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October 19, 2012

O Tannenbaum
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:17 PM * 116 comments

The Christmas season is coming.

I live in an area filled with Christmas Tree farms. (They’re a crop like any other, only one with a growing season measured in years rather than months.) Already the trucks filled with cut and bundled trees are rolling south and the restaurants are filled with muscular gents with pine sap on their Kevlar chaps ordering and eating two dinners at once.

These early trees are being sent to far distant climes. I recall how much Christmas trees cost in La República de Panamá: So much that we never had one. I’m told that in Saudi Arabia, Westerners are approached on the streets by fellows who whisper, in furtive voices, “Want to buy a Christmas tree? Very good, very cheap.”

Colebrook is the home of Weir Brothers Tree Farm, best known for its “Fralsam” hybrids: A cross between Balsam Fir and Frasier Fir. They deliver.

Whether the Christmas tree is a holdover from the pagan past I’m not prepared to say. If it is, the thousand-year gap between that past and the emergence of the Christmas tree in Germany in the sixteenth century (legends of St. Boniface to the contrary, those are the earliest documented Christmas trees) is a little difficult to explain.

By the end of the 18th century Calvin, Knox, and the Puritan movement had pretty-much killed off Christmas in the English-speaking world, until the “old-fashioned Christmas” was invented in Victorian England, with the the tree introduced by German-born Prince Albert and a big assist from Charles Dickens. From there “traditional” Christmas celebrations (with a tradition that, in some cases, dated back decades) spread to America, because, hey, party!

So, buy a Christmas tree from Colebrook this year. Help support our local restaurants!

Comments on O Tannenbaum:
#1 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:02 PM:

I miss having ridicutrees. My parents now have a twelve-foot artificial tree, but for three years in a row, we had trees somewhere between fifteen and twenty feet*. We still have the ceilings for that, but the Christmas season is much shorter now that all three of us kids are out of the house. Now the problem is that we have twenty feet of ornaments, but not enough tree.

*Helps to know a tree farmer who's sort of thinking of retiring and has a bunch of overtall stock in the field. And a trailer.

#2 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2012, 11:49 PM:

I grew up with live (but usually dwarf) trees. Ornaments I have, but they're all no more than 1-inch diameter. (I'd get smaller ones if I could find them - half-inch spheres are fun to hang, because you can put so many more of them on a tree.)

#3 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 12:02 AM:

The sacredness (and/or special magic powers) of evergreens never went away. It may have taken until the 16th century to get into the form of a Christmas tree, I don't know about that.

But "Deck the Halls," is not a Christmas song at all. It's a Yule song.

#4 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 12:04 AM:

My wife won't let me set up our pre-lit Tree until Thanksgiving.
But she might allow our Charly Brown Christmas Tree before then.

#5 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:23 AM:

Oregon has plenty of tree farms, too. The ones grown around here end up in Mexico, from what I've read.

#6 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:26 AM:

Artificial here, always artificial. Kill a tree for Jesus! No, thanks.

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:50 AM:

My family has always had artificial trees. I don't know why. My grandparents had them; in fact my family inherited grandma's tree, which seemed lovely and grand when I was a toddler.

The real thing is so much better, if you can arrange for it.

#8 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 03:15 AM:


Whether the Christmas tree is a holdover from the pagan past I’m not prepared to say. If it is, the thousand-year gap between that past and the emergence of the Christmas tree in Germany in the sixteenth century

The pagan religions of central Europe didn't vanish in 600AD. Europe had entire pagan nations until the 14th century, including Lithuania. Even major nations like Norway didn't Christianize until the 11th Century, and the Christianization of many of these kingdoms didn't penetrate very far down from the nobility.

So it's entirely plausible (though unproven) that there would have still been rustic pagan villages in the various Germanies in the 16th century.

Of course, it's entirely possible, even likely, that the Christmas tree has some other explanation than a holdover of central European pagan ceremonial practices.

#9 ::: Richard Hershberger ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 07:45 AM:

As an adopted Marylander, I now associate "O Tannenbaum" my with honest-to-God state song, sung to that tune, and hysterically over the top:

The despot's heel is on thy shore,
Maryland! My Maryland!
His torch is at thy temple door,
Maryland! My Maryland!
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

To be absolutely clear, the despot referred to is Abraham Lincoln. The patriotic gore referred to was from a riot as the good citizens of Baltimore attempted to stop a body of Union soldiers marching through the city from one train station to another, on the way to reinforce Washington, DC. My favorite verse is that ninth (and last):

I hear the distant thunder-hum,
Maryland! My Maryland!
The Old Line's bugle, fife, and drum,
Maryland! My Maryland!
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb-
Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! she burns! she'll come! she'll come!
Maryland! My Maryland!

This was, it should be noted, adopted as the official state song in 1939.

In any case, it rather changes my reaction to singing about Christmas trees.

#10 ::: Richard Hershberger ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 07:50 AM:

@ Eric Walker: "Artificial here, always artificial. Kill a tree for Jesus! No, thanks."

Think of it as carbon sequestration, unless you burn your old tree.

In western Pennsylvania Christmas trees are often planted on recovered coal mines, both to stabilize the soil and to bring a bit of income to a local economy that really needs it.

#11 ::: Kat ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 07:55 AM:

The Boy Scouts in Los Angeles used to have a program where you could buy a live tree from them (small to large), use it as a Christmas tree and then bring it back when done (specific dates) and they would plant it. After that ended, The Tree People implemented something similar. One of the most wonderful looking trees I ever had was a 3 or 4 foot deodar cedar from one of those programs. It was not exactly the perfect classic cone shape, but with the softly gray-green needles dressed in mostly silver and white ornaments, it was magical!
I like to think of it still out there growing - perhaps with a fairy-ring underneath...

#12 ::: sara_k ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 08:09 AM:

When I was a child we always had live trees. In Kenya the trees were smaller and I have no idea where we got them. When we lived in NC, we replanted the trees along the property edge as soon as 12th night was over. About 6 years ago my parents started using an artificial tree; Mom (now 78) says she can't handle disposing of a real tress if we've all gone home. I get a real tree if we are staying home for the holidays and no tree if we are traveling. I use the dead tree for mulch - pretty hydrangeas!

#13 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 08:48 AM:

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
We'll chop off all your branches
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
We'll chop off all your branches
And cut them up for firewood
So maybe they will do some good
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
We'll chop off all your branches

Yeah, I know, softwood, not good firewood. This was one of my father's Christmas songs. He'd also sing "A Visit from St. Nicholas" to the tune of "On Top of Old Smokey", in his best hillbilly accent. He'd sing the bits he remembered from the Pogo Christmas songs. He taught us kids the first verse of "Silent Night" in Hungarian.

I don't put up a tree every year, but when I do it's a real one. Largely decorated in plastic frogs and brightly colored catnip mice.

#14 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 09:25 AM:

Real tree, cut-your-own, locally grown, chopped into mulch by the county's chipper at the end of the season.

#15 ::: Affenschmidt ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 09:58 AM:

@ Xopher HalfTongue: you're far from alone in calling it "Deck The Halls," but it's really just the one hall. One of these days I want to learn it in the original Welsh...

#16 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 10:09 AM:

re 4: Thanksgiving??? The tree goes up on Christmas Eve and comes down on Epiphany. So says the Sacred Family Tradition. (Besides, you get great deals on trees that way.)

#17 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 10:12 AM:

The tree is the one thing I miss about Christmas. I'll probably pick up a fresh pine-wreath, just to have the scent around the house. (My husband maintains that Jews have a troubled history with burning bushes, and he has no desire to end up wandering in a desert for 40 years.)

