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.
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.
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.
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?