“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.” ~Burton Hillis
“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.” ~Larry Wilde quotes
“Remember, if Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under the tree” ~Charlotte Carpenter quotes
(See Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan for even more fun Japanese Christmas music)
Everyone seems to almost instinctively know what a Christmas tree is, and that is now no different here in Okinawa than say, in Duluth, Minnesota. Such icons universally consist of a decorated tree (usually an evergreen), real or artificial. But how many of us really know or understand the roots (pun intended!) of The Christmas Tree?
Christmas trees have long been traditionally decorated with foods widely available, such as apples and nuts, but today can consist almost of anything with strong emotional or sentimental value, but often include garland, tinsel, and candy canes. In the 18th century candles were often added, which then morphed to modern lighting with the wide introduction of electricity. An angel or star often tops the tree, usually in representation of the Star of Bethlehem (from Jesus’ story).
Our current cultural and religious custom of the Christmas tree comes from 15th and 16th century devout Christians (including the reformist Martin Luther) who resided in the area of Europe now associated with modern Germany. However, what most of us may find rather surprising is that the Christmas tree didn’t acquire popularity beyond this area until the second half of the 19th century, or well into the mid-to-late 1800s! The Christmas tree has also been known as the “Yule-tree” (or Tree of Life), especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.
While the origins of the modern Christmas tree are clear and undebated, there are a number of speculative theories of such custom and tradition prior to the 1400s. Such icons are frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter pagan rites and rituals. Such use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands has long been utilized to symbolize eternal life by widely diverse cultures, including ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Thus, a type of “tree worship” became common in ancient times and thus was common among the pagan Europeans when Christianity started to sweep the continent. And, luckily for us, the rite and ritual survived the pagans’ conversion to Christianity (mostly through its continued use as the “Tree of Paradise” stage prop in the popular Paradise Plays of the 11th century), and became decorations for the house and barn alike (sometimes as wintry homes for song birds at Christmastime), and were sometimes used at the New Year to scare evil.
Given this backdrop, and having no tangible ties to any particular strong religious tradition (I think of Christmas and all its trappings, including the trees, as more symbolic of a generalized spirit of love and giving), we decided to leave all our more conventional holiday decorations at home during our move to Japan. Sure, we brought a Santa hat and our stockings (we both still have our Mother-made stockings from our childhood!), but not much else, including our tree. We decided to let the spirit of Okinawa and our living space dictate a new holiday rite for me and Jody.
First thing we had to do was find a tree. Not a real one – those are hard to come by in Okinawa, a relatively remote sub-tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, but an artificial one. But, we had to contend with our relatively low condo ceilings, along with a want for space. On top of this, we find out that the initial artificial tree shipment to the base exchanges sold out in mere days…and, of course, we missed what only could’ve been a mad rush for trees. Lucky for us we meandered one afternoon into the base craft shop looking for extraordinary ornaments for our as of yet unsourced tree, and behold: a room full of artificial, pre-light, small-ish Christmas trees! Expensive ones, but we were in luck.
We actually found (and purchased) a “half-tree.” And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a half of an artificial tree, with a stand that will support its lopsidedness, but which also has an anchor point/hook high up on the trunk in case you have to deal with, say, an unruly cat who may decide to climb the tree when no one’s looking….
The tree works perfectly in our place! It is maybe 6.5 feet in height, and since it’s only half a tree, we were able to push it back into a corner to conserve space while allowing us to fill in the visibly accessible part of the tree that much more.
For decorations we went with our initial Asian, Japanese, and Okinawan-inspiration. So, our ornaments consisted mainly of origami art (cranes, butterflies, and angels), paper crafted shapes, wooden dolls, miniature obis, and other flirtations with the Far East. These, combined with the minimalistic white lighting of the tree, results in a quite unconventional appearance by most western standards. We love it!
But, to top off our tree, we wanted truly spectacular and of local custom and tradition. What we found was perfect for the occasion: a Hanagasa. The Hanagasa is a brilliantly colored, flowered-adorned hat worn in many areas of Japan, but here the Okinawans have developed their own particular tradition regarding this type of headdress. Worn by Okinawan women performing a dance called Yotsudake (“four bamboo,” referring to the bamboo castanets played by the dancers), the large and unique silk hat features a gold-trimmed design of a stylized lotus flower and ocean waves, set against a backdrop of blue skies. It’s mesmerizing to watch one dancer on her own with her slow, graceful movements; it is breathtaking to see five or six woman so adorned move as one.
We found a smaller version of the Hanagasa designed for display on dolls, and it worked perfectly to complete our tree. Like the symbolism that a topping star may hold for others, our Hanagasa makes for an unforgettable sight, and its harmonious flowers seem to sway in time to the carols we often play in the background, things which should remind us all of the beauty, resilience and connectedness that we all share, with each other, and with every other living thing, during this spiritual time of love and giving.
Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays. Whatever YOU prefer to say, please don’t forget to pause your daily grind, express your thanks to those that deserve it, be giving to those that need it, and let Love and Hope win for just a few fleeting moments as you gaze upon your own tree, or other perhaps more appropriate symbolic icon of the season.
How are you celebrating Christmas this year??
- Christmas Tree of Bottles Sparkles in Lithuania (theepochtimes.com)
- Christmas Tree, Oh, Christmas Tree! (garnertree.com)
- Season’s Greetings (world-mysteries.com)
- Christmas 2013 – Vadada Christmas Tree (adventuresof.me)