During this holiday season, the darkness that descends each evening is driven back by twinkling lights of every color and design. Our streets glow with them. Our homes, too, are alive with decorations that glisten and shine to defy this darkest time of the year.
It’s called the winter solstice, the time of harvest past, of meat slaughtered and preserved in ice or brine. In ancient times this was the season of revelry and feasting, the season of plenty after the harvest. The time to rejoice and indulge.
The Saturnalia in early Rome began each December 17 and ended on December 24. It was a festival of the god Saturn, the ancient god of husbandry and sowing. A pagan festival that developed into an orgy contrary to Christian beliefs.
The early Christian leaders of Rome were concerned with the pagan rite and decided to hold a Christmas celebration to offset the Saturnalia. As Christmas Day, the Feast of the Nativity, took hold, the pagan revelry gave way. Christmas Day on December 25 was established as early as the 5th century.
Since the Feast of the Nativity was to counteract the Roman Saturnalia it was inevitable that the two events would react on each other. Thus we have the Yule log, evergreen decorations such as ivy, mistletoe, and holly, feasting and rejoicing, carols, and exchanging of gifts.
The Christmas tree’s origin, too, is the subject of several stories. One legend tells about the first Christmas tree. An English missionary named Winfrid was traveling through northern Germany about 1,200 years ago. He came upon a group of heathens at an oak tree preparing to sacrifice little Prince Asulf to the god Thor. He stopped the sacrifice and cut down the tree. When the oak fell, a young fir tree appeared, and Winfrid told the people the fir was a tree of life representing Christ.
The Germans were probably the first to decorate a Christmas tree, using stars, angels, toys, gilded nuts, and candies wrapped in bright papers. Later they added tinsel and lighted candles. Prince Albert is given credit for bringing the custom of the Christmas tree from Germany to England.
It is believed that Hessian soldiers, hired by King George III to fight the colonist during the American Revolution, were the first to decorate a Christmas tree in America.
If you are looking for something inexpensive and different, Scherenschnitte is one very unique and beautiful way to decorate your Christmas tree. The word is German which means “scissor cuts” or “scissor snips” and you may be surprised to learn you’ve already tried your hand at this ancient art form when, as a child, you folded a square of paper several times and snipped pieces from the edges then opened it to find a lacy snowflake. But this art can be very detailed and beautiful as only the artists imagination limits the creativity and scope of objects that can be cut from paper.
Much time is required to carefully cut the intricate patterns in the folded paper to make each ornament for a Christmas tree. In doing a search on the web, I was able to find many sites giving information about Scherenschnitte, including project books with patterns and paper. Or you could do as the famous author Hans Christian Andersen did and simply fold a sheet of paper then allow the image in your mind to be revealed as you snip away the excess paper.
The photos of unicorns and deer in this post are taken from a newspaper article I wrote several years ago. They were part of a collection of Scherenschnitte decorations used for the 1989 Christmas tree in the Missouri governor’s mansion. Although a little hard to see, they are three dimensional and four sided – and beautiful.