#18 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 10:55 AM:

Memories of Christmas trees. As far as I can tell, Dad brought in a Christmas tree 2 or 3 days before Christmas and we would put it up and decorate it and occasionally sing carols. We had a spangly "cloth" that went around the tree stand (we kids were enjoined to make sure there was always water in it) and eggshell-thin-glass balls, most of the tinsel from the previous year, and 2 strings of lights.

At some point in the '70s, Dad did not find the perfect tree (or perhaps his back complained) and bought a nice fake instead (that is, proper green "needles"), which freed up a lot of time for last minute shoppingness. The ritual developed of bringing the tree up from the basement, hauling its "branches" out of the deteriorating box, and putting it together before decorating it. Over time the breakable ornaments broke and got replaced.

After Dad died, my sister and brother-in-law brought up the tree a few more times, but apparently a) it was showing its age, and b) they really wanted a real tree. So for the last couple of years, they've gone out hunting down the perfect tree. Fresh pine scent (non-cleaning-product division) is wonderful! (Although no one has solved the ever-popular "It's April, why is that dead tree still here?" problem.)

The Christmas tree vendors will be setting up out here in another week or so...

#19 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:19 AM:

In my childhood, I had a vigorous belief in the nature of a Real Christmas Tree. Real Christmas Trees had long individual spiky needles, that formed a delightful blanket of dead ones all around the base of the tree which could be repurposed as hay in the stalls for my pony toes. Fake Christmas trees had short bristly floppy needles in little sprues and didn't smell right.

Artificial trees were a reason to pity the poor children who had to resort to them.

I am somewhat less biased on the tree issue these days. Part of it is that after college and moving here and there and just not having much of a tree at all for many years, insisting on a Very Specific Tree seems sillier than it did in my youth. But if I bother to buy a Christmas tree these years, I still go for the ones with the long, long needles that smell right.

#20 ::: Richard Hershberger ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:27 AM:

@16: I have this very same discussion every year with my wife. She wants the tree up at some absurdly early date. I point out that it is a "Christmas" tree, not an "Advent" tree, much less an "Nth Sunday after Pentecost" tree. She claims that there are two Christmases: the Christian and the secular, with the secular one beginning at some indeterminate but early date (and apparently dying of sheer exhaustion some time in mid December; and that while of course the Christian one is more important, we spend far more time, money, and energy on the secular one).

My reply is that she of course can do whatever she wants, including putting the tree up in July. I will go serenely through my days, and come December 24 should there be no tree up, I will take care of it.

#21 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:38 AM:

I actually did some research on the Christianity of Christmas trees because the usual arguments on the Web are a matter of competing urban legends, pagan vs. Christian. Unfortunately I lost all my notes in a computer move. As best I can recall:

1. In a region of eastern Europe that may or may not now be one, two, or three countries, the cycle of mystery plays included a Christmas Eve play that began with Adam and Eve in Eden.

2. The script (a kind person at the University of I Can't Remember Now, Darn It sent me a translation of the relevant passage) included explicit references to a beautiful green tree and its fruit.

3. It was December. The easiest way to put a green tree with fruit on it on the stage would have been to chop down an evergreen and hang apples from the cellar on it.

4. Then the church authorities decided that the Adam and Eve scenes should be moved to some other holy day.

5. Within 50 years, we have the first primary source reference to Christmas trees, a long peddler's journey west of the region where the mystery plays used to tell the story of the Fall on Christmas Eve.

6. The tradition spread westward steadily over the centuries.

My conjecture: On Christmas Eve, the children looked eagerly for the beautiful green tree with apples on it. When it wasn't there one year, they got upset. Some parent decided that it wouldn't be sacrilege to recreate the prop at home. The idea spread because kids love Christmas trees. Note that the earliest references to decorations involve fruit and flowers. (Perhaps artificial flowers made from scraps of this and that were the big draw.)

Primary sources regarding pagan use of trees in European winter festivals involve either swags of greenery or live trees outdoors. (Or fires, of course.)

#22 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 12:06 PM:

My parents always used a real tree; sometimes we would go out to a tree farm and buy local. In Louisiana this means, usually a Scotch Pine - short stubby needles that fall off, disappear into the brown carpeting, and stab your feet for months afterward.

When I moved out, I went to a little fake tree for the dorm, and never got into putting one up at all when I lived in Oregon.

Now we have a six foot fake tree (with One Thousand One Hundred and Thirty Two Easily Shaped Branch Tips!) that gets put up during years when we're hosting one of the family gatherings. I don't mind having it up, but we do most of our holiday celebrating with the in-laws at one of the other houses in the family, and it does not seem particularly necessary to put one up at our house if we aren't going to enjoy it.

If we had children we'd probably do more Christmas, but the cats don't much care (except for Annie, who likes to steal the soft red ornaments we hang on the lowest branches. This would be why the lowest branches have cat-friendly ornaments.)

#23 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 12:08 PM:

The last live tree we had is still alive and, AFAICT, well. Austrian black pine, now more than 40 years old; it was topped to keep it out of the overhead wires, or it would be taller.

#24 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 12:50 PM:

I go for a real tree, because of the serendipity and the scent. Where's the challenge in decorating a symmetrical tree? Since Portland is surrounded by tree farms, I'm buying local, and in January the tree goes into the (chipping &) composting system. My mother firmly believed that a tree stays up for no more than 2 weeks, vanishing before the New Year's eve party. There were powerful objections to this, but we were overruled. Back in the day of strings of large, hot light bulbs, you did have to be careful about dry trees. I don't worry so much with tiny bulbs that aren't hot to the touch. I haven't made the switch to LEDs yet, because I have two ornaments that plug into the light strings. One is the Starship Enterprise, with lights that glow and blink! The other is a tiny, rotating motor with a hook. I hang a little mirrored ball on it for a holiday disco effect. One of my favorite ornaments features ET.

#25 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 12:58 PM:

When I was younger, we had primarily real trees, in some cases obtained from the local grow-&-cut place (which I think is now a parking lot. ***sigh***). Ornaments were blown glass, made in Germany, and the shapes included frosted-white tea pots and coffee pots; globes with alternating horizontal stripes of white and jewel tones; "double" globes in the same color combos; little glass cottages of variously taller and shorter sorts; "multi" globes (O0o, sort of, but vertical) in red and gold and green...there may have been others, but those are the ones that stand out. Lights, of course, and tinsel, although tinsel garland replaced the individual "icicles".

Then we got out first cat. Mom got a flocked tree that year. Maurice (the cat) climbed up the trunk and emerged covered in flocking. No more flocked trees. And we had to tie the tree's trunk to the crank for the louvered window in front of which it sat, lest Maurice climb from the wrong direction and overbalance things.

The next Christmas we had both Maurice and Artie, our first dog. We lost several ornaments due both to Maurice's climbing talents and Artie's absolute need do walk behind the tree to look out the window.

After that, it was 4-foot-tall trees suspended from the ceiling via a decorative hook in the ceiling (formerly for a lamp) and one of those plant-hanger wires one would normally use to suspend plastic planters from a hook. This saved ornaments and also made it much easier to put on both the lights and the tinsel garland--just stand on a ladder and twirl the tree as needed.

Then it was fake trees of hangable height, and then we both kind of got out of the habit, and then Mom passed away and I never got back into the habit, really. The nice ornaments I gave to my next-door neighbor when I left the house for the last time.

I do think, though, that the next time I'm in a place where I can have a tree, I'll be investigating the possibility of hanging it from the ceiling. Minerva and Houdini (feline) are far too athletic to bother with a freestanding tree unless I use only cat-safe ornaments. Which, since I'll be starting from scratch, should be easy enough to achieve...

