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ow's this for a Christmas tree? In a New York hotel room in 1897, James Clements and his wife decorated an evergreen with seventy thousand dollars' worth of gold nuggets he had found that year in the Klondike gold rush.
Christmas tree history
The oldest mention of a tree at Christmas time comes from a Baltic port city in 1510. A tree was decorated with artificial roses and carried to the marketplace. The members of the local merchants guild danced around the tree and then burned it! A Christmas tree as we know it is first found in Germany. At first, trees were just set up indoors and were not decorated.
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Decorating a tree may have first arisen through medieval miracle plays. Since most people at that time couldn't read, it was common to act out Bible stories as a way of teaching.
In the early church calendar of saints, December 24 was Adam and Eve's day. In the performance of the story of Adam and Eve, a tree decorated with apples was carried through the streets. Later, trees were decorated with apples even though the connection with Adam and Eve's temptation was forgotten.
Phillip Synder's The Christmas Tree Book says that the first Christmas tree as we know if is mentioned in 1605 in the diary of a traveler to Strasbourg. "The writer tells of fir trees set up and hung with paper roses of many different colors and with applies, flat wafers, gilded candies, and sugar."
Hanging Christmas tree?
A variation on the early Christmas tree, which was a custom in some parts of Austria and Germany, was to cut the tip from a large evergreen. It was hung upside down and decorated with red paper, apples, and gilded nuts.
Another variation was to hang the tree top right side up, but with the bottom sharpened and an apple stuck on it.
A letter written in 1708 first mentions using candles to decorate a tree, as a writer recalls her childhood in Germany.
A few centuries passed before electric lights were put on Christmas trees. President Cleveland decorated his tree in the White House in 1895. In the early days of electricity, the only source of power was often the ceiling socket, so the wiring would have to run up to the ceiling. And there were no convenient strings of bulbs. Wiring a tree for lights was the job of a qualified electrician.
The equipment required included: light bulbs, porcelain sockets, rubber-coated wire, and another socket to screw into the chandelier.
Series and parallel bulbs
Everyone would agree that 'parallel' bulb wiring was a great leap forward. The old strings of bulbs were all on one circuit. If a bulb burned out, the circuit was broken and all of the bulbs went out! To find out which bulb was a fault was a tedious process.
General Electric introduced the 'parallel' wiring of tree lights in the 1920s. These bulbs each get the full 120 volts, so they burn independently and are easy to replace when one burns out. But a special bulb had to be developed that could use 120 volts and still not get too hot. Series strings of bulbs are still cheaper to buy because they use only half the wire.
Big trees and little trees
The floor to ceiling Christmas tree is uniquely American, Synder says. Most European trees were meant to set on a table top. In America, trees were abundant, and enterprising country folk could make a profit by carrying them into the city to sell. In 1851, Mark Carr, who lived in the country outside of New York, decided to transport some trees to New York's Washington Market, which was an open air market for food and vegetables.
In the New England Magazine in 1895, his success was recorded: "Quick and certain was his success, exceeding his fondest expectations. Eagerly customers flocked to purchase the mountain novelties, at what appeared to the unsophisticated country man very exorbitant prices. It did not take long to exhaust the entire stock."
source: The Christmas Tree Book, by Phillip V. Snyder. The Viking Press, New York, 1976.
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