Gathering Dusk and A Christmas Tree

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Light fades slowly from the winter sky, blushing, as the sun eases below the horizon.

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Late afternoon found us at Colonial Williamsburg on Christmas day.  I wanted to photograph the huge Christmas tree, ablaze with lights, that we had found the evening before.

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We were out on Christmas Eve enjoying the lights in our part of town, when we spotted a blazing tree, covered in white lights, visible from Francis Street.

And I vowed to return, camera in hand, to photograph it in all its brilliance at dusk.

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And so I lingered nearby, watching colors shift in the evening sky as lights popped on against the gathering dusk.  But the Christmas tree remained unlit.

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My partner parked and eventually joined me.  And we waited together as the minutes crept past.

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We watched a silent flock of geese glide overhead.

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Clouds glowed bright, illuminated by a sun no longer visible from where we stood, moving ever further beyond the horizon.

But the Christmas tree remained dark, melting into the shadows of the coming night.

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We began walking towards our car, shivering now in the evening chill.  Slowly, hoping for a flash of sudden brightness to draw us back, we covered the blocks of the old town still filled with visitors and costumed staff.

But the only lights greeting us flickered in windows and on lamp posts.

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And though a little disappointed to have missed the photo I hoped to take, we were glad to be a part of the community in this place and on this special night.

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It was the following evening when we found the tree lit again in all its glowing glory.  We had been away all day, and drove to the tree on our way home.  It was already long past dusk when we arrived, but the Christmas tree was lit, and I hopped out while my partner circled the block.

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One feels the weight of years and lives here most at night.  Shades of those long gone from daylight still linger in the shadows near these historic places.

The elder trees, still growing, hold memories, too; as they stretch their protective branches over the land.

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But the blazing Christmas tree drew me ever closer, and I set off alone across the field.   Others were gathering around it too, basking in the warmth and comfort of its lights.

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In this season we celebrate the power of the light.  We reaffirm our deep belief in the powers of goodness and love to push back against the gathering and ever-present darkness of our  world.

We know there is an ever shifting balance between darkness and light; greed and generosity; kindness and anger;  love and ambivalence.

And all of these forces live and shift within each one of us; none of us is beyond their power.

But it is always ours to choose; to seek the light, even when we must walk through the darkness to find it.   And as we journey ever closer to the light, we find good company sharing the walk with us; so that we are never left alone in the darkness.

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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“It is neither wealth nor splendor,

but tranquility and occupation which give happiness.”
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Thomas Jefferson

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Sunday Dinner: Merry Christmas !

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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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“Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind.

To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy,

is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”

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Calvin Coolidge

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“Are you willing to stoop down and consider

the needs and desires of little children;

to remember the weaknesses and loneliness

of people who are growing old;

to stop asking how much your friends love you,

and to ask yourself if you love them enough;

to bear in mind the things that other people

have to bear on their hearts;

to trim your lamp so that it will give more light

and less smoke, and to carry it in front

so that your shadow will fall behind you;

to make a grave for your ugly thoughts

and a garden for your kindly feelings,

with the gate open?

Are you willing to do these things for a day?

Then you are ready to keep Christmas!”

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Henry Van Dyke

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“Christmas, my child, is love in action.”

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Dale Evans Rogers

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“Learn to light a candle

in the darkest moments of someone’s life.

Be the light that helps others see;

it is what gives life its deepest significance.”

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Roy T. Bennett

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“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell,

but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them.

Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer

hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old,

the bell still rings for me,

as it does for all who truly believe.”

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Chris Van Allsburg

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“The Warrior of the Light is a believer.

Because he believes in miracles,

miracles begin to happen.

Because he is sure that his thoughts

can change his life, his life begins to change.

Because he is certain that he will find love,

love appears.”

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Paulo Coelho

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“I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit

in jars and open a jar of it every month.”

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Harlan Miller

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2016

at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

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Apples, Pine Cones and Artichokes: Ornamenting the Wreath

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What is beautiful?  What is not?

Our answer is often a Rorschach test of our own personality.

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Wreathes, a most ancient symbol of eternity and eternal life, come to us from deep antiquity.

