Friday 18 December 2020

A load of old baubles - by Lu Hersey

People have been celebrating the turn of the year at midwinter for thousands of years. Originally marking the winter solstice, people decorated their homes with evergreens and fir branches as a reminder of the coming spring. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia over the solstice period, with decorations to honour the god Saturn. With the coming of Christianity, the evergreens came to represent the promise of everlasting life with God. 

Christmas trees came much later, an idea thought up by either Estonians or Latvians (they're still arguing about who thought of it first). Either way, they first appeared in town squares thanks to the Brotherhood of Blackheads. I went down a google rabbit hole to find out more about the Brotherhood of Blackheads, so to save you a bit of time and effort, they were a group of Christian merchants (male, single) who banded together to put down an uprising by the indigenous pagan population of Estonia, who wanted to get rid of Christians and foreigners. The Brotherhood then started an annual Christmas celebration, dancing around the fir trees they put up in the centre of town.

The first indoor tree we know about was erected in in the guild house in Breman in Germany in 1570, and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers. It possibly wasn't the very first indoor tree, but it's the first one someone took the trouble to make a note of in the town records.  

There are various legends as to why the people of Germany started bringing fir trees into their own homes. The most popular is that Martin Luther was gazing up at the stars sparkling through the trees one night, and thought of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. Luther brought a small tree indoors to tell the story to his children. 

Whatever the truth of this legend, indoor Christmas trees soon became popular throughout Germany, and were decorated with lighted candles (to represent stars), edible treats and roses made of paper or gold foil. A figure of the baby Jesus was placed on the top, later replaced with either a star, to represent the Star of Bethlehem, or an angel, who brought the news of the birth to the shepherds. Glass makers started making tree ornaments, and the Christmas tree bauble was born. 

Tinsel also started in Germany, originally made from beaten silver. The idea behind tinsel is connected to traditional folktales about the Christmas spider. All versions of this folktale centre on a poor family who can't afford to decorate their tree and leave it bare on Christmas Eve. Overnight a spider covers the tree in webs, and on Christmas morning the family awake to find the webs have miraculously turned to silver or gold. To this day, spider ornaments and silver webs for trees are popular in the Ukraine and over much of northern Europe, as they are considered lucky. 

Christmas trees were unknown in Britain until Queen Charlotte (the German wife of King George III) had one set up in Windsor Lodge in 1800. The idea caught on fast, and by Victoria's reign, anybody who was anybody had one in their home. All the first Christmas trees were decorated with lighted candles - which led to rather a lot of house fires. Fortunately someone invented strings of electric lights sometime in the early 20th century, and so these days few of us still run the risk of lighted candles. (Though I know one German family who do, and only put the tree up on Christmas Eve - and have to admit, candles look AMAZING)

Everyone has their own decorating preferences for Christmas trees. Some go for glittering white lights and themed baubles, which look tasteful and classy - and some don't. Our family always has coloured tree lights, for sentimental reasons - my grandmother loved coloured lights and she lived with us when I was a child. Every year, she'd repeat the story of how they reminded her of her honeymoon, which she and my grandfather spent visiting the Blackpool illuminations. Apparently they'd never seen anything so magical. (Of course it was a very long time ago, and neither of them had electricity at home back then). Anyway, our coloured Christmas tree lights remind me of her, and the warmth and love she brought into my life.

My mother aspired to white lights because she thought they were much more tasteful and had real class. But being a child of the war generation that wasted nothing, she could never bring herself to spend money on new white ones until the old ones broke. Unfortunately for her, my grandmother's coloured lights proved immortal (well, allowing for the odd blown bulb every year that my father painstakingly replaced - checking every single bulb until he found the faulty one) and somehow she never managed to achieve her white light goal. 

I often look wistfully at the beautiful white tree lights sparkling in other people's windows, and think of my mother. Perhaps one day I'll get some like the ones she aspired to and put them round the tree in memory of her - and that will tell a different story. And I will wish she could see them, along with the family she didn't live long enough to meet.

Our tree baubles are a hotchpotch, a family history of the last 30 years in bauble form. Some brought back from travels abroad, some given by friends, some chosen in shops, some handmade. Everyone has their personal favourites, and there's an annual squabble about which ones hang nearest the front (though this year, thanks to Covid, I got to dictate. But I missed the squabble. It's part of the tradition). 

If you have a Christmas tree, it probably tells your own story. But whether you do or not, I hope you have a peaceful and stress-free festive season, after what's been a very strange and difficult year for us all.

Lu Hersey 


Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting piece. I love the story about the spider webs - and I remember my father going through the coloured bulbs every Christmas to find the one that was stopping them all from working - he wasn't very patient with it though - curses flew!

Test said...

Fascinating piece! I didn't know about tinsel and spiders. My parents always had blue lights, which I loved until our town lost two policeman and everyone put blue lights on their porches. I changed to multicolored lights, which are more cheerful, and was surprised when my daughter put up her first tree and got white lights. My aunt always had red, which seemed a little demonic. Now I want to know the color of bulbs on everyone's trees!

Moira Butterfield said...

Fascinating! We were wondering only yesterday where tree baubles came from. I suppose they are beautiful glass versions of apples! Yes I remember the great 'find the dud light' search every year. My mum still uses 'lametta' - thin strips of foil that hang down from the branches. All those old tree baubles represent years of love and family company and I am very sad we can't spend the day with my parents this year. Zoom isn't going to cut it. Here's to Easter!

LuWrites said...

Thanks, everyone - glad you found it interesting. And yes, here's to Easter, when hopefully all the most vulnerable people will have had the vaccine!

Laura Jones said...

Oh this is so fascinating Lu! I wish I had time to find a spider web decoration now. We have a resident spider in the utility room, perhaps I'll try and persuade him to move! Thank you for sharing your memories too. My Nana knitted an tree angel, she's very precious! Solstice love to you and yours xxx

LuWrites said...

Thank you, Laura - not sure how I feel about resident spiders though! Garden spiders are wonderful and so are their spiders? *shudders* Have a lovely Christmas! xx

Anonymous said...

Lovely read Lu. So many stories in our Christmas Tree decorations. Can we get them out at Easter too. Helen Stella