#26 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:06 PM:

The song that I prefer to the tune of Tannenbaum goes:

The people's flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its ev'ry fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

Look 'round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow's vaults its hymns are sung
Chicago swells the surging throng.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

It waved above our infant might,
When all ahead seemed dark as night;
It witnessed many a deed and vow,
We must not change its colour now.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man's frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

Granted, the original tune wasn't "Tannenbaum" but "The White Cockade", nevertheless I learnt it (and sang it) first to "Tannenbaum", so that's where it is in my memory and heart.

#27 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:41 PM:

Richard 9: That's appalling. And Marylanders seem so nice...

Michigan's state song is supposedly something called "Michigan, My Michigan," but I suspect not with words about crushing evil invaders (unless they're from Ohio). I don't actually know, because to my knowledge I've never heard it sung.

Affenschmidt 15: Momentary brainfart. I know better. It's the Hall, which is the main room of certain early dwellings, not a set of corridors.

The first verse of "O Tannenbaum" doesn't have any Christian references either. Faithful limbs, green not only in summer but also in winter when it snows. No Christian stuff at all. Not sure about any other verses since I've never heard them in the original.

Jenny 21: Primary sources regarding pagan use of trees in European winter festivals involve either swags of greenery or live trees outdoors.

Well, of course. If a tree is sacred you don't cut it down!

#28 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 01:53 PM:

D. Potter @ #18(Although no one has solved the ever-popular "It's April, why is that dead tree still here?" problem.)

Harold Lloyd did: he just never took it down. I suppose it must have been embalmed in ornaments eventually.

#29 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:18 PM:

Syd @ 25: I love the idea of suspending the tree from the ceiling, and being able to rotate it!

Because of the danger of a wagging dog tail, I took to putting the tree up on a coffee table. That spawned the idea of screwing the tree to a piece of plywood, and then using C-clamps to fasten the stand to the table. Knock that over, cats!

#30 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 02:59 PM:

Fragano, in my mind those words so don't go with the tune of 'The White Cockade'. (Music books in the house, as a kid, with the 'dance music' including jigs and reels.)

#31 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 03:13 PM:

We always had real trees that we'd drive up into the mountains to chop down (on private property, paying some small amount for the privilege). Once Mom and Dad moved away, I mostly did without trees, though I borrowed a little foot-high representation of a tree that my sister had ended up with. A miraculous thing it was, too, always dropping little fake needles and sometimes the small red berries, and never seeming to have lost anything. When I worked for a garden center, I eventually bought a fake tree. Then I bought another, with lights already permanently fastened on, and we've used that one ever since. Sarah tends to take over the chore of decorating it now, with ornaments we've collected over the years (including one of the plastic snowmen we used to put on the family tree). I had a little blown glass teapot, painted by the blower with our names, but it died in Massachusetts. My favorite ornament is probably the spinach can with Popeye coming out of it. Toot toot!

Also, p.s., here's a Christmas tree in Wuxi, from our visit in March, 2003.

#32 ::: little pink beast ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 03:27 PM:

Sadly, lately the more appropriate version has been:

The People's Flag is palest pink
It's not as red as one might think...

A pox on politicians who put their own careers ahead of trying to help people, one and all!

#33 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 03:54 PM:

Fade, I see your family favored white pine for its trees!

I never had a tree of my own when I was a child, what with being Jewish (my parents explained that my grandmother would have a heart attack), but every year we went to decorate my mother's best friend's tree on Christmas Eve. They favored live trees, usually about five feet high. Not sure of the variety, but the needles were bristly and the branches upcurving. They would plant them outside afterwards. Some of them survived, some didn't.

One year they waited until very late to get their tree, and the live trees left were enormous, and they got a seven-footer. Her husband and my dad nearly threw their backs out getting it into the house, and it needed an entire system of guy wires to keep it from toppling (the cinderblocks that wedged the root balls on the five-foot trees were just not up to the job) but my brother and I and her children were thrilled with the Biggest Tree Ever.

When I moved out, and got married, we had cut trees, even when we didn't have Christian housemates to ascribe it to. Always between six and seven feet, and always balsam fir.

In my current post-divorve apartment, we really have no room for a tree. (Partly because of my enormous desk.) Sometimes we take out my housemate's tabletop Nightmare Before Christmas tree, sometimes not. My housemate has joyfully embraced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie. This year it's going to be Les Mis. Given that my housemate's nom de net has been eternaleponine since she was 17, and that I raised my kid on the 10th Anniversary concert, it should be pretty special.

#34 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 04:10 PM:

My husband and I both believe that the true Christmas tree is a locally cut and slightly wonky wild tree. Our local evergreen is the Sitka spruce, which has short, stiff, sharp needles. So a true Christmas involves some pain.

We were confirmed in this belief the year we decided to give some money to Kiwanis by buying at their annual tree sale. It was a beautiful "classic" tree from somewhere in the PNW. It also had a nice little bag of SPIDER EGGS in it somewhere, and on Christmas morning, there were the baby spiders, CRAWLING ALL OVER THE CEILING.

Usually our tree goes up Christmas Eve and comes down on Epiphany; it then goes to the Boy Scouts, who set up brush hides for rabbits or put trees on the ice of stocked fishing lakes so that they will go to the bottom and make nice hiding spots for fish fry in the spring. That tree went out into the subzero cold and stayed there until we were sure the spiders were dead.

#35 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 04:28 PM:

Some eastern European ethnic groups were in the habit of hanging the top part of a fir tree upside down from the ceiling. The page at that link also brings up the symbolism of the tree in the Garden of Eden which Jenny Islander mentioned earlier, as well as some other details about upside-down trees.

#36 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 04:44 PM:

janetl (24): Back in the day of strings of large, hot light bulbs, you did have to be careful about dry trees.

My father is very careful about lights touching needles.* This is because, when he was a child, the candles(!) they used once set the tree on fire. Fortunately, my grandfather always set a full bucket of water next to the tree for just such emergencies, so they were able to put the fire out with no major damage.

When I was a kid, we always had live trees, bought from the tree guy who set up on a corner of the local(ish) shopping center a few days before Christmas and taken down no later than New Year's Day. Our tree stand is probably older than I am, and still going strong. (And we're very careful about keeping it full!) One summer, my dad rescued a fake tree from a trash pile; after that, we alternated live and fake. These days we usually just use the fake one, because it's a lot less work. Ornaments are a mix of ones made by us kids over the years, and gifts from friends and colleagues. Plus a set of balls that my sister rescued from another trash pile a different summer.

Although I always go to my folks' house for Christmas, I do have a smallish fake tree for my apartment. I don't always put it up; it depends on my mood that December. I also have way too many ornaments for it, because I keep finding ones I like.

*although he's relaxed in recent years--a combination of the smaller, cooler modern lights and the fake tree

#37 ::: jude ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 04:52 PM:

There are Christmas-tree farms around my old home town now: using land that's no longer profitable as dairy, and too steep or remote to sell to developers. Around this time of year they start putting up warning notices about security patrols and dogs. Cattle-rustling used to be one of the local industries, back in the day - now we have Christmas-tree rustling.

Fragano @26 - my Dad used to be able to sing that in Esperanto, courtesy of a stint in the Woodcraft Folk in the 1930s. Trees and subversion - there's a PhD subject for somebody...

#38 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 05:20 PM:

Richard Hershberger: NPR and Larry Massett have you covered. Back in 1980 the Maryland Senate debated replacing the lyrics, and when All Things Considered did a story on the debate Larry Massett wrote new verses for the tune. If you try a web search you'll find versions with odd copyright dates (1983? I don't think so...), and with verses added or missing. So, for your enjoyment, I give you the four canonical verses from "Every Night at Five. Susan Stamberg's All Things Considered Book"


We've got some hills, we've got some trees,
We sing in four-part harmonies.
There's shopping malls and city halls
And cats and dogs and ponds with frogs.

