THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY
Eyes sparkling and squirming with mpatience, I sat at the top of the stairs in my flannel gown and robe and awaited Mom’s green light before charging down to the living room to the wonder of a decorated tree shimmering over Santa’s bounty.
It was the crack of dawn, and I felt like a racehorse at the gate while Mom started the percolator, plated the Dresden Stollen, and eyed a cursory sweep under the tree to assure she hadn’t forgotten anything. (Some months later, Mom would inevitably discover an overlooked gift buried in the back of an overstuffed closet.) Then Dad flipped the switch to the multi-colored tree lights, and my sisters and I were invited down to begin our Christmas day.
And year after year (even after I knew the secret of Santa), I was thrilled at my first glimpse of the annual magic of our sometimes symmetrical, real fir tree adorned with lightbulbs shaped like flames or bubbling-candles, along with an unabashed mix of old and new, elegant and cheesy glass balls—plus ornaments passed down from my grandmother and silvery tinsel (lead-based until the FDA declared it a hazard) draped a single strand at a time. And occasionally candy canes hooked over the ends of boughs. This miracle of the decorated tree was executed without fail every Christmas Eve after kids’ bedtime. Not a day or an hour before. It was always the greatest Christmas morning gift; and the tree stayed up until New Year’s Eve. This was my memory of the tradition in my family circa 1950s and ’60s.
Christmas Tree History
According to my friend, Mary Kathryn McIntosh, a walking encyclopedia of Christmas history and lore, Christmas traditions date back to 1605 with the first mention in a diary of an indoor evergreen in Strasbourg decorated with paper roses, apples, gilded candies, and more; and the practice caught on in Germany. Fifty years later candles were added to indoor trees (yes, a fire hazard).
The first documented Christmas tree in Virginia was in 1842, and in 1849 Virginia became the 5th state to legally recognize Christmas. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert then popularized Christmas trees in the U.S. after setting up a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle that appeared (without mentioning their titles) in America’s Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850. With the abundance of trees in our Commonwealth, the tradition was easily established.
Trees were ornamented with glass balls, chains of beads, toys, and all sorts of memorabilia, and some were even hung upside down from the ceiling to spare sparse floor space. And it seems that whenever and wherever they are, they always spread their celebratory limbs to embrace family gifts and childhood pleasures.
In 1877, five years after Edison invented the light bulb, electric lights made their way to Christmas trees, and by 1900, one in five families had a tree. It seems it took a long time, however, for improvements in tree lights. Until recent times, I can recall laboriously testing each individual light socket when one bulb went out and took the whole strand out with it. While I’m at it, another big improvement is deeper and more accessible water vessels to prevent dehydration.
In the 21st century, Christmas tree farms have become a business that’s grown into a $1 billion industry. The big box stores are the largest sellers, although I still favor a local garden center with a direct pipeline to a western North Carolina Fraser fir farm.
Carrying on Family Traditions
When it became my turn to be the grown-up and carry on family Christmas tree traditions with my own children, I abandoned tinsel and my parents’ frenetic practice of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve. While still cherishing those childhood memories, I initiated new, and easier traditions of my own—some better; some that turned out to be not so good. I did, however, retain the tradition of a natural tree in favor of an artificial tree in white, blue, or other trendy themes and styles.
And I created a memory tree laden to this day with my own childhood Storybook dolls, handcrafts and other memorabilia from world travels, gifts from family and friends, and items made by our own children or myself. Each ornament tells a sentimental or spiritual story; my needlepoint Santa shares a tree limb with a tuna can crafted into a manger scene by one of our sons in Sunday School 50 or so years ago. Oh, and our tree sports a pair of baby shoes from each of our five sons, and my heart is full every Christmas as I place them on the tree. An angel is the topper, and she watches over it all.
A new tradition that didn’t turn out so well was when in the 1970s, my firstborn son Reid and I strung popcorn, piece by laborious piece, to drape our tree with natural garlands instead of tinsel. That’s the good part. The not-so-good part is that I couldn’t bear to throw the garlands out after the holidays, so I tucked them in a box in a storage area where mice discovered a bonanza of Christmas dinners to last them the rest of the winter. That was a short-lived tradition.
Many years later when I moved to Bedford County, a new tradition was to make a family outing out of selecting our own tree on our farm, and we usually picked one of our overly-plentiful cedars. As we aged and finally admitted we were tired of facing the New Year with a floor full of dropped needles and scratchy twigs when hauling the crispy cedar to the burn pile, we turned to North Carolina grown Fraser firs, a most satisfactory fresh tree.
Now, as seniors living in a second-floor condo, we’ve of necessity ceded fresh trees to a less labor-intensive artificial tree with built-in lights, and I continue to decorate it the same as always. I admit modern fake trees do look real—well almost—but I still think authentic fresh trees are best.
Doors, Mantles, Tables, and More
I continue with the old-fashioned tradition of decorating mantles, tables, and other spaces with fresh greens and berries. What’s more beautiful at Christmas and makes the house smell better than sprigs of Fraser fir, pine, spruce, and boxwood on a bed of shiny magnolia leaves punctuated and enlivened by holly berries? One of my favorites for dramatic splash is Winterberry holly.
