As a young child I was only allowed to decorate the back of our Christmas tree. An artist, my mother had a specific vision of how a tree ought to look. She once told me her ideal tree would have blue and silver balls, white candles or lights, and silver tinsel hung exactly evenly from every branch. Needless to say this was not the case in our home. We had a variety of ornaments, some of which were antiques handed down from another era.
As I grew older I was allowed to decorate more of the tree, and finally the front. The year I was twelve, my mother was too busy to do anything and I got to do the whole tree. I loved my task and gloried in my opportunity to arrange the lights, the colorful ornaments and the tinsel. We didn’t have any other greens in the house, however we always had a wreath on the front door.
Looking around at the gaily-decorated wreaths on the doorways of homes in my neighborhood, I had a funny memory. I was out for a walk one day years ago, and a gentleman stopped me: “I beg your pardon,” he said, “Why are there so many wreaths on these doors? In England that signifies that someone has died.” I laughed and assured him that it was a Christmas custom in the States to decorate one’s doors in this way. The presence of these evergreens, along with others is a symbol of the continuation of life.
Those who have celebrated the light festivals of the holidays have always decorated their homes with fresh pines, spruce, holly and mistletoe. With the prominent bare branches of deciduous trees, it would be only natural for them to see evergreens as representing hope for the future. The minds of people who lived in more primitive times would fasten on these as symbolizing a potential for a future that seemed distant and dim in the cold, dark days of midwinter.
The branches of greenery we place on mantles, over doorway, and use in table decorations were once thought to bring the benevolent spirits of the trees into people’s homes to bless them. There are many traditions from many countries concerning the use of greenery for the holidays. Mistletoe, the evergreen vine that is often hung over doorways has a long history as a symbol of peace, and later as an opportunity to steal a kiss, thanks to the evolution of a tradition.
The tree that we decorate with lights and other ornaments is another important symbol of the continuation of life. Various trees worshiped by the pagan religions were central to holiday celebrations. Our Christmas trees are part of a long line of traditions that goes back into the mists of history. Our decorations too come from a variety of sources, ranging from ancient Rome to Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Whether we are celebrating the Solstice, Hanukah, Yule or Christmas, what we are really doing is affirming the eventual return of life and light to a dark, seemingly lifeless earth.