But none of us has ever meant
To overthrow the government.
From Baltimore to Hagerstown,
Just take your car and drive around.


We touch four states and several bays,
The highways mostly run two ways,
We hope you come and say hello
And maybe stop and spend some dough.

We're near the nation's capital
But we are not stuck up at all.
So take a stand and shake the hand
Of every crab in Maryland.


I have a dog whose name was Jack.
I threw a stick, he brought it back.
My sister had a cat, I think.
My mother had a kitchen sink.

My father was a decent man
And we all lived in Maryland.
O Maryland! O Maryland!
O Maryland! O Maryland!


Our nights are dark, our days are fair,
We're right next door to Delaware.
Our song before was full of gore,
But then the Union won the war.

We're sorry if we made you mad.
It was the only song we had.
O Maryland! O Maryland!
O Maryland! O Maryland!

By the way: NPR's online index apparently doesn't go back to 1980, so I had to pull my copy of Stamberg's book off the kitchen shelf (It has a truffle recipe to die for) and use that as a guide. I've never seen such a little-sung song have so many variants on the Internet before.

#39 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 05:51 PM:

Rikibeth @ #33 My housemate has joyfully embraced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie.

As have my husband and myself, and two friends, despite being collectively one-sixteenth Jewish. In our friends' case, it's mainly due to having decided a few years back that the annual trip home to Newfoundland is better done in summer, when the weather is less blizzard-y and their sister isn't running frantically around organizing things.

#40 ::: Tracy Lunquist ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 06:25 PM:

This thread was lovely good fun to read. Particularly the point-counterpoint of Christmas tree stories and bizarre song lyrics.

I certainly don't have chapters or verses to support my notions about the pagan origins of Christmas trees, but there's a solid logic (for certain ancient superstitious values of "logic") in placing the symbols of summer (light sources, fruits, flowers) on a tree that does not "die" in the winter, and to invoke whatever magic you believe will make sure the sun god comes back to life and it warms up again. It also doesn't seem like a stretch to imagine that such practices (and by extension the evidence thereof) would be stomped on pretty ruthlessly by invaders seeking to overrule and override the native belief system. Now, plausible assumptions are no substitute for evidence, but it's not hard for me to believe that modern Christmas trees are connected to ancient pagan practice. (And yeah, no, pagans would not cut them down.)

I grew up with a cathedral ceilinged living room and some truly spectacular live trees. My parents had "tree decorating" parties a couple of times, where they would buy a bunch of random craft supplies, set a theme, and their friends would come over and create silly handmade ornaments. Most of them were made of construction paper and didn't survive past that year, but for a long time we did keep one from the "Christmas carols" theme. It was a clothespin of the type one sometimes makes into dolls. He was armed with a little toothpick sword and dressed in armor, with a jingle bell fitted over his head in such a way that it seemed to be covering his mouth.

He was, of course, "Silent Knight."

We also had an impressive collection of accumulated ornaments (as everyone seems to) -- gifts and craft projects and souvenirs from our travels. And a string of lights my dad had ginned up that had about 5 lengths of maybe 12 mini-bulbs, one length of each color, separated by a blinker bulb so that each color blinked separately from the others. It created a curious effect on the tree that I remember as mesmerizing.

In my first marital household we did real trees - first husband was rabidly opposed to fakes. I continued to do real trees for a few years after that before I realized that the anti-fake-tree bias wasn't actually mine. Then we bought a very nice fake tree and had it for several years, but got rid of it when we moved here because it was just too big for this house. We had one year where we weren't going to be home, and weren't going to do a tree, but I got melancholy about that idea and picked up a cheap pre-lit 3-footer that wound up serving us quite well until last year. When I found one of those weird skinny "apartment" trees, 5 feet tall, for $20 at Target last year, I decided that was the perfect solution. We get to use our own lights (of which we have entirely too many), we get the full height and the ornament real estate that affords, but it actually fits in the space we have for it.

I have culled my collection of decorations aggressively in the last couple of years, which means now we only have enough to decorate the entire house three times over. It's a guilty pleasure.

#41 ::: Del Cotter ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 06:43 PM:

The fantastic work Professor Michael Parker-Pearson has been doing at Durrington Walls, a short walk from Stonehenge, includes

# Finding Britain's only neolithic road (a big one),

# A firm date for when the site was most used (Stonehenge works at sunrise at midsummer or sunset at midwinter, Durrington Walls only works at sunrise at midwinter)

# Evidence for lots of pork-eating in midwinter (you can tell from the ages of the pigs when killed and when in the year pigs are farrowed)

# Evidence the pigs had an unusual diet (dental caries)

# Being a proper henge by modern archaeological definition of having a rampart outside a ditch, Durrington Walls is well suited to keeping something in, not out (as an aside, Stonehenge, despite being the original "henge" for its stone gallows, isn't a henge by this definition)

# A small number of permanent dwellings, much smaller than the inferred temporary population during the solstice eating all that pork

# Evidence of lots of post holes into which tree trunks were planted

Trees have been found buried upside-down with their roots in the air at several Neolithic/Early Bronze Age sites, such as the oak at Holme I/"Seahenge" (the press are as fond as calling any site -henge as they are about calling any scandal -gate).

I like to think that the artificial grove within Durrington Walls could have been a Christmassy display of fake trees set up with their root systems waving in the air, while the pigs raised there on honey were rounded up (ritually hunted among the posts inside the ditch?) for the solstice feast to which all the families for miles around were coming. Maybe they hung decorative things from the root "branches".

#42 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 06:53 PM:

P.J. Evans #30: For a variety of versions, including one to the "White Cockade" tune go here:

#43 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 07:00 PM:

Little Pink Beast #32:

That reminds me of Leon Rosselson's:

The cloth cap and the working class
As images are dated
For we are Labour's avant garde,
And we are educated.
By tax adjustments we have planned
To institute the promised land,
But just to show we're still sincere
We'll sing The Red Flag once a year!

#44 ::: Laura Runkle ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 07:45 PM:

Bruce @ 38; The same book is on our shelf. We use it for the truffle recipe, and for Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish. Every year. Without fail. And yes, we remember that contest and song well. And have sung it with friends, in four part harmony, directly after the original Maryland state anthem. (My husband lived in Maryland for a few years, and commuted to DC.)

#45 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 09:05 PM:

I was married to a live-tree-only person, which made for some tense holidays towards the end there, because it really takes two to buy one and put it up. I bought a frankly fake white pre-lit tree when I moved out and never looked back. All very dashing and modern with black, green, and red ornaments. It goes up as soon as I can move after Thanksgiving dinner and comes down either Epiphany or the day before I go back to work in January.

I also replace my bedside lamp with a short pre-lit tree decorated with glass pinecones and acorns and other forest-y stuff -- it's magical to turn it on when the alarm goes off in the morning and just snooze for a while.

The most enchanting tree I remember from my childhood, though, was that at the home of my father's sister and her family. Very tall, right in front of a picture window that always seemed to look out on an unbroken expanse of snow, covered in blue and green ornaments and lights and shrouded with what was called angel hair -- it looks like you can't buy it anymore, which is probably a good thing as it seems to have been made of pure spun fiberglass. Yikes.

#46 ::: kiirstin ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 09:11 PM:

We always had real trees growing up. As my brother and I got older, and I got my driver's license, it became our job to get the tree. Each year thereafter the trees seemed to get a little bit taller, a little bit more... unique. The responsibility was finally taken from us after we bought our last spruce tree from the extremely overgrown tree farm up the road.

