Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree…
December is here, bringing with it Christmas! However, it is not truly Christmas until we see houses, town squares and shop windows all aglow with beautiful decorations, and above all enchanting Christmas trees. Now a must in virtually every European and north American home, the Christmas tree is the most popular symbol of the festive season and one of the most widespread Christmas traditions in the world.
Today, when we talk about Christmas trees, we usually mean a fir tree (or another variety of evergreen) decorated with colourful baubles, lights, tinsel and sweets; trees are usually put up a few weeks before Christmas and taken down again at the end of the festive season. Gifts are traditionally placed under the tree until it is time for them to be opened.
Christmas trees: a much-loved tradition that goes back centuries
The origins of the Christmas tree can be traced way back to Pagan times: there were ancient customs of marking days that were considered sacred by worshipping and decorating plants and trees with fruit, colourful objects, candles, little bells and votive offerings, symbols of fertility and abundance. In addition, ancient tribes took important decisions under the canopy of the biggest tree in the village, and offerings to the gods were hung on the tree.
The druids, ancient Celtic priests, noting that fir trees remained green throughout winter, considered them to be a symbol of long life and for this reason they began to honour them on the winter solstice (21st December).
The Vikings believed that the Norway spruce had magical powers, as it never dropped its needles even in the bitterly cold northern European winter. Thus, its branches would be cut, taken into homes and decorated with fruits as a good omen for spring.
The Romans used to decorate their homes with branches of pine tree for the Kalends of January (the first day of the month), later gifting them as a token of good luck.
With the advent of Christianity, the custom of the Christmas tree became a widely established part of Christian tradition. The Christian Church used holly, as its thorns symbolised the crown of thorns worn by Christ and the red berries represented the drops of blood from his wounds.
It seems that the Christmas tree, as we know it today, first appeared in Estonia, where in 1441 a large fir tree was erected in the town hall square in Tallinn; legend has it, however, that the modern tradition of decorating a fir tree actually comes from Germany, where on Christmas Eve a man was so enchanted by the stars twinkling through the branches of a fir tree, that he chopped it down, took it home and decorated it with little red candles.
In Italy the first person to decorate a Christmas tree was Queen Margherita of Savoy in the latter half of the nineteenth century; after she decorated a tree at the Quirinal Palace, the fashion quickly spread throughout the country. In Milan, Christmas trees are traditionally put up on 7th December, the patron saint day of St. Ambrose; in Bari custom dictates 6th December, the feast of St. Nicholas; however, the most popular day for putting up Christmas trees in Italy is the Catholic feast day of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December.
In Italy we can even boast the world’s biggest Christmas tree: the gigantic fir tree of Gubbio, traced out in Christmas lights over an entire mountain slope.
A DIY Christmas tree
A really fun and engaging activity for Christmas is to create, either on your own or together with others, a Christmas tree made from cardboard and decorated with LED lights to make it twinkle and catch the eye. The end result will make a fantastic gift for friends, or just a beautiful desktop decoration.
This is what you will need:
- sheets of cardboard (for the tree silhouette and base)
- some coloured LED lights (you can buy them or re-use those from some old toys)
- some 3V button batteries
- one metal foldback paper clip
- one plastic straw
- thin electric cables in two different colours (e.g. red and white twisted pair cable)
- alternatively, a length of copper wire for DIY use
The first task is to connect the electric cables to the LED that will be positioned at the top of the tree. This step is very important as it allows any other LEDs used to decorate the tree to actually work. Connect the red cable to the anode of the LED, i.e. the positive pole of this electrical component. To identify the anode (+) and cathode (-) take a LED and look closely at its “legs”: the longer leg is the anode pin, which must be connected to the positive pole of the battery (Figure 2). If the legs are identical in length, check inside the LED to see the shape of the conductors, as shown in Figure 2.
Next, strip the sheathing from the end of the red and the white cables; twist together the end of the red cable with the LED anode, and the white cable with the cathode (you can also use a blob of hot-melt glue to secure in place), taking care to prevent the anode and cathode from touching together: the two poles must remain separate and insulated. You can also wrap some insulating tape around the connections (Figure 3).
At this point, decide the height you want your tree to be, cutting the straw to size and feeding the cables and LED inside it. Now take your cardboard and cut out 5 fir tree silhouettes (choosing a mirror image), then cut each one in half vertically (Figure 5). Cut out the base onto which you are going to glue the tree: it can be circular, square or rectangular.
If you want a more challenging project, you can think about inserting additional LEDs between the two halves of the cardboard silhouettes, following the same procedure and the same steps as earlier. Now you are ready to glue together the two halves of each cardboard silhouette, which will give you 5 sections of Christmas tree.
Glue the sections to the straw, cut a slit in the middle of the base and feed the cables through to the underside of the base (Figure 6). Now gather and twist together all the cables of the same colour, to keep everything tidy.
Strip and connect the ends of the white cables to the metal foldback paper clip (Figure 7). Clip this to the edge of the base and feed the red cables through a hole in the card to the upper side of the base.
Strip the red cables (you can also do this before feeding them through the hole, which should make the task easier) and press them down onto the base. Now place the battery above the red cables in the right direction: the symbol on the battery must be connected to the red cables, the symbol to the white cables. The paper clip is now the switch for closing and opening the circuit, and so for switching the LEDs on and off.
Cut out some cardboard feet of a suitable height and glue them to the base (Figure 10). Close the circuit with the paper clip and admire your beautiful, twinkling DIY Christmas tree!
Now you can paint and decorate it however you like: with mini polystyrene balls, artificial snow, synthetic grass, pompoms, fabric and whatever else takes your fancy: let your imagination and creativity run wild!