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Ghosts of Christmases past

Food for Thought

A little over a year ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend a reenactment of a traditional Amana Christmas at the Heritage Museum in Amana. Since my dad had grown up in a home with a German mother and a Norwegian father, his notions of how Christmas was to be celebrated were quite different from my mother’s childhood experiences– a combination of English, Irish and Spanish, some of whom had been here before the Revolution and absorbed traditions from other cultures as well.
I have a photo taken of an early Christmas tree about the time my dad was a baby. The photo shows his older sister, probably around age four, and a large Christmas tree heavily bedecked with ribbons, dolls, strings of popcorn, photos, small gifts, handmade paper ornaments, and real candles that had been lit for the taking of the photo, even though the room was filled with bright daylight. On a nearby table, a set of tiny dollhouse furniture is visible. This may have been a gift to the girl, my Aunt Agnes, or simply a family keepsake that would have been traditionally displayed at Christmas time. My dad was born in 1904, so the photo is well over a century old and was no doubt taken by his father, who happened to be a photographer, among other things. I never knew him, unfortunately, since he died while my dad was still a teenager, long before he and Mother were married. That grandfather was also a craftsman who made violins, and I suspect he may have made the dollhouse furniture, too.
The Amana Christmas reenactment explained the tradition of the Christmas trees, most of which were not actual trees at all, but poles with holes drilled at intervals and plugged with boughs trimmed from larger evergreens, thus saving a live tree from being sacrificed for the holiday. The people of Amana, with their conservative ways, would think cutting a live tree to be a terrible waste, so they made an imitation tree which, I marveled, is very close in concept and design to the realistic artificial trees so many of us prefer today. Living in northern Wisconsin where my father grew up, his parents probably thought there were far too many trees in the vicinity anyway and cutting one for Christmas was probably a step toward clearing a plot for a garden. That assumption is based on my careful scrutiny of the photograph and any memories of childhood Christmases my dad told us about. The tree in the photo appears to be the real thing.
Getting a real Christmas tree was high on Dad’s list of important Christmas preparations each year. My earliest memories are of him bringing home the tree on Christmas Eve, fixing it in its metal stand and setting it up in the living room. Mother would have the box of ornaments handy and she was in charge of which ones went on the tree first and who had the honor of placing them. It seems those early trees– all of them– were rather sparsely-limbed Douglas firs, and the first thing to be done was to drape several lengths of green paper garlands across the branches to fill in some of the bare spaces and provide places on which to hang some of the ornaments. Next came the lights. This was one string of eight, large, colored bulbs; the kind where, if one bulb burned out, none of them would work. This often required a lot of changing bulbs and plugging in and unplugging the string of lights in order to find the one that had burned out. Heaven help us if more than one bulb went bad.
Once the lights were working and in place, Mother would hand out the silvered ornaments for us girls to hang on the tree. The plain, round ornaments went first, then the fancier ones with faceted indentations, those with oblong shapes, and finally the fragile glass birds with fiberglass tails that trembled and shimmered with the slightest movement. These birds fastened with clips to the branches and we each had our favorite. We each claimed one side of the tree for our own, planning to hang our stocking and find our gifts under the tree below the spot where we had placed our bird. If Dad wasn’t handy for placing the glass onion-dome finial on the very top of the tree, our oldest sister was allowed to climb onto a chair and take care of that important item, often with much advice and criticism from the rest of us. The very last chore was to hang the lead foil icicles on the tips of the branches, one by one, where they dangled seductively, their crimped surfaces reflecting tiny winks of colored light from the tree lights. We’d turn out the lamps in the room and gaze at our magical tree for hours, dreaming of Christmas morning.
In later years, I was dismayed to learn that other people put up their Christmas trees shortly after Thanksgiving and looked at them for weeks. Our tree was always on display for one magical week only. Its dismantling took place on New Year’s Day, with all the ornaments lovingly packed away for another year, and the vacuum sweeper brought out to sweep up all those pesky needles.