I swear, it didn't look over fifteen feet tall when it was outside and covered in snow. We had to cut the bottom five feet off, which served to highlight the fact that the top five feet were pretty sparse. See-through, even. There are photos of me with the drill and my brother with the saw. We re-designed that tree. One could hardly tell that most of the tree's branches were not where they had started. Until the cat climbed it - no one had specified that the branches had to be weight-bearing - and there was ornament carnage.

My brother and I were relieved of tree duty the following year. My mother now has a boringly normal fake tree she puts up about a week before the holiday. Granted, this is much easier for everyone, but it just doesn't feel quite right to me. Or the cat.

#47 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 09:25 PM:

When I was growing up in Oregon, a number of Christmas tree farmers would plant a second cash crop (ahem) between the rows. Helicopters supposedly had a harder time picking it out, and there were numerous complaints from my stoner friends that everything tasted like pine needles.

These days my Christmas spirit is mostly confined to scented things--spruce and gingerbread scented candles, pumpkin spice lattes, candy canes--and I don't bother with a tree. I still have fond memories of my grandmother's tree, though, which was white, fake, and strung only with fuchsia lights. It was ungodly tacky, and I loved it.

#48 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 10:39 PM:

I feel that the term 'live tree' is being misused in this thread. A live tree is one that still has its roots and is still growing. It will, if all goes well, survive another season.

You can do this. It's not impossible, as long as the tree isn't large, to have a tree in a pot in your living room. I'm told you should harden it off with with a couple of days in the garage (or similar moderately-cold environment) before putting it back outside for the rest of the winter.

A cut tree is not quite dead yet, but is not a living, functional plant, any more than cut flowers are. It's not a "live tree."

Let's call the biological trees "natural" or "real" or something else that distinguishes them from artificial ones.

Or not. I can't make anyone do anything. Just my opinion.

#49 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:36 PM:

I once made up a really silly set of lyrics to "O Tannenbaum":

Albania*, Albania, how lovely are your herring.
Albania, Albania, how lovely are your herring.
They swim in schools, as fishes do.
Pickle them, or make a stew.
Albania, Albania, how lovely are your herring.

Albania, Albania, how gallant are your streetlights.
Albania, Albania, how gallant are your streetlights.
They keep a watch all through the night,
Spreading forth their shining light.
Albania, Albania, how gallant are your streetlights.

*or Armenia, at whim

#50 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2012, 11:50 PM:

The 'big house' my grandparents lived in until I was about 10 had 18ft ceilings in the first floor 'company' rooms. I am very certain it is 18ft, because every time we went to go get the Christmas tree (an annual pilgrimage involving my grandfather, my grandma's station wagon, and as many of us cousins as were extant), Grandpa inSISted that he could get the 20ft tree. By the time I was six, I was gently reminding him that 20 is too many, remember last year?, and he noisily reassured me that no, no, he remembered, 20 feet.

We'd get it home, carry it (swathed in the netting the lot uses to calm the branches inwards) in, thread it through the chain of doorways between the side porch door and the living room (the shortest available path, though that means you had to reverse-pallbear the tree up ONTO the side porch/veranda), line it up, attach the base to the trunk with its set-screws, and elevate ... to CLUNK against the ceiling.


Right on the mark on the ceiling from all the OTHER times we've clunked the tree on the ceiling trying to put a 20ft tree in an 18ft room. :->

Thence followed the annual ritual of Getting The Saw To Shorten The Tree, with the side-effect of Lots Of Garland Branches To Put By The Fireplace And Over Doors. On tree-downing day every 3-4 years, Grandma would browbeat Grandpa into getting out the small can of flat white and going up the biiiig ladder to paint over the tree-bump mark. On every Christmas AFTER a paint-over event Grandpa would point at the ceiling and use the lack of a mark up there as evidence on HIS side of the argument that: see? It's 20 feet! The tree will fit! *facepalm*

When I got to be 9 or so (and my younger cousins were big enough to be excited about and somewhat useful on the trip), I started opting to be in on the home-side portion, which involved an awful lot less tromping around in a huge snowy blowy tree-lot while Grandpa tried to figure out just which was exactly the RIGHT tree. Bonus points for the years we went to a cut-your-own place and there was TERRAIN involved.

I greatly preferred being in the part of the group that got to get the boxes of ornaments/etc out of the basement, spread out the Designated Plywood, put the tree skirt over it, find the screw-on base, etc. Much warmer that way.

#51 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 01:09 AM:

Xopher @48

We do that every year. This is made easier by the fact that we do Christmas at my in-laws', and they can then plant the tree on their 13-acre ranch. And yes, you do need to "stage" it in the garage for a few days before bringing it inside. Once inside, you need to water it with ice cubes. And you can't keep it inside for more than about a week; it'll dry out and die.

It's possible to use the same nursery tree two years in a row ... you just put it outside, but don't take it out of the plastic pot. Most evergreens will survive being wrapped in a root ball for one year.

Oh, and speaking of which ... the real difficulty of a live tree is the weight of that root ball. A 2.5' diameter ball of roots, damp soil and gravel can weigh 200lbs. One year we got one with a root ball over a yard in diameter, and had to just leave it outside. Thing weighed almost 400lbs. Over the years, we've rigged a modified heavy-duty dolly to move the tree in and out of the house.

#52 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 01:40 AM:

When I was a kid, we always had a real, cut tree, brought down from northern Michigan by relatives (who sold Christmas trees every year; a much more difficult and back-breaking seasonal job than most people credit, in my opinion). We'd decorate it with round, frosted lights that never really got too hot to touch; the cat used to love to sit up on his haunches, untwist the bulbs with his forepaws, and bat them around the floor. He knew he wasn't supposed to do this (the cries of "Bad cat! No!" probably clued him in fairly quickly), but that didn't mean he'd give up his fun. Instead, he just got sneaky: whenever anyone walked into the room, he'd immediately put all four paws on the floor and saunter away with an innocent flick of his tail. Then, when he was alone again, it was back to the tree and a new bulb to play with. So it was the responsibility of whoever plugged in the tree lights to also walk around it looking for dark bulbs to tighten. Every evening.

He really was a very clever cat. I think of him whenever I see a fresh tree.

#53 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 02:57 AM:

We always did real trees, often from the same cut-your-own tree farm about an hour's drive from the house. It became a tradition to give at least one Christmas tree ornament as a stocking present, somewhere in the mix. So there was a growing collection of them, each with sentimental value. When I established my own household, I got to pick a few as a starter set.

My family liked white flashing lights, which project various patterns of needles onto the ceiling. Martin's had colored lights. One of the long-running problems with our Christmases has been that our ideas of a "proper" tree are therefore mutually exclusive. But he's not big on decorating trees anyway, so we have white lights.

These days, we buy trees cut goodness knows where—Germany, maybe, or France. Or Poland, even—from the local florist. If there's no snow, like this last year, we bring it home in the car. If there's snow, like there was year before last, we take the toboggan and bring it home adventurously and in style.

We do have The Most Annoying Tree Stand In The History Of The World. It requires that a piece of plastic be mounted on the bottom of the tree trunk. The manufacturer supplied a honking great screw for this, but had they ever tried screwing a honking great screw into the center of a green tree? I think not. We go through a screw a year, and there's much swearing in the snow while I get it into the tree. Then I cut off the bottom of the trunk before we set it out for collection (they get chipped and used for mulch in the local park). Sometime in the summer, I take the annoying trunk of tree out and saw it thinner and thinner until I can get the screw out and rescue the plastic thingie for another year. (Said tree stand does keep the tree nice and watered, which is why we tolerate it.)

#54 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 07:00 AM:

Josh @ #51

This moose no longer bothers with a tree, as there's no room to plant any more in the back garden, and the three that are there are now over 40 feet tall.

