On Christmas Eve 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt illuminated the national Christmas tree on the south lawn of the White House. For one inspiring evening, the tree's colored lights shone brightly, in spite of a citywide blackout order banning holiday lights for the season. The United States had entered World War II just seventeen days earlier, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt chose to light the tree because he recognized the comfort and strength that people would draw from it as a symbol of goodwill, prosperity, and hope.
Whether it's a majestic fir on public display or a delicate pine sapling atop a parlor table, the sparkling, ornament-laden tree is one of our most enduring holiday emblems. Christmas trees serve as focal points of family gatherings, set the stage for gift giving and celebrations, and elicit -- with their unmistakable fragrance -- countless nostalgic reveries. So it's surprising to realize that just a century and a half ago the idea of a Christmas tree was unfamiliar in much of the world.
Because they seem to represent the triumph of life over death, evergreens have figured prominently in winter-solstice rituals since ancient times. Early Christian celebrations of Advent (the weeks leading up to Christmas Day) sometimes included evergreens strung with apples to symbolize the tree of paradise.
The custom of adorning trees specifically for Christmas emerged in German villages during the sixteenth century and later caught on in Austria and France. In the 1840s, the Illustrated London News pictured Britain's Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, gathered with their children around a small tabletop Christmas tree. Decorating the tree was Prince Albert's way of sharing his native German traditions with his family and -- as it turned out -- with families throughout the Western world. The public quickly copied everything Queen Victoria did, so the Christmas tree rapidly became a holiday standard. A few years later, when the popular U.S. magazine Godey's Lady's Book published a similar image depicting a family with a decorated tree in their home, the tradition took hold on this side of the Atlantic.
During most of the Victorian era, Christmas trees remained tabletop size, and gifts dangled from their branches. At first, ornaments were primarily homemade, so there were rarely enough for a large tree, especially in poor homes. More prosperous families often set up a separate tree for each child.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, German-made glass and tinsel ornaments were exported widely, and soon a large, heavily decorated tree -- much too large to fit on a table -- was the fashion.
Today, we still love the grandeur of a big Christmas tree. We travel with our families to the nursery or tree lot each December; bring home the tallest, fattest fir; and trim it with treasured ornaments. It's a tradition worth keeping. But that's no reason to overlook the little guys. A tree suitable for a table makes sense where space is at a premium. If you have room, putting up a smaller tree away from the main one spreads the festive mood throughout the house, and you can dedicate the tabletop tannenbaum to a specific theme without breaking with your usual holiday customs.
In adorning the trees on the following pages, we took inspiration from various sources. For Martha, a tabletop tree offers a chance to celebrate her heritage with her family, just as Prince Albert did with his. You might draw upon your own ancestral traditions or a favorite holiday legend. Evoke the story of the Christmas rose, or share the tale of the paper cranes, which, though not specific to Christmas, movingly embodies the spirit of the season. As it stands on a table -- perhaps glowing in a window for all to see -- a tree that tells a story of generosity, goodness, and an abiding hope for peace will be anything but small.
To accommodate a wealth of glimmering ornaments, the tabletop tree in Martha's Connecticut home has been pruned and clipped, leaving five horizontal rows. Its form is reminiscent of an old-fashioned feather tree.
In Poland, where the Christmas season is seen as a time of renewal, ornaments are fashioned from straw to symbolize thanksgiving for the harvest and hope for good things in the coming year. Eggs represent the promise of future prosperity, too.
Martha and her niece Kristina wrap presents and trim the small spruce. Along with green glass balls, the ornaments they use include eggshells in shimmering gold tones and wheat decorations that have been given a burnished glow using metallic powders in a range of hues, from light copper to a deep verdigris. The choice of ornaments is intended as a tribute to Martha's Polish heritage, and their colors were chosen to accentuate the room's decorative details -- from the gold-trimmed drabware plates to the gilded Federal-style mirror.