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. …

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