There's a slightly different problem around autumn: tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) which are not really hardy enough to keep outdoors over winter. A "sentry box" greenhouse has been constructed and is assembled around the one planted in the garden, but the potted (2'6" diameter and height) fern has to be moved into the greenhouse each year. I really must get a "CAUTION HEAVY PLANT CROSSING" sign for use when moving it. (The pot + fern must weigh in excess of 2cwt, and need a home-built trolley and a wooden trackway to prevent it sinking into the lawn. Jokes about 5,000 slaves and log rollers are usually cracked during the transport process.)

#55 ::: Cadbury Moose has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 07:02 AM:

Probably excessive HTML.

Is it too early for a pint Young's Double Chocolate Stout all round?

#56 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 08:14 AM:

Similar to abi's 53: very early in my life, my mother gave us kids an ornament apiece, with the date Sharpied on. When we were older, she let us pick them out ourselves. So when we left home, we each had a respectable starter set.

#57 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:23 AM:

C Wingate @ 16... In our case, it comes down, along with the lights I wrapped around the tree outside the kitchen window, on the first day of the year, while the Skiffy Channel is airing its traditional Twilight Zone marathon.

#58 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:34 AM:

kiirstin @ 46, I attempted to read your post out loud to my husband (who does not read this site) and was unable to speak for laughing. "no one - no one had specified that no, wait, no one had had specified the branches had to be had to be had to be weight-bearing..."

#59 ::: Cassy B. has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:35 AM:

For helpless laughter, apparently. (Or perhaps punctuation.) I have some lovely leftover stirfry for the gnomes; I'll just warm it up a little...

#60 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:58 AM:

too-tall trees:

My best friend's family home has high ceilings (12+ ft) on the the first floor; they always put a large cut tree in the big front window facing the street. One year, the tree they got was so tall that they had to cut more than two feet off the top to get it to fit. After they had the tree itself up, they looked at this tip, a perfectly formed mini-tree, and went "Hmmmmmm." They took it up to a front bedroom, rearranged furniture to put a table in front of the upstairs window and very carefully aligned the tip directly over the tree. From the street, it looked as if they had a massive tree soaring almost two stories through the house. People passing by stopped and stared in amazement.

#61 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 11:03 AM:

Me @58, I forgot that pointy-brackets get edited out by the software. Insert <helpless laughter> and <gasp!> every other word in that post...


#62 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 11:08 AM:

David @ #49

The canonical one is here. (With optional musket volley for ceremonial occasions.)

#63 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 11:31 AM:

I got at least one ornament every year, and in fact still do, but all the ones that I had when I moved to California are gone; they went into a storage unit out there and the person responsible for paying for it--not me--did not.

I still talk to this person, but I will mourn the loss of those ornaments for the rest of my life.

#64 ::: jude ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 12:21 PM:

kiirstin @46 - the cat's indignation must have been something to behold.

You reminded me of the year my Mum put a lot of little toy birds on our tree. We were fetched out into the hall that evening by a huge crash, to find the tree flat on the floor and the cat crawling from the wreckage. She must have been coming down the stair (she wasn't supposed to sleep on the beds, but nobody had the nerve to tell *her* that), seen the birds, and launched herself. She was shaking all over, but still trying to do the "I meant to do that/what you lookin' at?" thing.

The birds stayed on the tree, but from then on the tree was roped to the banisters...

#65 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 02:34 PM:

Xoher @48: I was making that distinction, actually. Hence my mention of root balls, and the special difficulties of a seven-footer with all that weight attached.

I bought cut trees as an adult. Simpler, and even with a house I didn't have the planting space that my mother's friend did on her farm. The ones that survived on her land make a nice windbreak by the house.

She also has a GORGEOUS holly tree, the largest I've ever seen -- not a bush, but an actual, only-the-lowest-branches-within-my reach TREE. It was always a treat to go out with a pair of hand pruners and cut enough sprigs -- heavily-berried ones -- to tack over every window on the ground floor. This was at my prompting, starting when I was ten or so and had first read The Dark Is Rising. It was awfully nice of her to let me, considering how the holly berries got everywhere.

#66 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 03:02 PM:

When I got our new fake Tree last year, one of the first things the assembly instructions recommended was to start at the bottom.

#67 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 03:07 PM:

David Goldfarb #49: This raises the question of what the Albanians (or Armenians) have done to deserve that?

#68 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 03:13 PM:

We have a holly tree in our backyard. Last January I cut the lower branches off it so that you can now sit under it. It's two stories tall.

#69 ::: Laura Runkle ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 03:34 PM:

And similar to Abi @53 and TexAnne @56, an ornament for each child was a tradition as I was growing up. Instant starter set on setting out. We have continued the tradition for our children. Instead of "First Christmas Away from Home," (thank you, Stan Rogers) it became "first one in the new home."


#70 ::: little pink beast ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 04:39 PM:

Xopher@27: I grew up in Michigan, and learned "Michigan, My Michigan" in elementary school there; I don't believe I've ever heard it anywhere else. I had completely forgotten it until this thread. All I can remember - possibly all we learned - is one verse:

A song to thee, fair state of mine
Michigan, my Michigan
Yet fairer song than this is thine
Michigan, my Michigan
The whisper of the forest trees
The thunder of the inland seas
Unite in one grand symphony
Of Michigan, my Michigan.

#71 ::: Narmitaj ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 04:45 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 36 "the candles(!) they used once set the tree on fire"

We had candles when I was a kid (my brothers and me inspecting the tree here in 1964 or so; I am the middle one).

I had forgotten this when I went to a German's apartment a 4 or 5 years ago at Xmas and saw the charred remains of her candled tree outside on the balcony. What a stupid thing to do, I thought, then later discovered my own very sensible father had done the same thing in my presence.

#72 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 06:18 PM:

Then there's Roger Welsch's Sweet Nebraska Land

#73 ::: Carol Kimball has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 06:19 PM:

Coffee Ice Cream, o noble ones?

#74 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 07:01 PM:

Narmitaj (71): I'm surprised you were using real candles on a tree that late. And even more surprised to hear that some people are still doing it. (My father was born in 1930; that tree-fire was no later than 1945, and probably earlier.)

#75 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 07:54 PM:

My childhood trees were "pasture pines" aka cedar trees. Pines are not native to the prairie, so when we still had a dairy, my sisters and I would scope out "Christmas Trees" all year long while we were rounding up cattle. The final selection would be made in November. Then, once Thanksgiving happened, we'd pester my brother, Mike, to take us to get the tree we'd chosen. Mike would grumble and complain and drag his feet, but more often than not, we'd come home from school, to find the tree on the porch. (Big family and he had graduted and started farming with Dad.) So, after chores and before supper, we'd drag it in and get it set up.

After Dad sold the dairy, the ritual changed a bit. After one time of driving four half-grown females around the pastures and hunting for the best tree (and backtracking a few times), Mike decied it was better if he kept an eye out for the greenest, bushiest, straightest cedar during fall harvest. Then, when we started pleading for a Christmas tree, he'd give it about a week, and have the tree waiting for us on the porch. This remained unchanged as we went off to college. Eventually, it became obvious that more and more family members were allergic to fresh cut cedar. So Mom and Dad got an artificial tree one year.

Mike put it up as only Mike could. He pulled the bits out and assembled it where it belonged. Which wouldn't have been a bad thing, but it was a "looks like the real thing" tree. He'd left it looking like someone had plunged green, fur-wrapped darts into the central pole. It stayed that way until the first weekend vist from his sisters. Needless to say, he sat back and laughed at us as we pulled it apart and reassembled it after fluffling each and every branch. And so it went. Eventually we all got full time jobs and trips home were fewer. However, there would still be a weekend in late December when we would come home to an artificial tree in desperate need of fluffing.

