Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!
Oh, no, wait, it’s Happy Holidays!
Little early? Have you gone shopping recently? It’s November 3 and Christmas decorations/cards/wrapping paper and ads are already there. Halloween was promoted in August. The national retailers bank on the commercialization of the holidays. But was it always so? The answer is no.
The original Thanksgiving dates back to 1621 when the Wampanoag Indians shared the autumn harvest with the surviving members of the Plymouth colony. One of the few times the natives helped the colonists learn what did grow here (unlike the seeds they brought from England) and how to live in northern climate. Since then, towns and states celebrated thanksgiving individually. But in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be a National holiday to be celebrated in November.
Christmas – This truly was a religious holiday – a day to celebrate in church with no work. The Christmas tree did not take off as a symbol of the holiday until the 19th century when Queen Victoria used it. The British Empire was the nation to watch and many Americans mimicked what they did, especially socially in clothing, trends and holidays. The Christmas tree was Germanic in origin, the evergreen a wistful remembrance of greener, warmer days to come. The queen’s husband, Prince Albert, was German. The queen was popular so when she had a tree decorated, everyone followed suit.
The tree was a live evergreen. It wasn’t decorated in November but in the beginning, it was a short tree, set upon a table, and decorated on Christmas Eve. Its ornaments were the gifts for the children, hung from the branches, not wrapped. The lights were candles in weighted holders that clamped on the edge of the limbs. They were lit before the children arrived. After the awe of the little ones, the candles were snuffed. A bucket of sand sat nearby in case of a fire. Today we have multi-colored, blinking, odd shaped LED lights but I personally would love to see a candlelit tree – just for the novelty & experience of old but doubt I’ll ever get to see that. <sigh> Today’s large trees, both the real and fake, started in the late 19th century, when Americans took this idea of the tree and expanded, demanding they be the large floor-to-ceiling trees.
Some of the interesting gifts of the period ranged from fancy sugar cubes (processed white sugar cubes were luxury goods few could afford) or French-milled soap (very expensive, fine and scented cakes) for the ladies. Oranges were also a fancy and expensive gift due the source (i.e.: Florida) and healthy, primarily used to ward off scurvy not the cold. As a child, I grew up with oranges scattered under the tree – a family tradition from days of old. Plus it took prodding that my birthday was middle of the month (December) for me to get my mother to put up the tree for it, unlike her desire to put it up on the 22nd or so. It always came down on the 26th. Her practice comes from her family practices of years ago.
What old-fashioned traditions do you maintain, despite today’s over-commercialization? Or is your tree already up?