Tradition of Christmas trees
November 15, 2006 8:24am CST
A Christmas tree is one of the most popular traditions associated with the celebration of Christmas. DATES: Traditionally, Christmas trees were not brought in and decorated until Christmas Eve (24 December), and then removed the day after twelfth night (i.e., 6 January); to have a tree up before or after these dates was even considered bad luck. Modern commercialisation of Christmas has however resulted in trees being put up much earlier; in shops often as early as late October (in the UK, Selfridge's Christmas department is up by early September, complete with Christmas trees). A common tradition in U.S. homes is to put the tree up right after Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November) and to take it down right after the New Year. However, some households in the U.S. do not put up the tree until the second week of December, and leave it up until the 6th of January (Epiphany). In Germany, Catholics take their Christmas trees down by the 2nd of February. In Australia, the Christmas tree is usually put up on the 1st of December, which occurs about a week before the school summer holidays. TYPES OF TREES USED: Natural trees; The best species for use are species of fir (Abies), which have the major benefit of not shedding the needles when they dry out, as well as good foliage colour and scent; but species in other genera are also used. Artificial trees; Artificial trees have become increasingly popular, as they are considered more convenient and (if used for several years) less expensive than real trees. Designer trees; The first trees which were not green were the metallic trees of the 1950s and 1960s. They were aluminium-coated paper, meaning that they also posed a great fire hazard if lights were put directly on them (warnings to this effect are still issued with most Christmas tree lights). They were instead lit by a spotlight or floodlight, often with a motorised rotating color wheel in front of it. More recent tinsel trees can be used safely with lights. DECORATION AND ORNAMENTS: Tinsel and several types of garland or ribbon are commonly used to decorate a Christmas tree. Delicate mould-blown and painted coloured glass Christmas ornaments were a specialty of Czech glass factories from the late 19th century, and have since become a large industry, complete with famous-name designers. Lighting with candles or electric lights (fairy lights) is commonly done, and a tree topper completes the ensemble. Strands of tinsel may be hung in groups from longer branches to simulate icicles, though this trend has gradually fallen off since the late 1970s. Baubles are another extremely common decoration, and usually consist of a fairly small hollow glass or plastic sphere coated with a thin metallic layer to make them reflective, and then with a further coating of a thin pigmented polymer in order to provide colouration. Individuals' decorations vary wildly, typically being an eclectic mix of family traditions and personal tastes; even a small unattractive ornament, if passed down from a parent or grandparent, may come to carry considerable emotional value and be given pride of place on the tree. Conversely, trees decorated by professional designers for department stores and other institutions will usually have a "theme"; a set of predominant colours, multiple instances of each type of ornament, and larger decorations that may be more complicated to set up correctly. Many people also decorate outdoor trees with food that birds and other wildlife will enjoy, such as garlands made from unsalted popcorn or cranberries, orange halves, and seed-covered suet cakes. TREE MATS AND SKIRTS: Since candles were used to light trees until electric bulbs came about, a mat (UK) or "skirt" (US) was often placed on the floor below the tree to protect it by catching the dripping candle wax, and also to collect any needles that fall. Even when drip-less candles, electric lights and artificial trees have been used, a skirt is still usually used as a decorative feature: among other things, it hides the tree stand, which may be unsightly but which is an important safety feature of home trees. What began as ordinary cloth has now often become much more ornate, some having embroidery or being put together like a quilt. A nativity scene, model train, or Christmas village may be placed on the mat or skirt. As Christmas presents arrive, they are generally placed underneath the tree on the tree skirt (depending on tradition, all Christmas gifts, or those too large to be hung on the tree, as in "presents on the tree" of the song "I'll Be Home For Christmas"). Generally, the difference between a mat and skirt is simply that a mat is placed under the tree stand, while a skirt is placed over it, having a hole in the middle for the trunk, with a slot cut to the outside edge so that it can be placed around the tree (beneath the branches) easily. A plain mat of fabric or plastic may also be placed under the stand and skirt to protect the floor from scratches or water. CHECK OUT MY NEXT DISCUSSION ON THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS TREES!