Mike has passed on. Now we put the tree up a couple of days before Christmas, talk about how much we miss him and laugh about the time he threatened to get a tree he could cut off with his pocket knife. Which he did.

#76 ::: Tracy Lunquist ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 09:40 PM:

Serge @66 -- well, yes, they are less prone to tipping over if you start from the bottom. Seems self-evident enough that you ought to be able to skip the admonition, but I suppose the lawyers would never stand for it.

In very loosely related sources of recent amusement, I needed to get a jump-start for my Prius last week (don't ask), and in the manual I discovered that the manufacturer felt they needed to tell me that you can't push-start (i.e. pop the clutch to start) a Prius.

Really? I wouldn't have figured this out if they hadn't told me?

#77 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 10:45 PM:

Conventional battery died?
(Been there, done that. Fortunately, once I got it jump-started, it was easy to get to the dealer.)

#78 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2012, 11:43 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @67: A good point. I hereby apologize to any Albanians (and optionally Armenians) here present.

#79 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 12:46 AM:

re 70: Your State's Name Here

I'm pleased to live in a state where the flag is not some variant on "azure, the state seal proper".

#80 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 01:00 AM:

After hearing the German version of "Oh Christmas Tree" in Kindergarten, us kids gave each other the giggles by singing "Oh Cannon Bomb, Oh Cannon Bomb!"

I don't remember if there we came up with any other lyrics . . .

#81 ::: Narmitaj ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 06:45 AM:

Mary Aileen @71 - Actually, it was probably 1962, thinking again.

You can still buy candles designed for Christmas trees, for instance here, though they do have a little warning:

"Please note that for safety reasons, we
recommend that you do not light candles
on your Christmas tree, but simply enjoy
them for their old-time decorative charm"

Is it illegal in the US? Here's a UK site selling them, so it doesn't seem to be illegal here. This warning does allow for actually lighting them:

"Warning: Ensure that a Christmas
tree with lit candles is never left
unattended and never leave with
children to look after."

I get the impression from very little research that these "baumkerzen" and their holders are generally made in continental Europe.

#82 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 09:51 AM:

An imaginary Christmas product here: a wall-scroll art or photo tree, with LED lights wired in and attachment loops for ornament hooks. Ideal for the space challenged.

Having proposed it, I'm sure it must already exist somewhere.

#83 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 11:05 AM:

Narmitaj @ #81:

I think the ones in the second link are the ones my parents had but never actually lit. The clip handles look like little pinecones.

#84 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 11:32 AM:

Narmitaj (81): It doesn't appear to be illegal* in the US, I'm just astonished to learn that it's still being done.

*Here's a US store selling the holders. (German-made, which is totally unsurprising.)

#85 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 01:20 PM:

#82 ::: Rob Rusick

An imaginary Christmas product here: a wall-scroll art or photo tree, with LED lights wired in and attachment loops for ornament hooks. Ideal for the space challenged.

A couple decades back, my mother and grandmother recycled old costume jewelry into bas-relief tree-shapes-on-black-velvet framed art (approx. 18" x 24"?) that they hung at Christmas. My dad wired in some grain-of-wheat bulbs. These days LEDs would be simple.

They were actually pretty cool, probably because all the jewelry was cleaned well first.

#86 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 01:28 PM:

David Goldfarb @78: I'm not Albanian, but I do have some rather distant relatives by marriage who are. (The advantage of carrying the surname 'Barebones' is that it's fairly easy to establish relatedness in many cases).

#87 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 05:01 PM:


I remember one year in the dorm we didn't have space for even a very small fake tree, so we taped some ribbon to the front of a closet in an approximation of a tree shape and then taped our christmas cards to it.

It worked.

The next year we had an apartment, and didn't get around to taking down the fake tree for a year and a half. We just changed out the ornaments for the seasons: flag toothpicks in July, plastic eggs in the spring...

#88 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 05:38 PM:

Concerning candles on Christmas trees:

My maternal grandparents were both born in the late 19th century. My grandfather's mother had immigrated to America from somewhere south of Ludwigshafen and Mannheim in the sothern Rhineland as a small child and he had grown up with very definite ideas about Christmas trees as a result: they went up on Christmas Eve, after the young children were in bed. They had candles (the house lacked electricity until some time in the 1920s or so--my mother remembers heating the iron on the woodstove and washing lamp chimneys--woe to the feckless soul who didn't keep the lampwick trimmed!) which could only be lit and admired under direct adult supervision. The tree was out and gone by January 6 at the lastest--it was quite unlucky to keep the Christmas greens up after that date. (We do not have superstitions in my mother's family, We have Folk Customs. She does not care to discuss the difference. She also sent me out to wash my face in the dew on May Day to prevent pimples, when I was 13 or so.)

The first Christmas tree my mother's oldest sister remembered resulted in a sudden improvement in her father's language--he had grown up around a livery stable and steamboat men, and had worked in the early Oklahoma oil fields and sometimes became more colorful than my grandmother cared to hear.
Early on Christmas morning, when my Aunt Helen was two, he got her out of bed and showed her the Christmas tree, candles carefully sited and lit. She stood there in awestruck wonder and then said "Sonuvvabitch! Look at that Trissy Tree!" He gave her her Christmas stocking and tucked her back in bed, and my grandmother not only resisted the urge to say "I told you to watch what you said around Helen" but did not laugh out loud in his face.

#89 ::: Aquila ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2012, 11:43 PM:

#82 ::: Rob Rusick

One Christmas when we were mid-renovations my mother spray painted a tree onto a soon to be removed wall and we pinned the decorations onto it.

#90 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 02:46 AM:

When I was growing up, we'd have a look around for the best tree, it had to be bushy, dense, and a whole host of other things I could never see. It was almost always a cut tree from one of the church tree sales in the area, depending on who we knew running one. But now, I live on a rural island with a logging heritage.

We've been going to the same little tree farm on the island for a few years now. The trees aren't perfect. Or rather, they're natural trees, not bushy perfect cones. But they're local, and we can go find a big tree to match our 2 story ceiling. Every year, we think -- maybe not so tall this year. We look, and look, and 'That one's not that big'. Then it overhangs the truck tailgate by 3 or 4 feet. (that's an 8' bed + 2' gate). One thing that's nice -- the prices. The douglas firs come in 2 prices, topping out at $28 for a 10 footer or more.

When my wife and I started this christmas thing, I had a couple sets of ornaments from my family. Since then, every friday after thanksgiving, we do crafty ornaments of some form -- buttons, wooden thingies, decorating styrofoam balls, pine cones, something. The kids have gotten into it as they've grown up. we get 10-30 ornaments out of each year, so now we have enough to fill a 16 foot tree. Some get culled each year, some are such perfect examples of little kid ornaments that we'll hang onto them forever. My parents sill have some of the preschool age 'back of the tree' ones that make it up every year that they're not out with us.

#91 ::: eric is being investigated by gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 02:47 AM:

I've got ... Not much. Ingredients are in the fridge, but no food. Nor plums.

#92 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 09:19 AM:

The idea that Saint Boniface invented the Christmas tree is both recent and witless. For one thing, there's zero evidence of it. For another, Boniface's signature interaction with a tree was very publicly chopping down the Donar Oak and using its wood to build a church. A guy who went to that much trouble to suppress tree worship would not make a religious observance out of setting up a tree and decorating it.

Our current parish is St. Boniface in Brooklyn. We have a big (if not very good) stained-glass window showing Boniface, a nonspecific deciduous tree, and what it took me a while to realize is a depressed-looking Druid sitting in the foreground. I'm more than half convinced the Druid's face was lifted from one of Thomas Nast's political cartoons. It would be in character, since all the window images at St. B's are patched together from 19th C. clip art.