We find traces of them in the earliest evidence of civilization we can find.  Whether made from precious metals and ornamented with gemstones, carved in stone, or woven from olive branches; wreathes remain symbols of celebration and commemoration.

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Wreathes woven from evergreen branches mark the winter solstice holidays.  They symbolically promise that despite the ever shortening days and cold weather, life goes on and the sun will soon return.  And we decorate these evergreen wreathes with the seeds of new life.

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Fruits, cones, berries, cotton puffs, nuts and seed pods, our favorite ornaments for our wreathes, all bear seeds inside them.  They contain the promise of next season’s fertility.

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The early Virginia colonists likely brought branches of evergreen trees into their homes to mark the  Christmas holiday.  But the certainly didn’t construct the beautiful fruit laden wreathes we admire around ‘Colonial Williamsburg’ today.

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To quote Theobald and Oliver, writing on the official Colonial Williamsburg website in an article called, ‘Deck the Doors,’  :

“Never mind that no one in the eighteenth century would have been caught dead with real fruit tacked to his front door.  Anyone hanging fresh fruit outdoors in the middle of winter to rot or be devoured by squirrels would have been thought, at best, highly eccentric by his neighbors. “

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The unique handmade wreathes, swags. sprays and baskets, constructed of only natural materials and lacking ribbons and bows, were first created in the late 1930’s; after the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation opened up for business and wanted to attract a crowd in all seasons.

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They were greatly admired and photographed.  Soon a contest for the most beautiful wreathes in this style evolved, and the ‘Della robbia’ or ‘fruit covered’ wreath style of Colonial Williamsburg was launched.

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In some ways it makes sense that these beautiful wreathes, constructed of ‘found’ materials, caught on at the end of the Great Depression years in America.  Wreathes in this style may be constructed very inexpensively with whatever may be at hand.

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They are also a reaction, at least in part, against the commercialization of Christmas.  They feed our romantic notion of what life could have been like ‘back in the day’ before silver tinsel trees and Christmas ornaments imported from Asian factories became the norm.

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But the truth is, even though wealthy residents of 18th century Williamsburg might have eaten pineapples and citrus fruits imported from the Caribbean colonies, they didn’t fashion outdoor decorations from them.

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And the Colonial Williamsburg wreathes today ask us to broaden our thinking about what is appropriate as a Christmas decoration.  Dried okra pods?  Skeins of yarn?  Artichokes?  Why not?

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Beauty often transcends the materials and shines through the design, the geometry, the harmony, and the  colors used.

The making of these wreathes is a 20th Century phenomenon; not an 18th Century fashion.  But they blend so beautifully into this reconstruction and reinterpretation of a Colonial Virginia town.

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If you find them beautiful, please try your hand at making a della Robbia wreath of your own.  Begin with a wire, straw or grapevine base.  Gather some evergreen branches or Magnolia leaves.  Bay leaves and citrus leaves work well, too, if you have them.

Then gather things you find beautiful and meaningful:  fruit, cones, shells, pods, dried flowers, vegetables, nuts and berries.  Use wire, hot glue and floral picks to build your design.

You might even make an ‘edible’ wreath of fruits to serve at a party.

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The trick is to express yourself and create a wreath which has meaning for you.  Create something beautiful to ornament your own home at the holidays.

The materials don’t matter, so long as they bring you joy.

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Can you see the face? All of the ornaments on this house follow a 'Star Wars' theme.....

Can you see the face? All of the ornaments on this house follow a ‘Star Wars’ theme…..

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All photos were taken in Colonial Williamsburg this December

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'Light Sabers...."

‘Light Sabers….”

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Woodland Gnome 2015

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“A Forest Garden 2016” gardening calendar,  featuring some of our favorite photos from 2015, is  available now.  Write to me at woodlandgnome@zoho.com for details.

Is It Christmas Without A Tree?

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We are chin deep in preparations for Christmas today.

The morning was devoted to writing cards and wrapping gifts. We have brought our cut tree inside, and the last hour was devoted to getting last year’s lights working. We will enjoy unpacking the ornaments and hanging them this evening.

In the meantime, you might enjoy a little post I wrote this time last year about Christmas trees. Like so much of the holiday traditions, it is hard to imagine a time when families didn’t decorate a Christmas tree each December. But Christmas trees are a fairly modern innovation in the Yuletide celebrations.

