More than any other holiday celebrated here in the United States, the Christmas season affects almost every household, whether of Christian origin or not. Some celebrate it strictly for its religious meaning, most for it non-secular, commercial value. Among these various households, this season is steeped in traditions, some old, some new – from how and when the Christmas tree is decorated, what other holiday decorations will adorn our homes (like wreaths, nativity scenes, nutcrackers, etc.), what goodies need to be baked and shared, and when and where we will meet with friends and family to celebrate the spirit of this season. Some of these traditions have been passed down through the generations, some have been borrowed from other ethnic cultures, while some have been uniquely shaped by our own individual tastes and personalities.
The center of all this holiday glitz is most certainly the brightly lit and decorated, whether simple or lavishly, Christmas tree. The Christmas tree tradition was borrowed from the Germans. Its current day significance to the Christmas holiday season can be traced back to the 18th century Protestant Germans of the northern Rhine area. That tradition was eventually brought to America by German immigrants of the late 1700s and early 1800s , and began to gain general popularity in the later half of the 19th century. Here in Detroit, there was a large German immigrant community on the east side by the 1880s, and they were likely responsible for its introduction in this area. By 1920, the Christmas tree would adorn nearly every home, including my father’s second generation Dutch household.
As a child I remember that the Christmas tree was my father’s main contribution to Christmas. Early in December he would visit the Christmas tree lot located on Gratiot Avenue near Saratoga Hospital and pick out the chosen Christmas tree, usually a Scot pine tree. Arie would bring it home, make a fresh cut in the stump in the garage, then fill a bucket with water and place the tree in it behind the garage. There it would remain until Christmas Eve, when he would bring it inside the house and set it up in the living room, and carefully decorate it with lights and shiny glass bulbs. I never understood why it had to occur on Christmas Eve. For years I thought it had to do with fire safety as Scot pines tend to dry out faster than Douglas fir trees. But his tradition may have been influenced by his childhood memories, as the German families traditionally set up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve in celebration of Adam and Eve. Harry may not have known this fact, but I am sure his family followed the practices of their neighbors who introduced this cherished tradition. This tradition in our household would end in 1964 with the passing of my father, maybe out of practicality, but maybe more out of grief as this tradition was too tied to my father. It would be several years before we would return to that corner lot to choose a real tree for our house, opting to decorate a small table top tree instead.
Today, I no longer make that trip to the Christmas tree lot after several less than memorable moments dealing with real trees. I think it had a lot to do with picking out the “perfect” tree in the dark, clearly not a good idea! One of the first trees we set up in our new home, fell down about an hour after struggling to get it in the stand, luckily it had no lights or bulbs on it yet. It had to be wired to the crown molding in the ceiling. The last real tree we ever had in our house was our oldest daughter’s first Christmas. It was so dry we couldn’t even keep it lit very long on Christmas Day. When it went out the door to the curb a few days later, it was almost bare by the time we managed to shove it out the front door. That tree that looked so green and fresh at dusk on the lot turned out to be spray painted green and would not take up any water, despite a fresh cut. So I had enough of that tradition; the following year we went to the local nursery and picked out an artificial tree. That tree is still assembled each year by me, and over the years has changed its appearance often. The bulbs are mostly red and gold now, and it still has the lighted star at the top, but its the special ornaments that have been collected over the past 25 years that give it meaning . Hanging each ornament brings back so many precious memories, as each such ornament was chosen with a specific meaning in mind.
Over the years since my great-grandparents arrived in America, our family’s Christmas traditions have changed considerably. Christmas time that first December here in Michigan back in 1890 for my great-grandparents would have been a time for church and family. The gifts would have been to the church most likely; the Christmas dinner probably a Dutch table – a buffet of cold meats, cheeses, and favorite pastries, like banket. A trip to the nearest frozen pond to ice skate would have been the main recreation. Maybe even a special holiday beverage, non-alcoholic for the children. The Protestant Dutch generally frowned on the drinking of alcohol, but during the December holidays an exception was often made for one special drink. It is the only time of year that I can ever recall seeing my father indulge in alcohol, and it was in strict moderation – a toast to the holiday with family and hopes for a good new year.
The wooden shoes set out for Sinterklaas have now been replaced with stockings to be filled by Santa Claus. The gifts are now not just for children but all members of the family, even the family pet. The time with loved ones this year will be too short due to distance and work constraints. Some old traditions will move on, replaced with newer ones to cherish. I hope that you find time this year for both old and new traditions, and to remember all those loved ones who are no longer with us with holiday season.
Prettige Kerstdagen (Merry Christmas).
Ik wens je een prettige vakantie (I wish you a happy holiday)!