#93 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 09:37 AM:

Teresa: all the window images at St. B's are patched together from 19th C. clip art.

I am irresistably reminded of this.

#94 ::: Lila got gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 09:38 AM:

One link to a commercial site.

Got some Trader' Joe's gingerbread left, I think.

#95 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 09:59 AM:

Thena @ 87

My first year in an apartment while in college, my roommates and I did something similiar with christmas lights. We taped the lights to the wall in a tree shape and called it good. It's amazing how much light reflects off of white walls. We could almost read by tree-light.

#96 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 11:09 AM:

TNH #92: Indeed. St. Boniface could not have invented the Christmas Tree, since it is well-known that St. Margaret of Antioch was the first to celebrate Christmas with a decorated pine tree.

#97 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2012, 06:07 PM:

I will have to do some decluttering if I want to have a tree this year. The table I've put a 5-foot tree on right now is covered with paper (of various sorts) and crafts supplies.

#98 ::: Bruce H. ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 01:43 AM:

My favorite minimal Christmas tree was a potted Norfolk Island pine, about 16 inches tall, with no lights, three ornaments and about seven strands of tinsel.

Re flat Christmas tree substitutes: One year, after I had left home, the family stood the ironing board up against the wall, pointy end up, and decorated it.

#99 ::: GlendaP ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 01:59 AM:

The Christmas trees of my childhood were Texas "cedar" (actually Ashe juniper) which was considered a nuisance plant at the time. My dad was more than happy to get rid of as many as possible. After he died and my mother moved into an apartment, she went the flat-tree route by sticking push-pins into the wall in a tree shape and draping garland around them.

#100 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 02:46 AM:

C. Wingate "azure, the state seal proper"

My university's seal has what are allegedly three kiwis proper. I think they are incorrectly blazoned, because, being nocturnal and shy, kiwis proper are indistinct dark blobs against a gray background.

#101 ::: David Weingart ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 07:54 AM:

I have no tradition of Christmas trees (it not being a Jewish thing) but now this thread has me earwormed by "Christmas Bells" from Rent

#102 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 05:00 PM:

Teresa: all the window images at St. B's are patched together from 19th C. clip art.

Lila @ #93 I am irresistibly reminded of this.

I am irresistibly reminded of Dave! Malki's 'Wondermark.'

#103 ::: David DeLaney's comment has been gnomed... ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 06:56 PM:

And I found out a while after entering college that the Case Men's Glee Club had, some decades back, put together a songbook. One of which was "S-C-I-E-N-C-E", to the tune of you guessed it...

S C I, E N C E,
E-ver let thy motto be
"O Science, thou art dear to me"
He chooses well who follows thee!

So I've got a headstart on the weird-lyrics-to-it thing there...


#104 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 06:57 PM:

aaaand ignore the 'gnomed' part above plz. Saw it just after hitting 'post'.

--Dave, bah

#105 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 07:05 PM:

David DeLaney: I can't guess the tune. Either it's one I don't know, or it's one I know and is just not coming to me.

#106 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 07:06 PM:

Oh, never mind.

#107 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2012, 09:01 PM:

Bruce H @98, my husband and I used to decorate a Norfolk Island Pine too. I remember getting a cut tree when I was a kid, but we eventually moved to artificial because of traveling to see family during the holidays. Leaving a drying real tree with nobody home to replenish water seemed like a fire hazard. So we didn't.

#108 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2012, 04:36 PM:

My family's tree was artificial when I was growing up because my father liked a good fire and he liked it to stay in the fireplace. (There are several videos that show how fast a dry tree goes up, and they are my nightmare fuel.) Nowadays, there are so many friends and family members with allergies (including an honest-to-goodness pine allergy) that a fake tree is the only way to go. Right now, I'm using a five-foot tree that my parents bought for my older sister sometime in the late 80s. It's actually very attractive, which is why I haven't replaced it yet. I've been saying I was going to get a full-sized tree (six and a half or seven feet) after Christmas this year, when they run 50-60% off online. We'll see where the finances are, though, since we had a bad season with the unbudgeted expenses.

Incidentally, the scent of pine speaks to me of camping. I think the reason that manufacturers haven't gotten that fake pine smell down is that they're dealing with the needles and have forgotten the cut wood, dirt, bark, and hint of petrichor that real trees have.

#109 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2012, 09:20 PM:

Teresa, I'd dearly love to see a photograph of the stained-glass window with the sad druid.

As for flat trees, we always had cut trees when I was a kid, and one year, we got, for a reduced price, a tree that had clearly grown up against a wall. It was a hemi-tree, made bushier and wider by all the branches coming around to the front and sides. We stood it up against the wall, and tied the top to a curtain support so it wouldn't fall down; it was, needless to say, very side-heavy.

It may have been the best tree we ever had.

Oh, and as for state songs, my sisters and I are literally the only people we know (that we know) who can sing the Illinois state song. And an insipid thing it is, too. No tyrants or flecks of gore here! Well, one tyrant, if you're a Marylander, since Lincoln (and Grant and Logan) gets a namecheck in the last verse.

#110 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2012, 11:41 PM:

I used to be able to sing the Illinois song, but then I wrote fake lyrics to it and forgot the real ones. It's pretty, but dull.

#111 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2012, 10:42 AM:

Diatryma @ 110

You too? My sister Martha wrote new lyrics, too. As best I recall, hers were

By thy sewers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois,
And thy air pollution growing, Illinois, Illinois,
Comes a smoke wisp on the trees
Killing all the leafy trees
And its choking tones are these, Illinois, Illinois,
And its choking tones are these, Illinois.

I'm uncertain about the smoke wisp line. To provide some context, seems to me it was written just about the time they were debating passing the Clean Air Act.

#112 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2012, 11:34 PM:

By the rivers gently flowing
Corn and soybeans both are growing
Please do not pronounce the S
It annoys us, we confess
and we'll beat you half to death if you say 'Ellinoiz'
And we'll beat you if you say 'Ellinoiz'.

I feel the Illinois accent in the name of the state is very necessary.

#113 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2012, 11:41 PM:


I like! It really bothers me when People Who Should Know Better, like newscasters, pronounce the "s". Whether the initial syllable is an "ill" or an "ell" (or a [schwa]ll) is subject to regional variation, but the "s", or rather the lack of same, is non-negotiable.

I once saw, beautifully lettered in gold on the door of a high-end art gallery, the word "Illinios". Oops.

#114 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 12:11 PM:

See also "Or-eh-gone." It's always an East Coast type saying it that way, too. The best way to think of it is "Or-eh-gn."

#115 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2012, 12:32 AM:

We had real candles on real, usually live, trees my whole childhood -- 1970s through 1990s, if we count coming back home from college. My sweetie and I have used candles a couple times since.

The lit tree is not a decoration, it is a ritual in itself. Everyone in the house has a comfortable seat, and a pet to restrain, and a spray bottle of water. And we watch until the last candle is burnt out, with no other lights in the house; the last tiny ember of wick can last seemingly forever, but when it's dark we *know* the fire is out.

And then we bump off to bed in the dark, tripping over the perplexed pets.

This is also an excellent reason to bring the tree in on the day you're going to light the candles. It's not *just* a superstition and a folk tradition!

It's wonderful to see and hear and smell and feel -- we usually had rather a cool house, and could feel the warm draft from the candles.

#116 ::: tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2012, 11:53 AM:

Coming late to the party as usual...

It's built on seven hills like Rome
It is the place that I call home
We've rivers, parks and trees galore
But we've no airport anymore
We used to make a lot of steel
And knives and forks and spoons but we'll
Be glad to welcome you my friend
If Sheffield is your journey's end.

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