And I’m so glad Christmas trees gained acceptance in the United States, because I’ve always loved having a tree full of lights and color at Christmas! It took only a few minutes for the fresh, crisp aroma of our tree to fill the house.

This is the wonderful smell of Christmas we enjoy so much.

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Forest Garden

Our community Christmas treeOur community Christmas tree

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My dad used to always know someone with some property in the country where we could cut a tree for Christmas.  It was a much anticipated family outing in the week before Christmas.  He brought his old hand saw and some rope.  We would walk together around the fields, considering one cedar tree and then another, until we found the perfect Christmas tree for the year.

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Cedar trees growing along the bank of College Creek in Williamsburg.Cedar trees growing along the bank of College Creek in Williamsburg.

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It needed to be taller than Dad, but not too tall.  We looked for one that was full and fat and without obvious holes or defects.  Once we had all agreed on the best tree, Dad cut it, and we helped carry it to the family car, where it was carefully tied on top.  Once home, Dad brought it into the living room and set it…

View original post 2,169 more words

Is It Christmas Without A Tree?

Our community Christmas tree

Our community Christmas tree

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My dad used to always know someone with some property in the country where we could cut a tree for Christmas.  It was a much anticipated family outing in the week before Christmas.  He brought his old hand saw and some rope.  We would walk together around the fields, considering one cedar tree and then another, until we found the perfect Christmas tree for the year.

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Cedar trees growing along the bank of College Creek in Williamsburg.

Cedar trees growing along the bank of College Creek in Williamsburg.

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It needed to be taller than Dad, but not too tall.  We looked for one that was full and fat and without obvious holes or defects.  Once we had all agreed on the best tree, Dad cut it, and we helped carry it to the family car, where it was carefully tied on top.  Once home, Dad brought it into the living room and set it into the tree stand with fresh water.

We never paid for a Christmas tree.  It was all transacted with a friendly conversation and handshake.  And we were always thrilled to have it.  The house finally “smelled like Christmas” after we brought home the tree.  Cedars are a common tree in Virginia and crop up as volunteers in fields and along the edges of the woods.  We put up a cedar tree each Christmas until I was grown and away from home.

I’ve always considered the process of finding and bringing home the tree part of the fun of the season.  Whether the tree was found in a friend’s field, outside of the Food Lion, from a charity Christmas tree lot, or from our friends’ garden center; I’ve always loved bringing home and decorating the annual Christmas tree.

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My parents' tree in 2011

My parents’ tree in 2011

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I can remember lying on the floor looking up through the tree at all of the lights and ornaments.  The same old ornaments took on fresh glamour hanging among the tiny colored lights.  When I was a child, my mother constructed little villages beneath the tree with ponds, skaters, trains, and houses.  We would play under the tree in the evenings, enjoying its glow and fragrance.  But the presents never appeared until Christmas morning.

In my father’s childhood the Christmas tree was part of the Christmas morning surprise.  It appeared after he and his brothers had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, and was seen for the first time on Christmas morning lit and skirted with gifts from Santa.

Now, many families bring out their Christmas trees on Thanksgiving weekend.  Carting the artificial tree out of storage goes along with leftover turkey, and it’s certainly up and decorated before the children return to school on the first Monday of December.  Families enjoy the tree for the entire month, and then pack it away again before the New Year.

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The tree is an integral part of our Christmas celebrations.  Whether living or fresh cut; plastic, metal, or tinsel; large or small; our Christmas tree is the center of our Christmas decorations.  Gifts are somehow “blessed” by being laid beneath the tree.  We cover the tree in lights and adorn it with ornaments which have meaning and relevance to our lives.

The first Christmas tree in Williamsburg was lit in 1842.  A William and Mary classics professor, Charles Minnigerode, newly emigrated from Germany, put up the tree for the children of his colleague, Nathaniel Tucker, at the St. George Tucker House, where he was boarding.  The tree was trimmed with candles, cut paper ornaments, and gilded nuts. Other Williamsburg families adopted the custom the following year, and there have been Christmas trees in Williamsburg every since.

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A variety or ornaments decorate this tree, including origami, blown glass balls, bows, and lights.

