I love winter and the tradition of the decorated and lighted tree. When I was a little boy, it always felt so connected to the time of the year, the elements, the snow, and darkness. Even then, I sensed the pagan roots of this tradition and now that I am an adult, I love it even more.
Descended from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and from Pagans and Druids from all over Europe, the tree is an expression of the season: deciduous trees, plants, flowers and crops die off (or go dormant) while the pine remains magically alive, the only thing that stays green in the natural world ("sempervirent" = evergreen). It only makes sense to honor the earth, the season, and the fir itself by bringing it inside to decorate and celebrate. This is the time of the Winter Solstice, short grey days and long dark nights, where twinkling stars are visible for so much longer. As an homage to the winter sky, lights are put on the tree, again echoing the natural world. It’s also reminiscent of the bonfires many different pagan cultures lit around the countryside to ward off the darkness and chill; lights on the tree bring some light and warmth to this lifeless time of year, and speak to a time when the days will eventually grow longer, the planet will again tilt, and summer will return.
Although a traditional holiday tree is a wonderful, comforting sight (I have spent many holidays replicating the magical, colorful trees from my childhood), you don't have to be limited by snowmen, reindeer, and poinsettias. I created my first themed holiday tree in 1999 when I threw a holiday party with a 1950s-Space-Age-Bachelor-Pad theme. I found a vintage 50s silver foil tree and color wheel in an antique store and set it up with blue and green lights, and blue and green blown glass balls. It was a huge hit with all my guests and I have done a themed tree every year since.
In 2010, I was invited to participate in a Holiday Designer Showhouse here in Northern California, and was asked to create an African holiday tree. I was up for the challenge and had a fantastic time collecting all the decorations and objects that would adorn the tree and tell a clear, identifiable African story.
The following is my concept statement for the tree which I had printed on handouts at the Showhouse:
"The open grasslands known as 'savanna' and the indigenous cultures of Africa were the inspiration for this themed holiday tree. Soft yellow lights give the tree a warm glow reminiscent of the golden grasses of—and the sun over—these vast plains. On the tree you see traditional beaded gourds from Kenya, which can also be used as percussion instruments. Carved wooden African animals mingle together as they do on the veldt. Colorfully beaded leather amulets adorned with cowrie shells from West Africa pepper the tree; cowrie shells are used for divination by the Yoruban people of West Africa and have also been used as currency for centuries. Blown glass balls in bronze and copper speak to the origin of African metalworking over four thousand years ago. A carved wooden figure of the deity Akuaba from Ghana tops the tree. This style of Akuaba originates from the Ashanti people and is used as both a fertility symbol and general good luck. The tree skirt is made from genuine hand-woven and hand-dyed mud cloth, or bogolanfini, from Mali. The name mud cloth comes from the iron-rich earthen pigments used to dye the classic geometric designs. Packages wrapped in African designs and tied with bows of raffia and cowrie shells wait to be opened under the tree."
If you are looking for something fun and different this year for the holidays, why not try a themed holiday tree? I have created trees based on cultures (Japanese, Native American, Bollywood), food (cookies, candy, fruit), nature (the night sky, oceans), and time periods (Art Deco, Renaissance). You can be inspired by anything--let your imagination roam!
Happy designing and Happy Holidays!