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Friday, December 4, 2015

Christmas Tree Art

Every Christmas tree should accent its environment.
It's that time of the year again. This evening I put out our first Christmas lights. Normally I labor for three or four days putting string after string of mostly clear lights over the shrubbery and along the balcony of our home. My wife decided I was getting too old for such foolishness so this year she bought one of those new laser light show thingies for the front yard. It's really kind of neat, though rather static and didn't cover near the total length of the house...meaning I'll need a second unit. In a few days, I'll decorate some outside light posts and around the front door. Then comes the living room Christmas tree. I should note, we've cutting back there too. Several years ago, I also had trees in the dining room and the family room. About ten years ago, I fastened an old white tree to the front light post and decorated it with pink lights. Our son, who was about eighteen at the time, was embarrassed to death.

Christmas trees now and then.
Each country has its own style of Christmas tree.
In delving into the lively art of decorating evergreen (real or artificial) I discovered that the tradition I'd more or less taken for granted all my life was really not as old as I'd imagined. In fact, we Americans were rather late as a group in embracing it. When I was growing up, the upper-left tree in the above montage was pretty much the norm, cut in the wild, dragged home, trimmed, and maybe even held upright by a slender thread or two. Often they were only accidentally conical; and only a generous quantity of tinsel draped from its boughs saved it from being what we'd now call a Charlie Brown tree. Although Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England (lower, left image above) using candles, lit one of the first indoor trees in England. The Germans had been dragging in the greenery for a generation or two before that, perhaps dating back as far as Martin Luther. It wasn't until the 1890s that the fad caught on in the U.S. and not until the 1920s when President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree on the White House lawn. Today, Christmas trees can be found in virtually every non-Muslim country in the world (above, left). Jews calls it the Hanukah tree, decorating it with tiny menorahs and six-pointed stars.

The painting, Christmas at Rockefeller Center, at the top of the above image is by Robert Finale.
Today, virtually every city, village, and hamlet in the Christian world has its own community Christmas tree. The White House tree is still a big deal in our nation's capital, though it is challenged for superiority with a similar one on the capitol terrace overlooking the national mall. However as prominent as these lighted works of the tree trimmer's art might be, the real National Christmas tree is not in Washington but the holiday centerpiece of New York's Rockefeller Center (above). Politicians, celebrities, atheists, the homeless, and the hapless alike all show up or watch as the tree is lit on national television, in a media extravaganza second only to New Year's Eve in Times Square a few weeks later.

Whether artificial or cut, Christmas trees today have attained an unnatural perfection in shape and decoration making them a far cry from those "gracing" living rooms of the 1950s and earlier.
In our home, I tend to be the Christmas decorator. My wife helps put up the tree, but if she had her way the thing would fit on a tabletop (and a small one at that). We tend to alternate each year between to monochromatic color schemes, either gold on a green tree (above, right) or blue and silver decorations on a green tree with all gifts beneath the tree wrapped using foil paper and ribbons to match the color scheme of the tree. My sister has a big, very "fat" artificial tree (above, left) which they decorated with crocheted snowflakes resulting in a green and white color scheme. Many years ago, the first Christmas after my wife and I were married, we spent Christmas eve with my parents. My mother had finally relented to a beautifully shaped artificial tree which she decorated with blue lights and ornaments. Perhaps I was just a bit homesick, but that tree (highly unusual for 1969) still sticks in my mind as one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. One similar can be see below, left.

Whether on a green tree similar to my mother's (above, left) or on one bedecked with white poinsettia (above, right), I'm still quite partial to the cool, wintery shades of blue in decorating the yuletide centerpiece.
Daring to be different.
As happens with virtually all holiday traditions (and not just Christmas, by the way), tastes change both in the way we celebrate holidays and the accouterments in doing so. Today, though stores still sell them, and some people continue to cling to the nostalgia of multi-colored lights (and other tree decorations), I'm just enough of a non-conformist to have long since grown sick of them. I see them as simply too gaudy. With so many different and attractive monochromatic possibilities, a Christmas tree is a terrible thing to waste ones creative ingenuity by resorting to the red, yellow, green, and blue of the past. Yesterday at Walmart, I even saw brown tree ornaments, designed to accent a green and gold color scheme. Black on a white tree is seen as really chic. The key factor in choosing a tree color scheme is to keep it in line with that which already exists in the room as a whole (top). The decorated tree should complement the room, abiding on the thin line between eye-catching and overwhelming domination. The monochromatic examples below were chosen to demonstrate this rule of thumb.

Monochromatic decorative schemes are pleasant and fun,
but one also flirts with the risk of seeming bland as well.
Fortunately, most Christmas trees, even those decorated by those with more daring than taste, usually come out looking quite attractive. The key word in that line is "usually." In the belief that learning from ones own mistakes, and those of others, is as valuable as admiring ones successes, I've also assembled a rat's nest of Christmas tree fails (below) that make Charlie Brown's efforts seem really quite charming. Look and learn.

Oops! The lower left "tree" is made from wine bottles.
It's hard to compete with mother nature in decorating a tree.
The best one can hope for is to help her along a little.


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