A variety or ornaments decorate this tree, including origami, blown glass balls, bows, and lights.

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The Christmas tree became popular in England after one was decorated at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria by her husband, Albert, in 1841.  Albert brought the custom with him from his native Germany where trees were trimmed with candles to look like stars in the starry sky.  Ornaments included sweets tied onto the tree with ribbons.  The royal family, of German descent, had enjoyed small Christmas trees in the palace as early as 1800 hung with sweets for the children at royal parities, but the practice became popular throughout England after an illustration of Victorian and Albert with their children around a Christmas tree was published in a London paper.  A similar illustration ran in an American paper the following year, and the custom soon spread throughout the country.

German families had been cutting small evergreen fir trees and bringing them indoors to decorate with candles and sweets since at least the 16th century. Wax and gingerbread ornaments were sold at Christmas markets as souvenirs, and the first tinsel, made from real silver, had been produced in 1610.  Each member of the family often had their own tabletop tree, decorated with their own ornaments, where their presents were placed.  Most ornaments were home made from paper, fruit, nuts, candy, or baked goods.  Paper flowers in red or white were used to make the tree resemble the “tree of paradise” from the garden of Eden, and ornaments were symbols of plenty.

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This hand made ornament uses a real oyster shell and cultured pearl, hung with a ribbon.

This hand made ornament uses a real oyster shell and cultured pearl, hung with a ribbon.

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In the 15th century there are records of trees decorated with sweets and small gifts erected in guild halls in northern Germany.  Apprentices and children of guild members collected gifts from the tree on Christmas Day.  Community trees were also sometimes erected out of doors in the market.  Young people often danced around the trees.

Colonists in Virginia, like many families in England, used evergreen branches to decorate for Christmas. The first Christmas trees appeared after 1842.

Colonists in Virginia, like many families in England, used evergreen branches to decorate for Christmas. The first Christmas trees appeared after 1842.

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There is a long tradition of venerating trees in Europe.  Evergreen trees or branches were brought indoors at the winter solstice as early as the 12th century, and hung upside down from the ceiling.  Their triangular shape was used to explain the Christian trinity.  Branches of evergreen plants have been used indoors during winter to symbolize eternal life since ancient times all over Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia.

The ancient Celtic people venerated trees and associated specific trees with the gods and goddesses of their mythology.  The Druid priests hung golden apples and lit candles on oak trees to celebrate the winter solstice.  Romans decorated evergreen trees with small gifts, and topped the tree with an image of the sun during Saturnalia.  When Christianity spread across Europe veneration of trees continued, and trees were incorporated into the Christian teachings.  Trees grew in popularity in Germany after the Protestant Reformation.

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A star on top of the Christmas tree has its roots in ancient custom.

A star on top of the Christmas tree has its roots in ancient custom.

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Christmas trees became popular throughout Europe and North America during the 1840s.  Although there are records of individuals, of German heritage, constructing Christmas trees in North America before that time; the custom didn’t catch on until after the illustration of the Royal family’s tree from Windsor Castle was published.

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Many people use a combination of hand made and purchased ornaments on their tree.

Many of us use a combination of hand made and purchased ornaments on their tree.

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German made glass Christmas ornaments were introduced in England by the 1870’s and Woolworths store made them available in America in the 1880s.  Before this ornaments were made by hand for the family tree.  Electric Christmas lights were patented in America in 1882 and metal hooks for hanging ornaments were patented in 1892.  German glass ornaments remained the “gold standard” of ornaments for many years. After 1918 export issues made it harder to get German ornaments. The United States began producing Christmas ornaments.  After World War II Japan, and then China, began producing Christmas ornaments for the United States.  Most of our Christmas decorations are now manufactured in China.

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By the 1890s Americans were bringing larger trees home and the table top tree popular in Europe was replaced by the full sized floor to ceiling trees we enjoy today.  By 1900 “themed” trees became popular and mass produced Christmas ornaments were widely available on the East Coast.  Out west, those who put up Christmas trees were still making many of the decorations by hand.  Tin ornaments grew in popularity.  Some families created Christmas trees by wrapping branches of hardwood trees in cotton batting to resemble snow.

