would report back to Santa the goings on in the homes. With this information Santa would decide who was worthy of a reward. In some stories, it was his helper Piet, in other stories it was two ravens named Huginn and Muninn, who listened on Santa’s behalf. When the focus shifted to children is unknown, but it is possible that when the fable of Santa was Christianized, it may have been in that time. Eventually, instead of Santa’s helpers listening for Santa, it was inferred that Santa, simply knew if a child was naughty or nice and Santa kept track of it in his large red book. Continue reading “Before He Was Santa, Was He Sinterklaas?”

Art of the Nativity

Duomo of Florence Italy at night

Guest Blog by Frank Weaver


The long, dark, cold nights of December are immeasurably warmed and brightened by the Christmas decorations that mark the holiday season: colored lights, tree ornaments, elaborate wreaths—and not least of all, the indoor and outdoor Nativity scenes that homeowners, churches, and municipalities display to remind us of the meaning of that season. But what inspired this tradition?

On a recent trip to Italy I wanted, of course, to immerse myself in the natural, cultural, artistic, and day-to-day charms of that country, especially in the vicinity of Florence. But I also made a particular point of seeking out the origins of the Nativity Scene tradition within the unrivaled collections of art found throughout that country.

The Nativity in Florence and Milan

I did not have to search hard.

Continue reading “Art of the Nativity”

2020 Holiday Season Trends


It’s hard enough to keep track of your own world during the holidays without trying to figure out what’s new and trendy. But Christmas Night Inc. has done it for you! We have our finger on the pulse of the holidays every year, and our guide to the holiday season trends of 2018 will help you have a more rewarding, less stressful December. While you can’t go wrong with tradition, our tips and advice below can put you at the forefront of the season.

Continue reading “2020 Holiday Season Trends”

Evolution of the Beloved Nutcracker

Giant Nutcracker

The nutcracker sits under the holiday tree, a guardian of childhood stories. Feed him walnuts and he will crack open a tale….”
Vera Nazarian

Primitive nutcrackers were nothing like the nutcrackers that we know of today. To understand the significance of the nutcracker, we need to go back in time to a point when malevolent spirits held a place in everyday life. In these early times, typically referred to medieval times, nutcrackers were used to ward off spirits, bring luck and crack nuts.

The Nutcracker as an Everyday Tool
Typically, nutcrackers were of simpler but creative design. During medieval times, the nutcracker was an everyday tool. And nuts were a staple in everyday life. Medieval nutcrackers were whittled from wood and were skillfully designed by the whittler.

Some nutcrackers appeared with human or elfish heads, animals and other objects. But typically, the nutcracker had two handles which clasped together, and at the end was a cracking mechanism. The nutcracker was more geared toward function but also had ornate design. Nutcrackers weren’t considered decoration in these times, but simply a tool. Once, harder metals were introduced, nutcrackers were also ornately fashioned from metal, but were not as affordable to the lower classes.

Continue reading “Evolution of the Beloved Nutcracker”

Historical Origins of Outdoor Nativity Scenes

Outdoor Nativity scene

 

“All cultures…have grown out of myths. They are founded on myths. What these myths have given has been inspiration for aspiration.”
— Joseph Campbell, Mythology and the Individual (1997)


From church iconography to Easter baskets, from Yule logs to small indoor crèches and huge outdoor Nativity sets, the backstories behind the outward manifestations of Christian belief, in all their rich variety, remain a source of endless historical interest, and not a little speculation. Continue reading “Historical Origins of Outdoor Nativity Scenes”