Many of our holiday traditions come from some bizarre, seemingly unrelated, origins. For example, what does a bunny rabbit have to do with the celebration of Easter? There are several stories, relating to ancient cultures believing that the rabbit was a symbol of death and resurrection. In Germany, there was a fertility goddess named Eostera and some believe her name is the origin of the word Easter.
Others suppose that the rapidity with which rabbits reproduce is another association with rebirth and a celebration of life. Still, there is another camp who believes the holiday is based on the Norse word, Ostern, which translates to spring.
All of these concepts loosely tie together to form our current ballyhoo of a holiday, called Easter, which is celebrated by tens of thousands with baskets of candies, egg hunts, banners, sculptures of bunny rabbits on the lawn and parades where ladies show off their highly decorated hats, and children dash about in new spring clothes. It is bright, and fun, and colorful and much too easy to forget that Christians associate the death then resurrection of Jesus Christ with this annual extravaganza.
Valentine's Day is celebrated with lots of cards adorned with that ubiquitous heart shape being traded between people who care for each other, however, no one has any idea where this practice or that heart shape came from. It remains a mystery. I do love a good mystery. Trying to figure out the origin of that fun “heart shape” could be a mini-series.
When it comes to huge displays for celebrating a holiday, nothing can hold a candle to Christmas. The Griswolds in the Chevy Chase movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation put up such a dazzling display of lights that neighbors were blinded and whole sections of the town lost power.
Right around Thanksgiving, usually just a day or two after that holiday, the lights and ornaments start to go up. This isn't just relegated to the United States. You will see these same massive displays in Canada, Great Britain, France, Spain, Mexico and on and on. Essentially, anywhere on the planet where Christianity is observed, you will find the sparkling lights and efforts between neighbors to, in mostly a friendly way, out-do each other.
Originally, the lights were real candles that were placed on the tree. Why a tree? We can thank the pagans for that who would decorate their homes, thousands of years ago, with boughs from evergreen trees to remind them that spring was on its way. The boughs were soon replaced with entire trees that were decorated and brought into the home.
As the use of trees progressed decorations were added like nuts, cookies, apples and popcorn that was dyed all kinds of bright, festive colors. German settlers in American brought the tradition of the Christmas tree with them. It was not accepted by most Americans, because of the pagan origins. Queen Victoria helped to finally push the tradition of having a decorated tree into complete acceptance because of the influence of her husband, Prince Albert, who was a German.
What many are not aware of, is that, these early trees were usually hung upside down. In the 12th Century, throughout Eastern Europe, this strange tradition was meant to connect the decorated tree more with the actual purpose of celebrating at Christmas. The birth of Christ is the center of the holiday and supposedly an English Benedictine monk named Boniface started that upside down tree one, claiming that, the shape created more closely resembled the silhouette of Christ on the cross.
So, along with the twinkling electric lights on our trees, when did those seemingly endless strings of them start appearing on our houses and outdoor trees?
Thank you Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb. He and his cohorts put a strand of lights together and hung them outside on their labs in Menlo Park, New Jersey at Christmas time. People travelling by on the train would see the festive display, which unfortunately, did not catch on for nearly 40 more years. Too many folks were still afraid of electricity. I get that. It scares me too.
A friend of Edison, Edward Johnson, hand wired red, white and blue bulbs together in 1882, wrapped them around a tree which he had also placed on a revolving pedestal. Christmas that year at the Johnson household must have been fun! I would have loved to have seen that.
Finally, again, another country leader, in this case Calvin Coolidge, got everyone on the decorating bandwagon with electric lights. The first decorated tree at the White House, using electric lights, was turned on December 4th, 1923. This was actually the brainstorm of the assistant to the Secretary of Commerce, to help increase the use of electricity in the United States.
I think it worked.
Each of us, I am sure, carries memories of some amazing lighting show or decorations you have seen, maybe at home, or your grandparents, or the mall, or a theme park. Neighborhoods throughout the land have folks who love to decorate and I can recall several winters when I would drive with family or friends to look at those amazing light shows.
Some of my favorites were seeing all of the boats down in Key Largo and Fort Lauderdale decorated with lights, glowing flamingos and colorful flags. An enormous 60 foot pine tree growing in my parent’s yard in Ohio, that required a huge cherry picker to decorate, was so cool to see turned on every year. People used to stop out on the street to photograph it.
I hope this article sparks some wonderful memories for you (see what I did there?). Over many decades I have been able to see some very creative, and sometimes really tacky displays, but the same always applies for me - someone was so into the holiday and decorating that they put all of that out there for us to see, and enjoy...or not. Either way, it is always fun, even the Griswolds.
I have to say though, from all of the lights I have seen, from Rockefeller Center to a tiny adobe house out in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico covered in turquoise lights, my favorite was in Manhattan. For years, in the fall/early winter, I would spend time there to see the latest Broadway shows and hang out in the big city. I was walking back to our apartment one night, down a side street, and passed by a small apartment building.
On the second floor was a small apartment with a tiny metal balcony off of the back. It overlooked a crowded little alley and the street I was walking along. It was about 10PM and the Christmas lights were on all over the place to warm the dark. The people who lived in that little apartment had decorated as well.
That balcony though, since it was so close to the ground and a nearby wall, was covered thickly in deadly razor wire. What made it so festive though, was that, Christmas lights were threaded artfully through the lethal barrier.
I stood there, on that back street in Manhattan for some time, enjoying this bit of festive glow in the dark. Down the street I could see 5th Avenue, shining so brightly like a herald from the gods, with its custom displays and thousands of lights, but, that little balcony, with its sweet show threaded between the razor wire to keep the occupants safe, spoke volumes to me.
Happy Holidays to one and all! I hope you have the best season ever and find your own, special way, to celebrate it.