Mary Syrett- December 2008

Tidewater Christmas Trees


Mary Syrett

   Christmas trees have long been a part of Tidewater Maryland’s holiday season. That season brings families together and unites them around the tree in celebration of hope and renewal. The meaning of the holidays rests in considerable part with tradition and family. What better way to convey that meaning than with a traditional Christmas tree?


Evergreens have been associated with seasonal celebrations since ancient times. They were used as symbols by various nationalities and religious groups, including Egyptians, Romans, Druids, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Spaniards and Slovaks. Yule log traditions contributed to the cultural customs of gift-giving and decorating the log or tree.
    Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the wintertime. Just as people today decorate their Tidewater homes during the festive season with pine, spruce or fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors. In many countries, people believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.
    In the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day of the year falls on December 21st and is known, of course, as the winter solstice. Many ancient peoples believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had grown weak. They celebrated the spring solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would start to heal and regain strength. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again once the sun god was strong.
    The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god named Ra. After the solstice, when Ra began to recover from sickness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm branches that symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.
Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans believed the solstice meant that farms and orchards would soon again be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated temples with evergreen boughs.
    In Northern Europe, the mysterious Druids decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The Vikings in Scandinavia believed that evergreens were the special symbolic plant of the sun god Balder.
    Thus, when Tidewater-area families today bring home their Christmas tree from a sales lot or a pick-your-own-and-cut tree farm, they are following a tradition that stretches back well over a thousand years. “Bringing in the Yule log” was a ritual that began in Great Britain and then spread across Europe, eventually reaching North America. On Christmas Eve, the central trunk of a huge tree was dragged from the forest. Every member of the family helped with the job by pulling on the ropes. When the log was finally brought into the house, it was thrown into the fireplace, where it burned continually during the 12 days of Christmas.
    As the Yule log tradition spread throughout Europe, it acquired many distinctive customs and names. In Ireland, it was called “bloc na Nodleg,” or Christmas block. In Spain, children followed the log as it was dragged through the village, beating it with sticks to drive out evil spirits. People who lived along the way rewarded them with gifts of nuts and chocolates.
    Hardly anyone living today around the Tidewater burns a Yule log anymore, but some memories of it elsewhere do remain. In French homes, instead of Christmas cake, children enjoy a rich chocolate roll covered with a brown frosting that resembles bark. Sometimes the Christmas log is decorated with frosted berries and holly needles, or with marzipan mushrooms, as a reminder of the great logs that were once dragged from the forest.

Christmas Tree Facts
*The top-selling trees are Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Noble fir, Fraser fir, Virginia pine, Balsam fir and white pine.
*President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923. In 1979, the National Christmas Tree on that lawn was not lighted except for the top ornament. This was done to honor the American hostages being held in Iran.
*The first decorated Christmas tree appeared in Riga, Latvia, in 1510.
*Using candles to light a Christmas tree dates to the middle of the 17th century.
*Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, developed, in 1882, the idea of using electric lights to decorate Christmas trees.

Christmas Traditions
    Many Tidewater-area families have a variety of traditions they follow during the holiday season. For some families, one holiday tradition may include an uncle or grandparent getting dressed up as Santa Claus. In another family, Christmas Eve dinner may top the tradition list. Other traditions that are representative of families celebrating the holiday season include:
    Caroling may not be as popular today as it once was. Perhaps it’s because too many people live in the suburbs, where neighborhoods are not as close as they once were. But singing among family members still tops the list of traditions for many people.
    What holiday season would be complete without greeting cards? The first Christmas card appeared in London in 1843; cards became popular in America around 1875. Today many Tidewater families send holiday greeting cards to friends and family across the United States and around the world.
    Christmas shopping season officially begins the day after Thanksgiving. To some folks, it’s the most enjoyable part of the season. True, Internet shopping has dramatically changed the face of holiday shopping. But no matter how popular Internet shopping becomes, nothing can compare to an old-fashioned holiday shopping trip to see the lights, hear the bells and feel the holiday excitement.
    For children and grown-ups alike, cookies may be the favorite Christmas tradition of all. Every holiday season, children and/or their parents bake an assortment of Christmas cookie specialties, which other family members eagerly wait to sample.
    Each holiday season, stockings hanging from a mantel can be found in many Tidewater homes. Stockings may include gags, such as a piece of coal, or small gifts, including candy.
    The brilliant colors of Christmas lights on and in a home are enough to warm the heart of even the sourest Grinch. Just don’t pull a “Clark Griswold,” with apologies to Chevy Chase.
    There is no better symbol of Tidewater holiday cheer than the Christmas tree. Trees all around are decked out in lights and ornaments, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive and leave presents for family members.
    Before you know it, all around Tidewater country, Christmas tree lots will be open on street corners and in shopping malls. Discriminating shoppers enjoy having a Christmas tree brighten up the home for a few weeks rather than a few days. This makes sound economic sense, because if you pay a premium price for a tree, why not s-t-r-e-t-c-h out your enjoyment of it?
    Of course, buying a tree weeks before the Big Day does pose some risk. A freshly cut tree purchased late in November can easily become a droopy, needle-dropping, scraggly-looking mess by Christmas Day. So how do you keep a tree looking great through the long Yule season?
    Your selection of the type of Christmas tree can mean the difference between a short or long season of Yuletide greenery. Many kinds of evergreens lay claim to being Christmas trees, but some do a better job than others over the long haul.
    The Fraser fir, which is the most popular Christmas tree in these parts, despite being the most expensive, is a great-looking holiday season specimen, and, if kept abundantly watered, retains its needles for weeks. Likewise the white pine. It has hardly any scent, making it a good choice for people who are allergic to the fragrant Frasers. The Scotch pine has a more noticeable fragrance, as well as stiffer branches and needles than the white pine.
    But, if you really, truly enjoy spent foliage covering your floor, by all means consider a red cedar. A tree that wilts easily with weak branches, the red cedar is notorious for dropping needles everywhere and on everything soon after being cut down.
    Always test a tree before buying. Unless you purchase what you are absolutely certain is a freshly cut tree, you are sure to encounter problems long before Santa gets stuck trying to slide down the chimney. How to conduct a freshness test?
    Grab a branch and run it between your fingers. Do needles fall into your hand? No? So far, so good. Now, pick the tree up a foot off the ground and drop it on its trunk. If you see a shower of needles, look elsewhere.
    When you find a fresh, well-proportioned tree, get it home fast and take steps to ensure that it stays that way. Above all, what we are talking about is water. Lots of water.
    Sap oozes from the trunk as soon as it is cut, and as sap hardens, it seals the cut. This is a healing action, but it does greatly restrict the tree’s ability to absorb water.
    So, soon after you get your tree home, saw an inch off the bottom of the trunk to open a fresh cut. Then immediately place the tree in a bucket of water and keep the fresh cut wet throughout the holiday season. This will prevent sap from hardening in the cut and will help keep the tree watered.
    To keep needles from losing too much water too fast, keep the tree away from heat, including strong lights, fireplaces, televisions, sunny windows and heating vents. Look for a cool corner away from drafts. All this care should keep your Christmas tree looking fresh throughout the holiday season.
    Enjoy the holiday season and please, eventually dispose of your tree by taking it to a facility especially intended for that purpose. If only so I don’t have to look out my window at my neighbor’s discarded tree across the street, waiting forlornly for weeks, if not months, for the yard trash people to finally show up and haul it off. And remember, Christmas traditions, including greenery, have their roots far back in antiquity. What goes around . . .