I love fresh green garlands wrapped along stair banisters and hanging mistletoe on a “kissing ball,” but they’re traditions I’ve also let go. Come to think of it, I don’t see mistletoe in homes these days. Maybe folks in my age group are less interested in being caught under the mistletoe—or maybe shooting mistletoe out of trees for those kissing balls has pretty much gone by the boards, at least for city folks.
Door and window wreaths of fresh greens continue as a long-standing Virginia tradition, and my old standby is a classic combination of magnolia leaves and boxwood that can be dressed up with berries, nuts, pinecones, and any other imaginative materials that are handy and strike my fancy. It’s fun to alternate the front and back of magnolia leaves for a lovely combo of green and copper.
To create your own wreath, start with a pre-made form and u-shaped picks from a hobby store, and fasten overlapping magnolia leaves one at a time around the entire circle in a pattern that pleases you. Boxwood wreaths can be made the same way, and you can combine the two and/or other greens, making wreaths one-sided or two-sided for hanging on glass doors or windows. If you’re looking for a quick splash of color to tie in with your decor, add a bow. And, voila!
Stepping It Up
If you’d like to step it up to the next level, try making a della Robbia–style wreath, the crème-de-la-crème of festive fresh wreaths. Inspiration for these reaches back to the 1440s when Italian sculptor Luca della Robbia invented the technique of vibrant polychrome tin-glazed terracotta statuary. He passed his form of artistry down to family members who continued to produce decorated terracotta reliefs edged by beautifully modeled wreaths of brilliantly hued flowers, fir cones, and fruits such as apples, oranges, and lemons.
Today’s della Robbia Christmas decorations in natural materials may be in the form of a round wreath, shaped to fit an architectural space above a door or windows, or other forms. Just start with building a basic wreath or form with magnolia leaves, boxwood, and/or other natural materials such as red cedar, pine, mountain laurel, rosemary, or ivy. Then, using wired picks, affix flowers, berries, and fruit to please your personal taste. In addition to apples, oranges, and lemons, try adding pineapple, limes, pomegranates, and cranberries. Dried flowers, rose hips, pinecones, and okra pods are other options. Your della Robbia creation may be as elaborate as you like. Let your imagination be your guide! Tips: Dip fresh fruit in acrylic wax (kitchen floor wax) for longer life, and please do not add a bow.
Your della Robbia creation may also be used as a centerpiece or over-mantle decoration. Or you may prefer mantle and table top decorations with fresh materials that lean toward simple understated elegance with just a few magnolia leaves, boxwood, and sprigs of holly. I had fun one season hanging fresh bright red peppers on a miniature live spruce tree as a centerpiece, and I regularly assemble little trees of fresh boxwood cuttings on a pyramid shaped metal form designed to hold apples, lemons, or other fruit. Sometimes I drape them with cranberry garlands or add sprigs of holly. Simple, easy, and quick—and always tasteful. Fresh natural materials never go out of style.
Look for Inspiration
For inspiration and ideas for natural Christmas decorations, you’ll find lovely fresh plant material and décor all round Lynchburg this holiday season—at the Farm Basket, local nurseries, Old City Cemetery, churches, and more.
A particularly interesting spot to visit for historic Christmas decorating is Point of Honor (www.pointofhonor.org) in historic Daniel’s Hill, completed in 1815 by Dr. George Cabell. This Federal style mansion is now a city museum where period arrangements grace the mantle, tables, and even the stairs every Christmas. Christmas Open House is Sunday, December 3rd, from noon until 4 p.m. This holiday season, as last year, features live greens and other plant material in arrangements and a decorated tree in the Victorian style, following two prior years of arrangements in the 1815-1830 pre-Christmas tree Federal style.
To venture not far from Lynchburg for natural and creative Christmas decor, visit Avenel (www.historicavenel.com) in Bedford. Also known as the William M. Burwell House, built about 1836, Avenel is a blend of Federal and Greek Revival styling. It is known for glorious fresh Christmas arrangements and is the place to see the della Robbia tradition in practice. A great opportunity to visit would be for their 1850’s celebration, “Gilded Christmas of Olde,” on Saturday, December 9th from 6 until 8:30 p.m., when Avenel will also feature spirits and culinary delights from the past as well as lively entertainment. Tickets may be purchased from any board member, www.lynchburgtickets.com, Arthur’s Jewelry, Scott & Bond Insurance, or Bedford Welcome Center.
Deck the Halls!
I feel that childhood delight rush back as I trim my tree once again this Christmas, spread fresh greens on my mantle, and deck the halls with holly. Whether your Christmas décor is sacred or secular, reflective of worldly attachment or spiritual reverence—or a combination of these like my tree and me, it’s a very personal reflection of you and your traditions.
If you’ve never tried to create a fresh della Robbia wreath, I hope you’ll start a new tradition of your own this year and see how imaginative you can be. I can’t wait to see photos! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.