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Why Do We Decorate for Christmas?


The holidays are a colourful, delicious, and busy time of year. From holiday feasts to stockings hung with care and presents under the tree, Christmas is all about celebration, spending time with friends and family, and eating way too much shortbread. Part of what makes the holidays so festive are the decorations and lighting that adorn our homes and businesses throughout the holiday season. But why do we decorate for the holiday season? Just where exactly did these traditions begin? Read on to find out!

Why Red and Green?
In contemporary holiday decor there are dozens of colours and styles that can be used to decorate the home for the holidays. However, traditional holiday decor is all about the red and green. Why is that though? As it turns out, these colours are steeped in a religious context. The colour green is associated with the continuation of life through the winter as well as the belief in the eternal life of Jesus. Meanwhile, red was traditionally used to symbolize the blood of Jesus. Today, the colours red and green are used in non-religious and religious settings alike to celebrate the season!

The Christmas Tree
For many of us, the Christmas Tree is one of the most symbolic images of the holiday season. There are several theories about how this came to be. One of which is that the tree itself is a “Christianization” of pagan traditions having to do with the winter solstice. These traditions include decorating with evergreen boughs. The modern day Christmas Tree can be traced definitively back to the 18th century in Germany, and maybe even back to the 16th century. From Germany, the practice of cutting down a tree and bringing it indoors travelled to England via Queen Charlotte (the wife of George III), and then to North America quickly after that.

The decoration of the Christmas Tree itself represents an interesting time in the history of lighting. Christmas Trees were not always decorated with strings of electric lighting. In fact, it wasn’t until long after the tree itself was brought indoors that it was decorated at all! Candles have long associated with Christmas, but not for the festive reasons you might think. For many, candles were the only form of heat and illumination during winter’s long, dark and cold months. However, using candles to decorate the Christmas Tree did become a popular trend.

Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the first ever electric Christmas lighting. He decorated his Menlo Park laboratory - the home of his business, the Illumination Company - with strings of electric incandescent bulbs. He did this not only to spread some Christmas cheer, but also to promote the use of electric lighting. In the early 1880s when he set up these holiday lights, electric lighting was still being treated with a great deal of apprehension. Edison made an attempt to prove the safety and effectiveness of these lights by powering them from a generator more than eight miles away.

In 1882, Edison and his fellow inventor Edward Johnson introduced the first ever electrically decorated Christmas Tree at Edison’s Manhattan home. They used 80 red, white, and blue electric lights to adorn a tree and invited hundreds of people to see it in action. In spite of the fact that electric Christmas lights were for sale as early as the end of the 1890s, it wasn’t until several decades into the 1900s that they rose in popularity.

Outdoor Holiday Lighting
The advent of Christmas Tree lighting and outdoor holiday lighting are no doubt related. However, the history behind using lights to celebrate the holiday season goes back much further than our friend Thomas Edison would have us believe. In fact, using lights as decoration dates as far back as the Yule, when Norsemen celebrated this midwinter tradition. Their celebrations included drinking “Yule,” the Norse god Odin’s sacrificial beer while watching the Yule log burn. It was believed that lighting the Yule log summoned the sun’s return while simultaneously driving away evil spirits. It has been argued that Christian traditions build on the idea of the Yule log by using light during the holidays to represent Jesus lighting up the darkness.

As the years went on, candles were used during the winter months as a way to provide light and heat within the home, but also to welcome travelers in remote areas. Candles were used in the home long before the Christmas Tree ever made its way past the front door. In the Christian tradition, a candle is used to symbolize welcoming Mary and Joseph.

Poinsettia, Mistletoe, Evergreen, and Holly
There are few plants that are more ubiquitous with the holiday season than mistletoe, evergreen, and holly. These nostalgic plants have a long and symbolic relationship with the holiday season. Boughs of evergreen, just like the colour green itself, are used to symbolize the continuation of life over the course of a long, dark winter. Mistletoe on the other hand was adopted by the Victorians as a way to steal a kiss during the holiday season. Mistletoe could be hung anywhere in the home, and that anyone who stood under it was allowed to kiss. The catch was though, that there could only be one kiss per berry, and the berry must be removed after said kiss. Rumour has it, there was much Mistletoe tampering (adding berries) that went on during the holiday season!

Poinsettias are also common Christmastime decorations. These poisonous plants are enjoyed for their colourful hues as well as their incredibly long lifespans. They are indigenous to Mexico and Central America where it is referred to as “Flor De Noche Buena,” or “Christmas Eve Flower.” The Poinsettia first became associated with Christmas during the 16th century in Mexico. As the story goes, a young girl was unable to buy a gift during the holiday season. Instead, she was inspired to gather a bouquet of weeds that she found alongside the road and give those to baby Jesus. According to the story, these weeds sprouted gorgeous red flowers which were quickly adopted by Franciscan friars in Mexico as a part of the holiday celebration.

At Christmas Decor Ottawa, we love decorating your home or business to suit your holiday traditions and beliefs. From outdoor and indoor lighting to creating gorgeous custom wreaths and window displays, we cannot wait to have your home feeling festive!

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