Friday, December 20, 2019

Christmas Trees I Have Known

Der Christbaum ist der schönste Baum         The Christmas tree is the most beautiful tree
Den wir auf Erden kennen                             That we know on earth.
                                                                                      --Johannes Carl, 1842 

Christmas trees have always been a central part of my family's holiday celebrations. My earliest memories of Christmas morning are of tiptoeing down the cold stairwell (my dad hadn't yet gotten up to stoke the coal-burning furnace) and peeking around the corner into the living room. At the far end in the faint light of dawn was the tree and under it were two or three unwrapped presents brought by Santa. So magical!
Centuries ago, pagans in northern Europe brought evergreen trees inside their homes around the winter solstice. The arrival of winter brings with it a monochromatic landscape, and who doesn't need a bit of color during these dark, cold months?
A "Wilder Mann" pagan tree costume (Photo by Charles Fréger)

The celebration of Jesus's birth around the time of the winter solstice is, as are so many feast days in the church calendar, an assimilation of an already-existing tradition. Shepherds are out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night during the spring lambing season, not in December. And we all know that taxes are due in April.

We have the Germans in the 16th century to thank for making the evergreen tree into the modern Christmas tree.  Hungarian-Austrian composer Franz Liszt called his suite of 12 short pieces, some based on Christmas carols, Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree). The symbolism of the evergreen tree in the context of the Christian Nativity makes perfect sense: light in darkness, life in death.
The choir of First Baptist Church, Edmond, OK, arranged as a Christmas tree

The traditional German Christmas tree is the Tannenbaum, the fragrant fir. My mother insisted that the fir is the only "real" Christmas tree. Sometimes she and I tested my father's patience in our quest for the perfect tree--which definitely wasn't a pine. One particularly grueling search I remember was through the tree lot set up in the Second Ward Schoolyard in Homestead, one block over from the Katilius store. It seemed it took many hours to select a tree as we stamped around with frozen feet in the snowy brick yard, examining one after the other. Eventually we settled on one, but I can't remember a thing about it, except that it was a fir, and perfect.

Opening presents with Mum, 1949. The tree is, of course, an old-fashioned fir.
When I was older, my dad bought an electric train set, a crazy one made of metal cars with a locomotive that had a red light. Around the base of the tree the train went as I manually switched it to take the one alternate track, then back to the main track. [When I cleaned out the Minneapolis house, I was delighted to find a little girl who had asked for a train for Christmas. Her parents got my old train and set it up under the tree to surprise her Christmas morning. And it still worked.]
Our cocker spaniel Watson is disappointed that there's no train to chase under the tree (1980s).

One year disaster struck when my cocker spaniel Buffy arrived on the scene and pounced on the train as it circled the tree. Crash, down came the tree, breaking a number of ornaments. One of these was "Happy Hooligan", an Edwardian cartoon character that Dad was particularly fond of. My dad had saved several ornaments from his childhood pre-World War I, and after the second tree felling, all but one of these had been broken. The lone survivor was the Liberty Bell, which hangs on my tree today.
Liberty Bell ornament, center, c. 1910. To its left is a drum I made at school from milk bottle caps.
The Busch family church, St. John's (now merged with St. Mark's) Lutheran in Homestead carried on the German tradition of placing undecorated evergreen trees around a large creche to the left of the altar. For the midnight service on Christmas Eve, the sanctuary was lighted by candles placed on tall sticks at the end of the pews--a lovely vision of light shining in darkness.
The Nativity window in St. Mark-John's, made in Germany, c. 1915

My grandfather, George W. Busch, told this Christmas story of his youth in East Liberty, Pittsburgh.  His parents, German immigrants, had a tight holiday budget for their nine children. My grandfather, the oldest, recalled his father making a Christmas tree by drilling holes in a broomstick, then placing sticks in them. (This is part of a scene in Darkness Visible.) The parents hung goodies on the tree, but these didn't last very long. As my dad told the story, by 5:30 a.m. the seven Busch boys had decimated everything edible on the "tree" and left the parlor in shambles.

Another of my Grandfather Busch's trees, was the one in the Machine Shop in the US Steel Homestead Works. This photo shows my grandfather admiring the big, tinsel-laden tree the year before he retired as shop superintendent, 1938.
Getting a tree has always been a Big Deal for me. I can't remember a Christmas without one. In her later years my mother, perhaps having burned out on the quests for the perfect tree, would get a huge poinsettia as a substitute. This is not good enough for me.
Excitement selecting a tree at the Minneapolis Farmers Market with my son-on-law Richard, 2009.
A Mid-Mod Christmas Eve by the tree in Munhall, PA, 1960.
When I lived in Duluth in 1969, before Christmas I went showshoeing with friends out in the woods north of the city. One guy's hippie girlfriend brought cranberries, bits of orange, and popcorn strung together "for the little people who live in the swamp." She painstakingly hung the treats on a swamp spruce while we watched, bemused. As we showshoed away, we looked back and saw Trinket, the golden retriever, jumping up and gobbling down the food, string and all. In about a minute, the entire tree was stripped.

As I did years before in Pittsburgh, in Minneapolis my kids also would come down the cold staircase in the foyer to see what Santa left under the tree on Christmas morning.
Daughters by the tree in the front parlor, Christmas 1981
Under a tall, skinny tree in the front parlor with dogs Watson and Minnie, late 1980s.

Our Minneapolis house, built in 1885, had high ceilings, but scant floor space. I always tried to find a tall, skinny tree, but rarely succeeded. In 2013, overwhelmed with nostalgia (for something I never did), I decided take my border collies, Kip and Viggo, and pull my old sled over to the local hardware store and bring a tree back to the house. I selected a 9-foot Fraser fir and tied it to the sled. What I hadn't anticipated, however, was the reaction of my dogs to having this scary green thing following us on the way back. Kip, completely freaked out, kept trying to bolt into the street. The tree fell off the sled three times in the three blocks to the house. But eventually we made it to the house, and the tree was set up between the parlors.
Viggo eyeing the tree suspiciously in the back yard.
The tree, set up and decorated.
This year my daughter Ceridwen and her family and I went to a local Duluth tree farm to get a freshly-cut tree.  After circling the farmyard three times, I chose a spruce that looked small enough to fit into my house.  The Duluth house, like the Minneapolis one, has lots of overhead clearance, but not much floor space in the living area.  It came as a disappointment--but no surprise--to find that the tree was much larger than it appeared at the farm. So it's squeezed between the patio doors and the dining table, crowding out one space at the table. Perhaps we'll just have to set a place for the tree on Christmas Eve. Or not.
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

                                            O Christmas tree, you please me very much! 

Wreaths, angels, stars, bells, holly, gifts, lights and candles, deer--all of these are beautiful Christmas symbols. But for me the evergreen Christmas tree, with its fragrance, lights, and colorful decorations, is best of all.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!  

The Vienna Boys' Choir sing "O Tannenbaum"
German Santa with tree, early 20th century (Image, Brian L. Bossier Collection)




  1. Thank you for always giving us a "living" history of your experiences of growing up! This was a great story..Thanks again!

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