Beverly Hills is so festive this time of year. The lights, window decorations and hotels decorated to the nines really gives one cheer! This got me wondering: how did some of our most cherished holiday decorating traditions develop? Here’s what I discovered.
Christmas trees, wreaths and sparkling lights
Evergreens have long held significance for humans beginning in pre-historic and ancient times and well before the advent of Christianity. The Egyptians celebrated the return of longer days with green palm fronds; Romans celebrated Saturnalia, to acknowledge Saturn the god of agriculture, by decorating with evergreen boughs; and the Celts also used greenery in religious ceremonies.
Wreaths and garlands have long been associated with everlasting life. The Celts celebrated the Winter Solstice and the coming return of the sun with boughs of holly. A round crown of green was a used by Romans to honor those about to do battle. These rituals came together in Christian times as evergreens symbolize eternal renewal of the earth, even in bleak wintertime. Circular holidays wreaths represent a co-mingling of pagan, Roman and Christian themes that have become a welcoming addition to any door. These days, they are crafted from a variety of materials from evergreens to succulents to dried and decorated reeds.
Germany was the first Christian state (in the 16th century) to pair decorated pines and other greens with Christmastime celebrations and is often credited with popularizing the tradition. In America, the Christmas tree as we know it didn’t become associated with the holiday until the late 19th century. Early Americans, New England’s Puritans in particular, equaled decorations and festivities with pagan frivolities. It wasn’t until Britain’s Queen Victoria was shown via illustration with her family around a decorated tree that the convention expanded. Irish and German immigrants helped spread the custom too in the United States.
In the early years, tree decorations were often seeds, nuts and cookies; eventually homemade then store-bought ornaments were used. Candles eventually gave way to electric lights with the advent of electricity, courtesy of Thomas Edison and his enterprising team, and the modern ornate Christmas tree was born. Edison is credited with advancing the practice of hanging lights outdoors: the first electric Christmas lights were red, white and blue incandescent Edison bulbs strung together. By World War I outdoor lights were an accepted and expected addition to the celebratory season.
The beloved gent with magical powers, known as Santa Claus, is a meld of several myths and legends. Saint Nicholas (born around Dec. 6th, 280 A.D.) was a pious monk who lived in what is now Turkey. He gave away his wealth, aided the poor and paid the dowries for young women so they would be eligible to marry. The tradition of Christmas stockings comes from this tale: St. Nick placed the gold coins (or gold balls as other stories go) for the ladies in question in their laundered stockings hung to dry by the fire. These days, there’s a wealth of colorful stockings to choose from; I’m a traditionalist and my keepsake needlepoint stockings in the photos I have made over many years. However, whichever kind of stockings you hang and fill or however you celebrate, wishing everyone joy and light this holiday season.