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Reflections December 2012

Jottings

Presents on the Christmas Tree Were In

By Millie Moss

She relates that Charlie Follen's small son, waited along with other family members and guests, just outside the closed parlor door, while the tapers were lighted making "the room seemed in a blaze." It was the first time anyone on this side of the Atlantic had seen such a glorious sight.

Somewhere on one of your Christmas playlists is the song, "I'll Be Home for Christmas." While humming along as you bustle about making your holiday preparations, you must have heard the lyrics in the song, "Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree."

On the tree? That doesn't sound quite right. Shouldn't it be under the tree?

Not if you're a traditionalist at heart and you're striving for authenticity in your Christmas decorations. That being the case you will wait until the children and/or your grandchildren are "nestled all snug in their beds" on Christmas Eve to put up your tree and you will hang candy, various treats and small toys such as "smart dolls and other whimsies" on its branches.

The "whimsies" bit is taken from the family memoirs of one Charles Follen, who put up the first documented Christmas tree in this country in 1833. Follen was a German immigrant, who taught literature and gymnastics at Harvard. The decorating of a Christmas tree was standard practice in his native land, and Follen wanted to start the same tradition in his new home for the benefit of his three-year-old son.

Several weeks before Christmas Eve, he showed the cook how to crack eggs around the middle of the shell, making two small cups. These were washed, dried, and gilded, then filled with "comfits, lozenges and barley sugar."

They were intended to be carefully balanced among the branches of the tree. Follen took sheets of colored paper from which he cut ornamental figures and rolled-up cornucopia. These ornaments were filled with more goodies and toys, then fitted with string for hanging on the tree. Candles in small holders were clipped to the end of each branch.

A houseguest named Miss Harriet Martineau from London visited the Follens that first Christmas tree year, and was so enchanted with the decorations, she wrote a book about the experience. She relates that Charlie Follen's small son, waited along with other family members and guests, just outside the closed parlor door, while the tapers were lighted making "the room seemed in a blaze." It was the first time anyone on this side of the Atlantic had seen such a glorious sight.

As a safety measure it is noted that "a sponge tied to the end of a stick" was placed in a bucket of water ready to douse any fire. Miss Martineau went on to prophesy that "the Christmas tree will become one of the flourishing exotics of New England.

She definitely knew whereof she spoke. By 1900 every parlor in New England as well as the rest of the country had its very own tree, but never going up before Christmas Eve.

It's quite understandable that the idea of decorating a tree at Christmas time was brought to the United States by a German. The tradition was actually born way back in 8th century Germany.

Legend has it that a missionary, who later became St. Boniface, returned one Christmas to Germany, where he had brought Christianity some years earlier. There in the village square, the Druids were worshiping a huge oak tree. Enraged, Boniface took out his ax and chopped the oak down. It fell to earth crushing everything in its path. Everything, that is, except one little fir tree that had miraculously escaped the massive oak's destructive swath.

Thinking quickly, Boniface declared the survival of the fir a miracle and proclaimed the tree a representation of the Christmas spirit. For 200 years fir trees were planted all over Germany, and in the 10th century, the first one was cut down and brought inside to be decorated with candles, apples, paper flowers, and gilt. Paper cornucopias were decorated and filled to represent the fullness of the Christmas season. Germany continued to lead the way in tree decoration, when in the 16th century Martin Luther hit upon the notion of lighting the branches of the Christmas tree with candles to symbolize the Christ Child,"Light of the World."

 

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