2021 Skelly Family Christmas
Christmas Symbology in America: Very Brief Histories

Christmas trees were introduced to this country by Hessian soldiers, fighting for the other side, during the Revolutionary War. Most early accounts of the tradition in the United States centered around German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania.

Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the U.S. since about 1850. But in fact, evergreen trees were used to celebrate the winter season and the cyclical character of life since well before the birth of Christ. In the seventh century St. Boniface put a Christian face on the tradition, using its triangular shape to teach pagans the concept of the Holy Trinity.

Rock Cen tree 2020 naked jehJim.henderson via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas lights obviously had to await the invention of electricity; however, not very much longer than that. An assistant to Thomas Edison by the name of Edward Johnson came up with electric lights for Christmas trees in 1882. Mass production began in 1890. Edison invented the light bulb in 1879.

Before that, it was common practice to light up your Christmas tree with burning candles, an ill-conceived idea in retrospect and one with predictable results. In an ironic parallel to the reception of COVID vaccines today, many people expressed initial mistrust of electricity, and it took several years for electric tree lights to catch on.

A sizable subset of people persisted in preferring the tried and true and dangerous. Although if you and your insurance company can deal with the risk, a Christmas tree festooned with softly glowing burning candles does give a room a very fetching glow. Just keep a good-sized bucket of water handy. And a back-up tree. (In fairness, electrified trees sometimes catch fire as well.)

It is said President Grover Cleveland spurred the acceptance of indoor electric Christmas lights when he requested, in 1895, that the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated with multi-colored electric light bulbs.

San Diego in 1904, Appleton, WI, in 1909, and New York City in 1912 were the first cities to decorate with Christmas lights outside. According to a study by Unity Marketing of Stevens, PA, spending on new holiday decorations reached $15.8 billion in 2005. About half of that was for Christmas.

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the country’s celebration of Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights on the Ellipse south of the White House.

Before they became associated with Christmas, wreaths were worn as crowns by Etruscan rulers during the Iron Age. It was a prominent emblem of power and victory in ancient Greece and Rome. Roman magistrates wore golden wreaths as crowns, in a symbolic testimony to their lineage back to Rome's early Etruscan rulers.

Roman women wore them as headdresses during special occasions such as weddings. The victors of sporting events in ancient Greece were given laurel wreaths, tradition that endures to this day at our modern Olympic games where medals are engraved with sprigs of laurel.

St Patricks at ChristmasJames G. Howes, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons
St. Patrick's Cathederal, Manhatten

In the early Christian era wreaths became part of the observance of the Advent season, in preparation for Christmastide and Epiphanytide. (For those not paying full attention in Sunday school, "Epiphanytide" marks the Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, when Jesus was revealed to the Gentiles, signifying that he was the savior of all mankind.)

The literal meaning of the word is "revelation." Hence the origin of the title of Shakespeare's play. If that makes no sense to you, get a list of the Bard's plays and figure it out for yourself. It should be easy enough unless you weren't paying full attention to this paragraph either.

Christmas wreaths are generally constructed of evergreens to represent everlasting life brought through Jesus, and the circular shape of the wreath represents God, with no beginning and no end.

To many people today, a holiday wreath has little or no religious significance and is simply decorative. People adorn them with pine cones, fabric, pins, Christmas tree ornaments, buttons, jewels, shells, even nuts and fruit. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that wreaths (and Christmas trees, too) are indeed "secular" symbols and their display neither advances nor transgresses individual religious (or non-religious) beliefs but can be seen as merely an expression of seasonal cheer.

Many scholars believe wreaths originally served as Christmas tree ornaments themselves, not as standalone decorations. Their circular shape would have made them easy to hang on the tree. The tradition of displaying wreaths was adopted by the masses beginning in the 19th century. And it is believed that the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert of Germany opened the door for adopting in England (and America) Christmas traditions from other regions.

The idea of decorating a tree with Christmas ornaments began in Germany, where they used to add fruits and nuts to the trees once the leaves started to fall off. (Clearly, if there had been no Germans there would be no Christmas as we know it today.)

People would make ornaments from whatever they had available. Fruits and nuts, yes, but also strings of popcorn, cranberries, paper streamers, candles and metal foil. Before the invention of Christmas lights, pieces of foil and other reflective materials were often added to catch the light in the room and make the tree gleam.

A German (of course) named Hans Greiner started making glass ball ornaments (called baubles) in the 1800s, and these became the first manufactured Christmas ornaments. In the late 19th century, F.W. Woolworth brought the idea to America, where he sold more than $25 million worth per year.

The candy cane originated around 1670, another German contribution. Supposedly they were developed to help children sit still during Christmas services. They were shaped like an upside-down “J” to represent the crooks of the shepherds that visited the Christ child on that first Christmas.

According to Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data, this year American consumers plan to spend $63 on average on decorations for the holiday season, up almost $10 from 2015, when they spent around $54.

The Christmas season is typically the largest economic stimulus for many nations around the world; sales increase dramatically in almost all retail areas. In 2020, 85% of people in the U.S. said they planned to celebrate Christmas. Despite concerns consumers had over the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, total holiday retail sales were projected to reach about $750 billion.

For 2021, holiday retail sales are expected to grow by approximately 8.5%, (to $843.4 billion) over last year.

Strings of streetlights, even stop lights blink a bright red and green
As the shoppers rush home with their treasures
Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch, this is Santa's big scene
And above all this bustle, you'll hear
Silver bells, silver bells
It's Christmas time in the city
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring
Soon it will be Christmas day
Silver Bells, 1951. by Jay Livingston / Ray Evans

Better get a move on.

2020 Index:
Dec. 10 -2.86   Dec. 15 - 3.09   Dec. 20 - 3.22   Dec. 25 - 3.33

2021 Index:
Dec. 10 - 3.18  Dec. 15 - 3.63   Dec. 20 - 3.64   Right now - 3.77
Season Stats to Date ...

Current Christmas Spirit breakdown:
25%
15%
14%
20%
12%
7%
4%

12/10/21:
A little slower a start than expected, but recovering nicely. One gets the sense you people might be ready to party this year. A word to the wise: after a couple of drinks you might be able to talk a little smack about religion this year, but for the love of God, stay away from politics.

12/15/21:
We built up a good head of steam over the last five days, but seem to be letting off a little of it today. Index actually dropped slightly, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Still a good number on an historical basis. Next year we're going to sell options on this thing.

12/20/21:
This year's Christmas Spirit Index appears to be topping out around 3.60. A fairly good top. Certainly better than last year, even though it's slipping some since Dec. 20. Could be COVID jitters. The top score ("Joy to the World") in past good years was often closer to 50% of total votes than its current 25%. But top-three scores combined are over 50%, which is respectable. Also, bottom two scores combined are less than 15%, a positive sign. Let's see what Christmas Day brings, beyond that is, presents under the tree.

12/25/21:
Leo Tolstoy wrote, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Anna Karenina, 1878.) Let it also be said of this year's Christmas Spirit index. COVID and Humbug stayed basically flat, dropping just fractionally, while Blue Christmas sentiment increased. Others stayed basically flat. But the bells are still ringing joyously in Joy to the Worldville, which pushed the overall index just over the 3.75 mark. It's still good to be the king.

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