Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Holly Bears a Berry

Since so many of us are putting up trees, wreaths and lights this week, let's talk decorations.

In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, which takes place in Wiliamsburg, Pat is appalled to find that the house where she'll be spending the holidays doesn't have a Christmas tree. The house is decorated in the 18th century Virginia tradition. Trees are part of the 19th century tradition. (In fact, nearly all the trappings of Christmas that we now take for granted were begun by the Victorians.)

The first American tree was supposedly raised by German immigrant Charles Minnigerode who moved to Williamsburg in the 1840s, though his may have been simply the first publicized tree. The Pennsylvania Deutsch and Hessian soldiers might very well have set up trees in the 18th century, but the tradition was mostly confined to German-Americans and not popular otherwise.

The original tree legend says that in the 8th century, St. Boniface found German natives worshiping a giant oak tree. The saint cut the oak down (cutting down a thriving monument to God's creation doesn't seem very "saintly" to me, but I didn't write the story). From the stump of the fallen oak, a small fir tree grew. Were I those German pagans, I'd have thought this was a sign that the tree gods were showing their immortality, but Boniface's publicist managed to put a Christian spin on it. Somehow, through the years, the tree migrated from everyday Sunday school lesson over to an association with Christ's birth.

The Celtics had similar pre-Christian traditions concerning evergreens and other plant decorations, which is mostly the source of the British customs of the hanging of boughs and "greening" of the house. In an era not at all hygienic by our standards, when everyone was stuck behind closed doors and huddled around the fire for the cold months, some nice-aromatic pine on the mantel must have been as welcome as Febreze is today.

Remember, Christmas wasn't a major holiday in colonial America. Many people wouldn't have decorated at all. Those who did (mainly richer folk, for their dinner parties) probably used natural items like berries, pine cones, or even osage oranges. Contrary to modern Williamsburg decorations, nothing edible would have been used. No one would have wasted food. Very few people could afford to import pineapples, let alone, having gone to that expense, nailed one over the front door. A poor man would have stolen the fruit before the night was out, to feed his family.

Wreaths may have graced a few doors. The wreath dates back to ancient Persia and Rome, where crowns of leaves were made and either given as prizes or worn by high ranking members of society. Later, crowns of leaves and flowers were worn for holiday celebrations like May Day. The supposition is that, after having won a wreath or whatever, people hung them on their doors and windows to show them off. But, again, today's larger wreaths were more from Victorian traditions than earlier.

In Williamsburg in December today you'll see candles in windows and cressets (baskets of burning wood or oil or pitch) along the streets. Probably you would have seen neither in the 1700s. Candles burn faster when placed in a draft and 18th century double hungs weren't at all energy efficient. You'd place candles in the middle of the room, or next to a white wall, to get the maximum light from them. You might have placed a protected lantern in your window, if you wanted to help a stranger find your house easily in the dark. If outdoor fires were lit at all, they'd likely be close to the ground and not in raised baskets. Heat rises, and so, to certain extent, does light. And the wind is more likely to burn fuel faster if the fire is up high.

One Yule decoration that IS mentioned in colonial letters and diaries is mistletoe. They had their priorities straight.


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