Boughing to Tradition: Trees Bedecking Local Museums Reflect Myriad Holiday Customs

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 18, 1999 | Go to article overview

Boughing to Tradition: Trees Bedecking Local Museums Reflect Myriad Holiday Customs


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Of all the decorations at Christmas, the evergreen tree must be the most loved - especially by Washington's museums.

Christmas trees, first used in pagan winter solstice celebrations, range from the 4-foot-tall revolving German music tree at the Dolls' House & Toy Museum of Washington to the four towering trees at the Anacostia Museum's Center for African American History and Culture in the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art decorated its grand staircase with six 9-foot -high Douglas firs, three on each side. The curators skirted them with elegant gold lame. Salmon-colored poinsettias accompany the trees up the steps.

Golden angels skim through the boughs while miniature white lights illuminate the trees. Shimmering gold bows and flat metal cutouts complete the decor.

Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert, introduced yule trees to Great Britain in the 1840s, and a classic Victorian Christmas tree decorates the Smithsonian's Castle.

Erecting a tree had been a privilege of the nobility in England since around 1700. Albert, however, persuaded his queen to allow her other subjects to display evergreens in their homes.

The Castle's 18-foot-tall tree is set high and lushly banked with red and white poinsettias, amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus. Some of the pointed balls are of ruby-red velvet decorated with swirls of gold braid.

The Castle has decorated its celebratory tree for the past 20 years, changing the theme of its ornaments each year. Vickie DiBella and Melanie Pyle of the Smithsonian's Office of Horticulture embellished this one with hundreds of Victorian glass ornaments.

The use of small glass bulbs at Christmas dates to 1880, when a German glass blower introduced them, and they quickly became the rage in his country and England. The Castle's pointed balls with gold decorations and ones with white and gold beads contrast with its other Victorian ornaments, such as a diminutive gold trumpet. Red velvet birds, also gold-embossed, spread their wings as if to fly around the tree.

Thousands of tiny, glistening white lights illuminate the Castle tree. They symbolize the stars over Bethlehem that Christmas lights were originally meant to simulate.

At the beginning of the Victorian age, people used candles. Strings of electric lights, first introduced in the 1880s, gradually replaced them.

Not surprisingly, women decorated the 16-foot-high balsam at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, on view through Dec. 29. The museum had put out a call for handmade ornaments the past six years, and thousands were donated.

All are unusual. A group of lace makers in California covered large glass balls with handmade lace. One artist made an angel from silver forks.

Women from 10 states created ornaments this year that included Victorian-style trimmings of cotton batting, balls made from an 1880s American bedspread and decorations of dried pansies.

* * *

Small firs line the perimeter of the ice-skating rink at the National Gallery of Art's new Sculpture Garden. At dusk, the trees glow with miniature lights. Banners made from Hendrick Avercamp's 17th-century painting "A Scene on the Ice" swing from nearby seats.

Skaters who glide to the sounds of Christmas carols enjoy the beauty of the trees, but often are unaware of their use in pre-Christian times.

Historians trace the origin to winter solstice rites by German tribes in the Black Forest. These early peoples revered nature and treasured tree branches and boughs in their homes.

They believed the forests would turn green in spring only if the evergreens were nurtured during the winter. Some of these early Germans even practiced tree worship with elaborate ceremonies around the firs.

These pagan trees were ready-made for Christian symbolism. They were always green, representing eternal life, and their triangular shape stands for the Holy Trinity. The uppermost point directs the eye upward to heaven. The lights that decorate them represent the skies of Bethlehem, while the topmost star stands for the light that guided the Three Kings.

The early pagan customs dovetailed with the ancient Romans' year-end celebrations to honor Saturn, their god of harvest, and Mithras, the god of light.

Other peoples in Northern Europe also held end-of-harvest festivals. They prepared special foods, sang songs and gave gifts. These traditions gradually became part of the Christmas festival.

Greens such as holly and mistletoe were thought of as sacred. The holly tree, with bright red berries and glossy leaves, was associated with Christ's crucifixion. Early Christians believed the pointed leaves resembled Jesus' crown of thorns. The red berries stood for the blood he shed. Firs were bent into circular hoops as wreaths. (The 4-foot-diameter wreath of pine cones and bright red ribbon at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is a modern version of this custom.)

The tree of the pagans melded easily into the Garden of Eden's Tree of Paradise with the advent of Christianity. The story of Adam and Eve was acted in plays by early Christian missionaries on the steps of churches.

But how to represent the forbidden apple with fruit trees fallow in the winter? The problem was solved by tying apples to the boughs of fir trees. The apples symbolized original sin.

Decorating evergreens with cookies, candy, religious ornaments and candles quickly followed and flourished in Germany in the 1500s. The custom spread from there to England and America.

The Christian Trinity is reflected in its traditional red, white and green trio of hues.

By limiting its eight green Christmas trees, 400 red poinsettias and 200 white cyclamen and amaryllis, and hundreds of sparkling white lights to these three sacred colors, the National Gallery presents a traditional and dramatic decor in its West Building rotunda.

