Given the contemporary risk of overindulgence, it is hard to imagine a far-off day when even the most modest of celebrations were once banned.
The puritan grip on England was so strong in the middle of the 17th century that it’s a wonder the Pilgrims here didn’t catch the next Mayflower back. In the old country, Oliver Cromwell replaced an Anglican monarchy with a cold, bloody dose of dourness. I doubt anyone called him “Ollie.”
He took all the fun out of being a peasant; his men even ended the popular fairground spectacle of dogs tormenting captive bears. As Lord Macaulay wrote much later, “The Puritan hated bearbaiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”
Christmas of 1644 was not the jolliest of yuletides. Lawmakers ordered that Dec. 25 “should be strictly observed as a fast,” Macaulay wrote, and that everyone must atone for past Christmases when folks were guilty of “romping under the mistletoe, eating boar’s head, and drinking ale flavored with roasted apples.” All I can say is, thank heavens Cromwell didn’t live to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
The Christmas tree is generally viewed as a German invention that caught on in the 1840s when Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, gathered their family around a resplendent tree. The scene was depicted in the Illustrated London News.
Readers saw a six-foot fir tree, decked out in ornaments that would be familiar to us today, as well as the little candles, the wax tapers, that illuminated trees before the age of electricity and string lights.
Even this regal tree was not as splendid as the ones we take for granted today. Our trees, which are farmed in upland fields, develop into handsome, bushy pyramids through summertime trimming. The very finest trees of the Dickensian age were scrawnier, but the more interesting point about Queen Victoria’s festive conifer is that it was shown sitting on a table.
Tabletop trees — both real and artificial — are as popular as ever. They are smaller, more manageable and cheaper than freestanding ones. These attributes make them the go-to tree for singles in apartments, young couples watching their pennies, empty-nesters, Washingtonians fleeing the city for the holiday and, in general, people who want to tap into the joy of the Christmas tree without going overboard. I am still partial to a seven-foot Fraser fir, reaching for the ceiling, but I see the allure of downsizing.
If you go to a garden center at this time of year, you might see young conifers in red pots that evoke the small Christmas tree. Though festive, they will despise being kept indoors, where it is too warm, too dry and too dark for plants that are yearning for winter dormancy. They would like it on the front stoop, or an entrance terrace.
The other problem is that they might not work as a garden plant, if you want to keep them. One common variety, the dwarf Alberta spruce, dislikes our heat and humidity and tends to grow ragged from mite infestation. Another, the Colorado blue spruce, can become in size and presence too prominent a landscape feature.
The little rosemary tree will last a couple of weeks in most rooms before the ambient conditions and overwatering will cause it to die — it’s a creature for a bright, 50-degree conservatory. Enjoy it as fleeting aromatherapy.
The tabletop tree seems the most virtuous: festive, demure, fragrant and honestly temporary. I wandered into Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center in Northwest Washington the other day and found three-to-four-foot Fraser firs for about $30. You still have to treat them as cut trees, placed in a water-holding tree stand, to prevent them from drying, dropping needles and becoming fire hazards.
If that is too much to ask, artificial tabletops are available.
At the Christmas Attic, a year-round yuletide shop in Old Town Alexandria, the popularity of tabletop trees is measured not just in the trees themselves but also in the diminutive baubles that they need. Cheri Hennessy sells artificial trees ranging in height from 18 inches to four feet. The latter can take full-size decorations, but anything smaller will demand the scaled-down ornament.
The tabletop tree “is fun; it’s cute,” she said. “Less of an emotional commitment.” Even Oliver Cromwell would approve. Well, perhaps not.
How to keep a tree fresh
Cut Christmas trees must be watered and kept hydrated to last through the holidays and to prevent them from becoming fire hazards. This includes small tabletop trees.
Many trees are shipped from as far as Oregon. Buying early will give you better selection and a fresher tree. Before buying, run your hands through the needles to check for suppleness. Hold the tree upright and drop it from a few inches. Excessive needle drop is a sign of dryness.
Before installing, you will need to remove some of the lowest branches and trim an inch off the bottom of the trunk. Make a square cut, not an angled one. Tree lot merchants will do this for you, but it is better to do this at home. You will need gloves, a bow saw for the trunk and lopping shears to remove the branches.
It’s okay to leave the tree in a bucket of water for several days until you have time to install and decorate it — but monitor the water level. If you are storing in, say, an unheated porch or garage, make sure it won’t tip or blow over. The tree is thirstiest when first cut and will absorb several quarts of water in its first day or two. Keep a close eye on the water level and don’t let it drop below the cut, which will gum up if it dries.
When taking it indoors, make a fresh cut. Place the tree away from fireplaces and heat registers and away from doors. Make sure that your tree stand is big enough for the tree, both for stability and amount of water storage. Additives to the water are not necessary, but the level should be checked daily and topped off as needed — use your finger to check the water level.
Additional tips can be found at the Web sites of the Maryland Home and Garden Information Center (search for “Selecting and Caring for the Cut Christmas Tree” at extension.umd.edu); Virginia Cooperative Extension Service (search for “Selection and Care of Christmas Trees” at pubs.ext.vt.edu) and the National Christmas Tree Association (www.realchristmastrees.org).
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