Superglue, Bailing Wire, and Candy Cane Goo

If you were to walk into my parents’ house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights and topped with the same lighted, multicolored star my parents have had for as long as I can remember. At this point I’m pretty sure the star contains more bailing wire and superglue than original material and still it’s held together mainly by the sheer will of Christmas spirit. Well, that, and maybe a little sticky candy cane goo.

The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.
The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.

I don’t remember when it happened because I had to have been very small at the time, but the story goes that as the family worked together to decorate the Christmas tree, my eldest brother, who is easily the tallest in the family, was teasing my sister, just two years younger and quite a bit shorter.

As she was always the most zealous keeper of holiday traditions in our house, I suspect she had been giving him a hard time about his tendency to clump the tinsel and to think little of the proper spacing of candy canes as he threw them randomly on the tree.

So he did what any young teenage boy might and stretched up beyond her reach to place a candy cane on the star. He expected it to irritate her. Instead, she was delighted. We all were. Somehow it seemed like the perfect touch to finish off the tree that primarily featured lumpy clay and Popsicle-stick-ornaments constructed by little fingers. And every Christmas since, the tree has been topped with the same (kind of garish) star and a single candy cane.

Because regardless of what religious symbolism a Christmas tree may hold (a hundred different sources will provide a hundred different interpretations), it should represent childhood and good Christmas memories.

At least that’s what Queen Charlotte, the German wife of England’s King George III, seemed to think. When she married in 1761, Charlotte spoke no English (though she learned quickly) and brought with her several German customs, one of which was the setting up of a decorated yew branch at Christmastime.

Christmas trees, or some version of them, had been part of German tradition since at least the 16th-century, when legend credits Martin Luther with the first. The claim of the legend is almost certainly false, but historians do generally agree that the first Christmas trees emerged from the general vicinity of Germany.

Queen Charlotte was certainly fond of the tradition and quickly transformed the private family yew branch celebration of her childhood into a spectacle like none the English nobility had ever seen. Then in 1800, she took the tradition to a whole new level, inviting the children of Windsor to a party featuring at its center an entire yew tree loaded with, according to one contemporary biographer, “bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

He makes no mention of Queen Charlotte topping the tree with a star or a candy cane. Of course since there’s no definite evidence that the candy cane was invented until a hundred years later, I can give her a pass on that one.

Queen Victorian and Prince Albert gathered with their family around the Christmas tree.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert looking very stylish around the Christmas tree.

What is clear is that the tree was a hit and Christmas trees started popping up in some of the noble households over the next few years, until in 1848, The Illustrated London News featured a woodcarving of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around their Christmas tree. After that, everyone wanted one. When the picture was run two years later in the American publication Godey’s Lady’s Book, the tradition caught fire (sometimes literally) in the United States as well.

Ours is not yet held together by bailing wire and hot glue, but give it time.
Ours is not yet held together by bailing wire and hot glue, but give it time.

Queen Victoria and her Prince Albert often get the credit for popularizing the Christmas tree, but the honor may more appropriately belong to Queen Charlotte, who knew that there are some traditions worth preserving.

So if you were to walk into my house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights, decorated with lumpy clay and Popsicle-stick-ornaments, and topped with a (kind of garish) multicolored, lighted star and a single candy cane.

What weird little traditions do you follow and wouldn’t dream of celebrating Christmas without?

14 thoughts on “Superglue, Bailing Wire, and Candy Cane Goo

  1. Bruce Goodman

    I’m going to get busy as Christmas approaches, so Happy Christmas to you and yours! One little “tradition” my family has: each year we get one of those Advent calendars with a little chocolate in each window for each day. Then on the 1st December we sit around, open the first window, argue about who is to get the chocolate, and then open all the windows there and then and completely devour the calendar on December 1st. It makes for a relatively argument-free Advent!

  2. Found you from MOWB. Delightful blog. I am sure I will be back. Christmas tradition we cannot do without: Having a velvet Santa with missing eyebrows take center stage of our mantle. I have had him for 50 years. Cannot imagine Christmas without him.

    1. I love it! My husband and I received as a wedding gift a strange ivory colored Santa figure in a flower pot. Sort of as an ongoing joke we put it out every year, intentionally someplace we thought it likely to break, like on the front porch where it might get kicked over. The tough sucker lasted 13 Christmases before he finally cracked last year. I have to admit I was a little sad when I looked through the boxes of decorations this year and he wasn’t there. I suppose I should have put him front and center on the mantel after all. I just didn’t realize I’d get so attached. 🙂 Great to connect with you!

  3. I very much like how you start with something historical or on the world stage and then relate it to your family life or something that is deeply personal to you. I’ve noticed this in several of the posts here, and I like it a lot.
    You’re a terrific writer. Keep up the good work!

  4. Pingback: Controversial Christmas Merry-Making | thepracticalhistorian

  5. Love this!

    Our sort of tradition is to never do the fancy Christmas tree decorating thing. Some people do themes and the such. We decorate with handmade ornaments and buy a new Christmas ornament for each kid (and sometimes the parents) every year (for example, this year the boy got the Millennium Falcon and the girl got Snoopy). When the kids grow up, we plan to give them their ornaments to decorate their own tree and hope they do the same with their kids.

    Our other tradition is to always play Hanson’s “Snowed In” Christmas album while decorating the tree. My husband and I have lived together for 14 Christmases now and we play that every time.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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