Sunday, December 24, 2006

Holiday Decorations

For many this is Christmas Eve, but for me this day has another significance. It was on this day that a very dear friend of mine was born. I do hope that she has a happy Yuletide and an even happier birthday.

Anyhow, this evening being what it is, I thought I would write about a suitable subject, namely holiday decorations. I covered the Christmas tree last year and Christmas lights just a few days ago. Now I thought that I would cover the rest. Decorations are very much a part of the holidays. Holly and mistletoe are mentioned in innumerable songs. In fact, decorating for the Yuletide is the theme of the classic carol "Deck the Halls."

In fact, it seems to me that decorating for the holidays goes so far back that it most likely predates the holiday of Christmas. Many of the traditions of our modern day Christmas celebration as we know it in the English speaking world probably started as part of the midwinter celebration known in Old English as Geol (modern English Yule), in Old Norse Jol, and so on among the various Germanic peoples. We don't know too much about how they celebrated Yule, but we do know that they did decorate for it. Grettis Saga Chapter 19 refers to the mistress of the house decorating it and readying it for the Yuletide. As to how the house was decorated, it doesn't say, but it seems likely to me that the use of holly, mistletoe, ivy, and other evergreens may stem from the celebration of Yule. I suspect that much of this may have been sheer practicality--flowers and other greenery not being available at this time of year in Northern Europe--but much of it may also have been due to the significance of these plants. Of course, mistletoe plays a role in myths about the death of Baldr. As to holly, it may too have been significant to the early Germanic peoples. Maxims I refers to the burning of holly with reference to the dead. This would seem more likely a pagan, rather than Christian custom. The use of evergreens would then seem most likely to stem from the pagan celebration of Yule rather than something that developed later as a part of the Christmas celebration.

Of course, other decorations than evergreens would be developed later. Among these would be the use tinsel, the thin gold or silver metallic strips used for decorations. Tinsel appears to have been developed in Germany in the 1600s. Even then I suspect that it was mostly used for decorating tannenbaums, although its use would spread beyond the trees. Many would use tinsel in lieu of the tradition boughs of holly for sprucing their houses come Yuletide.

While tinsel was the result of technological advancements, other Yuletide decorations were borrowed from yet other holidays. This is the case of Christmas stockings. According to legend, in the 4th century a noble despondent over his wife's death spent his entire fortune, leaving his daughters without a dowry. In those days this could well mean a spinster's life for a young woman. St. Nichols (Bishop of Myra in the 4th century) heard about this and came to the girls' rescue. He rode past their house and threw three sacks of gold up the chimney. The pouches landed in the girls' stockings (they had hung them by the fireplace to dry after being washed). It became part of the celebration of the Feast of St. Nicholas (December 6) to hang stockings by the fireplace in expectations of gifts from the Saint. Because St. Nicholas' day occurred so close to the Yuletide, many of its traditions were absorbed into the celebration of Christmas.

Of course, one popular holiday decoration originates from the fact that Christmas is celebrated by Christians as the time of Jesus's birth. Nativity scenes are believed to have been invented by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century. The early nativity scenes were live, with real people assuming the roles of Joseph, Mary, the Magi, and so on. The Nativity scene became popular enough to spread to Germany in the 1600s and then to England. And while the first Nativity scenes were staged by live people, eventually artisans would make them out of wood, straw, and even stone and ivory. Still later they would be made of ceramics, glass, and, in the 20th century, plastic. If you're my age, you are probably familiar with those Nativity scenes in which the figures are made of plastic and lit from the inside.

At any rate, Nativity scenes are not the only figures associated with the holidays. Figurines of Father Christmas and Santa Claus date to the Victorian era. I am not sure when the lighted, plastic figures of Santa Claus, snowmen, and so on originated but it must have been before I was born (which was the Sixties, to clarify things). I remember them from when I was a small child.

Of course, the big trend in Christmas ornaments the past several years have been inflatables. Christmas inflatables were introduced in 2001 by Gemmy Industries, the same company responsible for the Bigmouth Billy Bass (the singing fish of a few years back). Starting simply with a snowman and a Santa Claus, Gemmy now makes inflatables of elves, snowglobes, and even Disney characters. Despite their popularity, the inflatables have been controversial--some think they're cute, others think they're tacky. For myself, it depends on the inflatable. Some look good. Others look, well, not so good.

Decorating for the holidays has a long history stemming back even before there was a Christmas. In those thousands of years we have progressed (if that is the operative word) from holly boughs to electric lights to inflatables. It is hard to say what future trends there will be in Yuletide decoration, but one thing is certain--people will be decorating for them for a long time to come.

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