* * *

Christmas decorations always fascinated Flora Gill Jacobs, who founded the Dolls' House & Toy Museum about 25 years ago. The museum, situated in the Friendship Heights area, has played host to thousands of children and their parents.

And Mrs. Jacobs' special display for Christmas will enchant any child and many grown-ups. A central floor-to-ceiling glass case holds a German turn-of-the-century artificial tree set on a rotating metal music box. Extremely rare, it plays Christmas carols when turned one way with its enormous key and German folk songs when wound in another direction.

Its decorations are just as special. Two ornaments made of cotton batting replicate a woman and a sailor. Others are of glass shaped like pine cones.

"Dresdens," ornaments made of pressed cardboard in Dresden, Germany, around 1900, include a reindeer and elephant and a candy box in the shape of a German World War I soldier's helmet turned upside down.

Another tree is a "feather tree," made of dyed green feathers intricately wound around wires. The feathers simulate pine needles, and Dresden slippers filled with candy decorate them.

Another exhibit is of antique toys in their original boxes, hand-lithographed Santa Claus games and 50-year-old Christmas blocks. Still another case holds a simulated block of antique East Baltimore houses with wreaths decorating their doors. People stroll along the sidewalk while pushing baby strollers and playing with their dogs. The city firefighters made them to put under their Christmas trees.

Shireen Dodson, associate director of the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, also has a passion for Christmas trees and ornaments. Mrs. Dodson's focus, however, is on Christmas trees reflecting her ancestry and the center's purpose, with ornaments made by black artists and schoolchildren.

She placed four 15-foot-tall evergreens, trimmed with hundreds of miniature lights, in the corner bays of the 94-foot-high, eight-sided rotunda. Mounds of poinsettias, ivy and paperwhite narcissus bank the trees as well as the center fountain.

The trees relate to the museum's nearby exhibits. Fourth-graders at Moten Elementary School in Southeast decorated the fir she calls the "African-American Tree." It was inspired by the exhibit "Revue Noir: Africa by Africans - a Photographic View."

Some 100 handmade decorations are of harlequins, one with a feathered headdress who seems to fly through the air. Two others wear masks. The children also made little African huts of wood and straw and decorated African gourds.

A tree relating to the show "Speak to My Heart: Communities of Faith and Contemporary African American Life" also has African ornaments. The evergreen inspired by the kente-cloth exhibit has decorations of that material and design.

The tree of angels is topped with a Kwanzaa angel dressed in doe leather with Adinkra symbols. A mother-and-child angel, representing a black mother, is decorated with wings of feathers and leaves. "The dress is tattered and torn to remind us of our humble beginnings. Its cowrie shells indicate where we came from," Mrs. Dodson says.

Caitlin Williams, a local teacher, painstakingly cut out and painted the wooden angels. She dressed one in elegant lace, and she painted an angel blowing a horn. Mary Jackson, a Washington artist, created the four decorations topping the trees.

The project grew from the traditions of Mrs. Dodson's family. With the birth of the first of her three sons in 1980, she scoured crafts shops for black Santa Clauses and commissioned artists to make them. She remembers that Sears carried black Santas as part of its "Christmas Around the World" series. Hallmark also created black Christmas ornaments.

Other Christmas trees in museums on the Mall are those at the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History. The six at American History center on stories created in different mediums. Women in Kansas wove "Golden Wheat Dollies," ornaments of fiber that look back to pre-Christian harvest festivals. Decorations on the "Scherenschnitte Tree," made by two women living in Missouri, are in the style of Pennsylvania Dutch white paper cutouts.

Art students from three schools, Shepherd Elementary in Northwest and Waterford Elementary and Round Hill Elementary in Loudoun County, decorated two enormous trees in Natural History's rotunda. Designed to tie in with the "African Voices" exhibit, some of the ornaments are made of kente cloth. Particularly charming are the toy elephants and lions.

* * *

Washington is fortunate to have museums with imaginative and handsome Christmas displays. By visiting these museums, viewers will learn the intriguing traditions of Christmas trees and their decorations and the exciting present-day variants on them.

***** WHAT: Christmas decorations at the Smithsonian Institution museums and other Washington museums

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Christmas and New Year's Day

WHERE: On the Mall - National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; Smithsonian Castle, 1000 Jefferson Drive SW; Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture at the Arts and Industries Building, 900 Independence Ave. SW; National Museum of American History, Constitution Avenue and 13th Street NW; and National Museum of Natural History, Constitution Avenue and 10th Street NW.

ALSO: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday, until 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Christmas. Suggested donations of $3 adults, $1 seniors and students, $5 groups. 202/639-1700.

National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Christmas. Donation of $3 adults and $2 seniors and students. 202/783-5000.

The Washington Dolls' House & Toy Museum, 5236 44th St. NW. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. $4 adults, $3 seniors, $2 children under 12. 202/244-0024.

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