Thursday, December 2, 2010

O Christmas Tree! (December 1 Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories)

1987 Bringing in the tree Millay Road

Onkel Hankie Pants, SonShineIn, Cordeliaknits and Sisterfilms bringing in the tree, Bowdoinham, 1987.

GeneaBloggers, an association of genealogical bloggers, has posted an online Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories, with writing prompts for each day. I don’t have a genealogy blog yet, but decided to do the posts anyway. I’m starting a day late so here is the memory for December 1.


(I like to admire the tree in its undecorated state for a little while after its installation.)

By the time I was born, post-WWII, the home Christmas tree was a firmly established custom in America, and I think this was the case for my mother as well. In great-great-grandfather Smith’s diaries, however, I find no mention of a tree in the home; at least in Downeast Maine, in the late 19th century, it seems to have been more of a community event that may have taken place at church or a village hall. We find further evidence of this in the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books and in the hilarious adventures of the Peterkins, in one of which they decide to have a tree and have a hard time with this new-fangled activity.

1951 12 25 Christmas tree at the Petroffs, Fort Hancock, NJ

Here’s our Christmas tree from 1951 at Fort Hancock, New Jersey.

Our childhood trees came from various places, depending on where our military family happened to be spending Christmas. If we were at home in Maine, we could go out to the woods behind our house and cut one of our own. The Southern Christmases, in Savannah, Georgia and El Paso, Texas, are lost in the mists of time for me and I don’t remember what kind of tree we might have been able to find there. Most of the time we were far enough north to get our preferred balsam fir. (Tannenbaum, after all, means fir tree.) The tree then, normally came from one of the local tree lots wherever we were. We would put it up a couple of weeks before Christmas, and my mother insisted on taking it down December 26th.

1947 12 25 David and Janice Shaw Christmas morning

Here are my cousins David and Janice with their Christmas tree, in 1947.

Colored glass balls and some of the special German ornaments in various shapes like houses, birds, etc. Glass Father Christmas with tree were the chief decorations on our childhood trees, and there was also tinsel. At the top of the tree was a large tin star with a hole in the middle in which was inserted one of the big colored Christmas lights. These were also strung around the tree – those large, multicolored, 1950s lights, and also bubble lights. I remember that some people had a decoration, known as “angel hair,” which I believe was made of fiberglass and which was not approved of in our home as being too dangerous.

Gifts from our parents and other family and those we children gave were wrapped and put under the tree early, to tantalize us and tempt us into shaking and wondering (and my father was the worst of the lot at this!) My mother recalled that in her childhood, gifts that arrived in the mail from grandparents and such had to be left in their postal wrapping under the tree, so that there was a dual unwrapping on Christmas morning.


Me and my brother on Christmas morning, probably 1952 when my father was in Japan and soon to be in Korea. The twins are only two months old so not in the picture.

A lot of things changed when I married into a Danish-American family and we also changed with the times and formed our own traditions. Our first Christmas tree as a couple was a small pine tree that I bought in a Christmas tree lot in Berlin and conveyed by taxi to the Apartments-Hotel on Clayallee where I had rented a little apartment for Onkel Hankie Pants’ Christmas visit. I’ve never cared for those long-needled pines as Christmas trees, as they don’t suit my eclectic decorating style, but it was what I could get. Even the hotel receptionist made a face at that tree! I decorated it with German ornaments I’d bought at the drugstore in Dahlem that I passed on my way home from work each morning, and with some Danish ornaments my new mother-in-law had sent, including a string of Danish flags – a new custom to me.Yarn nisse

I don’t have a photo of the Danish flags, but here’s a nisse made of yarn.

1949 12 24 Henrik's first Christmas -- his Bedstefar's feet

Onkel Hankie Pants’ first Christmas, with a little bit of the tree and his Bedstefar’s feet.

1971 12 24 Fern, Elin, Bruce, Annalee, Lyn, Oline dancing around tree

Dancing around the tree – a custom I’ll write about later on this season. If you enlarge the picture you can see the Danish flags.

There were no lights on our tree for the first few years – initially, because it seemed wasteful to buy German lights that wouldn’t work in the States, and then because our first American Christmas together coincided with the beginning of the first “Energy Crisis” – remember that? Eventually we relented and now will probably begin replacing our old lights with LEDs. We also have never had tinsel, because of fears for the safety of the cats and children (I wouldn’t put it past Rusty to eat some, either.) Instead we had old strings of colored glass beads that had come to us from Onkel Hankie Pants’ aunts in Chicago. Each year we have acquired more and more decorations so that now they must be rotated or we occasionally have more than one tree.

Christmas tree and Lyn Strandskov on Lyndale 1988Our tree in City of Lakes, 1988, and one of the cousins who celebrated with us.

We now get our tree from our own woods in Bowdoinham, but most of the years we lived in City of Lakes we bought one – from the Y’s Men for a long time, later from the dear departed Lyndale Garden Center’s “swamp trees” section, one extravagant year at Bachman’s for $65, and a few times from a cut-your-own farm in the Taylor’s Falls area. No matter where it comes from, I’d have to agree with folksinger Jim Henry -- “It’s just not Christmas till we’ve got that tree.” And, since I love children’s choirs singing Christmas songs in German, here’s one from Bavaria singing “O Tannenbaum.”

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