Germany first produced the “goose feather” tree in 1880.  These were made to protect the evergreens trees which were getting butchered each year across Europe to meet the demands for Christmas trees.  These were small table top trees, and caught on in England, especially when Christmas trees became less popular after Queen Victoria’s death.

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Other manufacturers followed with “bottle brush” trees, and the first aluminum tinsel trees appeared in the 1950s. Popularity for artificial trees increased, and by the 1970’s American manufacturers produced the first realistic green plastic artificial trees.  These have improved in quality and appearance ever since.  Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered its first artificial Christmas trees in 1883.

The most popular artificial trees today are already wired with lights and decorated with small cones and berries.  You simply set them up and plug them in.  Some families have a place to store them, assembled and decorated, from January through November. The trees are simply moved into place, plugged in, and the festivities begin again each year.

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The Christmas tree tradition appeared to come full circle when potted living trees grew in popularity in the United States as a part of our environmental movement.  These small, living table top trees live indoors in pots during the Christmas season, and can be planted out in the garden afterwards.  The trick, of course, is to keep them watered and alive indoors until they can be planted out.

A National Christmas tree has been lit each year at the White House since 1923. Other large public trees are decorated each year, including the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which has been decorated and lit each year since 1933.  Some of these have been living trees, transplanted in place to serve as a living Christmas tree used again and again each year.  This has not proven very successful over time as the trees are often damaged during the decorating process, or by the weight and heat of the lights and ornaments.  Many question whether cutting and transporting these huge, majestic old trees for a few weeks of decoration is a good practice or not.

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This hand blown ornament from Washington State's Glass Eye is made with volcanic ash.

This hand blown ornament from Washington State’s Glass Eye is made with volcanic ash.

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Concern for the damage done by cutting Christmas trees each year has been ongoing in Europe since the 19th century.  Although Christmas trees were first offered for sale in the United States after 1850, they were cut from the wild.  Evergreen forests were being decimated, and President Theodore Roosevelt tried to discourage the practice of cutting Christmas trees out of concern for our forests.

The first Christmas tree farms sprung up to meet the demand for trees in 1901, and have been providing trees to American families ever since.  Of the 30 million cut Christmas trees sold each year in the United States, almost all are grown on Christmas tree farms.  The most popular trees grown for the American market include varieties of spruce, fir, pine, and cedar.

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Harvesting trees cut from the wild for Christmas harms the environment, but trees grown on a farm for Christmas actually help in many ways.

Harvesting trees cut from the wild for Christmas harms the environment, but trees grown on a farm for Christmas actually help in many ways.

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Christmas tree farms are important because trees are planted each year to replace those cut.  During their years of growth, trees filter carbon and air pollution from the air, fixing it in their trunk and branches.  They protect the land from erosion, provide habitat for birds, and allow families to earn a living on land too steep and rocky for other types of farming.  After Christmas the trees are still useful when ground up for mulch, burned as firewood, or used to protect beaches or other areas from further erosion.  Most cities will collect and recycle Christmas trees in January.

My parents finally bought an artificial tree some time in the 80’s when a doctor diagnosed my dad’s allergies to evergreens.  We wondered why he was sick so often for Christmas, and we found out he was reacting to our family Christmas tree.  Families who buy artificial trees do so for many different reasons.  I tried an artificial tree a few years, but always missed the fragrance and feel of the real thing.  Our most recent artificial tree, left behind in the garage by the previous owners, sits in the basement draped in lights; ready to plug in should we ever bring it upstairs again.

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Cedar trees left to grow mature into large trees which feed and shelter wildlife.  Their wood is fragrant and valued  for building and for lining closets and trunks.

Cedar trees left to grow mature into large trees which feed and shelter wildlife. Their wood is fragrant and valued for building and for lining closets and trunks.

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Today, as much as we love our Christmas trees, we almost take them for granted.  When they stay up for weeks at a time and are covered with trinkets made in China, they lose some of the wonder and mystery trees had back in the day.  Once upon a time, the tree was the gift; and the Christmas tree was covered in tiny gifts and treats lovingly tied on with ribbons and string.  It was magical, lit for a few moments with living fire, appearing in the dark days leading up to Christmas.

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O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves/needles!
You’re green not only
in the summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows.
O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves/needles!

Ernst Anschütz, 1824

All Photos By Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

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