We “scream” for Christmas

The Capitol Christmas tree was lighted this evening.  I wasn’t there, but the video of this evening’s ceremony was posted on Reuters.  Multi-colored lights?  I don’t know how I feel about that.  The tree is beautiful, though.  I hope Roger and I have an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. this Christmas season.  There are so many tree traditions in our nation’s capital!  New York City, make room.

Scream ornament

On the radio this morning, I heard about a tree that I MUST see this season.  A lesser-known Christmas tree that was lighted today is the Union Station Christmas tree, an annual gift from  the Norwegian Embassy to all Americans.  This tradition, started 16 years ago, usually features a tree decorated with Norwegian ornaments, flags, and other items of national significance.  This year, the tree is decorated with 700 reflective ornaments of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream.  I’ve included a link here to The Washington Post article.

Multi-colored lights?  Symbols of modern suffering?  What is Christmas coming to?

Reading “A Christmas Tree” by Charles Dickens

Arguably Charles Dickens’ words helped to create the Victorian Christmas as much as any illustrator.

 I mentioned before that the novella, A Christmas Carol, was just the start of his Christmas stories, and for many years, Dickens published a Christmas short story annually in the magazine he edited, Household Words

The first, in 1850, was “A Christmas Tree.”  There are many websites that feature the entire text, one that I have linked here.  The tree takes on magical proportions, as it does in our own homes, especially in the darkened house.  Any plain ornament is transformed in the sparkling lights.

In the story, the narrator imagines the decorations on a Christmas tree and the stories that those decorations inspire.  Early in the story, he describes some of the objects including “real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs.” 

I was captivated by this idea, and I began to imagine how exciting it would be to have a “time” themed tree next year.  There are so many antique stores and flea markets where I could probably buy some interesting pieces.  Craft stores sell other clock items, too.  (I digress, as usual.)

In the story, the narrator describes several ghosts, including one of a drowned housekeeper who wanders the halls trying her ghostly keys in locks.  She haunts the entire house but also a particular room where there hangs that portrait of the man who jilted her.  Scary ghost stories are part of Victorian Christmas for certain!

I find that reading Dickens aloud is the only way to really appreciate the magnificence of his craft.  People who had to read Dickens in high school (remember Great Expectations or Tale of Two Cities?) often have negative memories of his difficult syntax, but they missed the humor of the characterization that comes with reading aloud.

My next personal challenge is to read all of Dickens’ Christmas short stories.  It would be a great tradition to read one aloud each Christmas!

In the short story, he writes this beautiful passage: 

And I do come home at Christmas. We all do, or we all should. We all come home, or ought to come home, for a short holiday, the longer, the better, from the great boarding-school, where we are for ever working at our arithmetical slates, to take, and give a rest. As to going a visiting, where can we not go, if we will; where have we not been, when we would; starting our fancy from our Christmas Tree!

Monte Inigo, Italian Christmas Tree

Yesterday, Jeremy and I were daydreaming about exotic places we would go IF we could go anywhere during the Christmas season.  We agreed that Christmas in Italy, especially at Vatican City would be a top choice.

In my research, I learned that the Italian city of Gubbio in the Umbria region creates a tree of lights 650 meters tall on the slopes of Monte Inigo.  I visualized a really tall skyscraper type of electric tree, but photos of the tree illustrate that is is actually created on the slope of the mountain with 8.5 kilometers of electric cable and thousands of lights. In 1991, it was recognized in the Guiness Book of World Records.

In 2011, the lights were switched on remotely by Pope Benedict XVI!  Established in 1981, the electricity for the tree is now generated by solar panels.

Gubbio and Monte Inigo are not as far away as I imagine.  Jessup in Northeastern Pennsylvania is Gubbio’s sister city.  Both towns celebrate Saint Ubaldo Day  (May 15).  There is an annual “Race of the Saints” (held on Memorial Day weekend in Jessup). Maybe Jessup should sponsor their own version of the Monte Inigo Christmas Tree so that we don’t have to travel as far?

“O Tannenbaum” and Florida

Jeremy is in Disney this week, and, as I have only been there once in my youth, I was thinking about what I could do to continue his theme–What do Christmas and Florida have in common? In my search, I stumbled upon this little known fact:  The Christmas song, “O Tannenbaum” was once the Floria state song, and the tune to “O Tannenbaum” continues to be the state song of two most important states in my life, Iowa and Maryland. The tune also accompanies the lyrics to Michigan’s state song and many other songs for colleges, universities and organizations.

“Florida, My Florida” reigned from its adoption in 1913 to its end in 1935, when Florida changed its song to “The Swanee River: The Old Folks at Home.”  The lyrics for  “The Old Folks at Home” written by Stephen Foster were given an official revision, to make them more politically correct, in 2008.

The original tune of  “O Tannenbaum,” is a German folksong, and it  had lyrics that referenced a the evergreen tree, but there was no connection to Christmas. This developed in the  1800’s with the rise in popularity of Christmas.

James Ryder Randall’s lyrics for Maryland were written in 1861 at  the beginning of the Civil War and was adopted as a Confederate battle hymn.  Like Florida’s song, it has had its share of controversy and threats of replacement.

S.H.M Byers, also a Civil War soldier, wrote the much more pleasant and soothing lyrics to “Iowa, O! Iowa,” referred to as the “Iowa State Song.” “Michigan, My Michigan” is the official unofficial song of Michigan and, like Iowa, celebrates the beautifies of the state.

In my mind, though, I am not about to sing “O Tannenbaum” with German, Iowa, Florida, Michigan or Maryland lyrics.  What I think about when I hear the song is the Vince Guaraldi Trio piano version that accompanies A Charlie Brown Christmas produced in 1965.  Here’s a You Tube video of the segment from the television special.

I can sing maybe the first and second line of the English version of the carol, and then I’m lost.  “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your lovely branches. . .something something. . .”  Seriously, does anyone know the lyrics by heart?

FDR was a Christmas Tree Farmer? Really?

We discussed the origins of the National Christmas Tree in our podcast Monday, and I learned that Jeremy has much more experience with the tree lighting ceremonies and the Pathways of Peace.  Our discussion inspired me to look into the National Christmas Tree Association.   It is their tradition, begun in 1966, that the grand-champion grower would present his/her tree to the President and First Lady for display in the Blue Room.  The first was a grower in Wisconsin, but Dan and Bryan Trees (formerly Sundback Trees) of West Virginia, have been selected a record four times!  I hope to talk Roger into a field trip to their farm sometime this year.

According to the National Christmas Association, in 1901, the first Christmas tree farm was established in New Jersey by W. V. MacGalliard.  When the trees reached maturity eight years later, trees were sold for $1.00 each. (I wonder how much money this is in 2012?) Strangely, in 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt, tried to discourage Americans from choosing live trees because of the potential threat to American forests.  Conservationist Gifford Pinchot persuaded the president that, done properly, raising Christmas trees was not harmful.

Teddy Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, started a Christmas Tree farm on his estate in Hyde Park, New York in the 1930’s.  He even listed his occupation as “tree farmer.”  Some skeptics claim that this was a strategy to create the aura that Roosevelt was gentleman farmer, and, therefore, more electable; however, Christmas tree profits are listed on Roosevelt Library documents, and he planned to continue tree farming in his retirement after the presidency.  According to the National Park Service, Roosevelt was “so proud of his Christmas trees that he once sent one to the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.”