Stylish Weekends | November 21, 2016 | Lifestyle
Deck the halls:
Secrets of breathtaking Christmas decorations and joyful traditions
The Victorian idyll of the family joyfully coming together to decorate a shimmering Christmas tree has been at the heart of our national festivities for more than a century.
Although we point to Prince Albert’s Germanic championing of the tree as a vital moment in shaping the English Christmas, the tradition of decorating for midwinter festivities dates back much, much further.
Today, the emblematic Christmas tree is embraced across the globe but the modern British penchant for bringing a fir tree into the house several weeks before the big day wouldn’t be recognised in many other cultures.
Could we possibly enrich our dearly-held English traditions by borrowing customs from our European neighbours?
Let’s take a look at how to make this year’s tree the most beautiful yet – and pick out a few traditions that we could add to our own celebrations.
The Wedgwood tree
Wedgwood is closely associated with magical family Christmases – and not just as makers of beautiful tableware.
Every year, the brand creates new collectable tree decorations, many based on the iconic blue and white jasperware so closely associated with it.
We’ll be complementing ours with these tree candles (£40 for ten, John Lewis), the closest we can get to traditional candles without the fire risk! We’ll be twisting V V Rouleaux’s luxurious double-sided velvet ribbon (£3.75 per metre) through the branches and topping with Georg Jensen’s multi-faceted star (£85), designed by Flemming Eskildsen.
Image: Georg Jensen
Our lament that Christmas starts earlier every year is less frequent in mainland Europe, where they’re busy celebrating St Nicholas Day on 6 December and St Lucia’s Day on 13 December.
In Germany and elsewhere, der Nikolaus visits on the night of 5 December, leaving sweets and small presents in children’s shoes. They have to be good children though: in some regions Nikolaus is accompanied by either Krampus or Schwarzer Peter (Black Peter), both of whom have their own punishments for the naughty.
In Holland, the same day sees the arrival of kindly bishop Sinterklass with his sack of gifts. Mark the date yourself by copying the idea of the Dutch letter cake – a cake made in the shape of the first letter of your family’s name.
St Lucia’s Day, a Christian adaptation of a pagan festival of light, is particularly widely celebrated across Scandinavia. Schools, towns and even the nation choose their own Lucia – a young girl who is dressed in white, with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head. Her lingonberry branch crown represents winter renewal and hope for the year ahead. An interesting alternative to Christingle celebrations.
Change for dinner
In Britain the sit-down lunch lies the heart of the Christmas experience – but the Boxing Day buffet is often a more convivial, relaxed event.
Consider the main Swedish Christmas meal, the julbord buffet, eaten at lunchtime on Christmas Eve. It features a huge range of dishes, including gravadlax, smoked salmon, julskinka (a Christmas ham), meatballs, potatoes and red cabbage. Sweet treats might include pastries and pepparkakor biscuits. Toasts are drunk in glögg, a sweetened mulled wine.
It feels like a radical suggestion but if your family chef is feeling beleaguered, it might be worth lending a little Swedish informality to a few of your Christmas meals.
We also love the Finnish tradition of baked rice pudding, eaten on Christmas Eve – a delicious alternative to Christmas pudding. Whoever finds the almond hidden within will be blessed with good luck for the year.
Many Northern European households stick to the tradition of putting the tree up on Christmas Eve. In Germany, the tree is usually secretly decorated by the mother of the family.
Christmas trees were originally adorned with apples, gingerbread and sweet treats – and a return to these edible traditions sounds like a charming idea.
The Swedish tradition of using straw to make decorations is a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable. Older children might enjoy recreating these simple ornaments (you’ll find a good tutorial on Together).
Once the trees are decorated, many families across Scandinavia – especially in Norway – follow a ritual known as ‘circling the Christmas tree’. Everyone joins hands around the tree and they walk around it, singing carols. A beautiful ritual – and definitely one to borrow.
Finland, as the home of Father Christmas, attracts a lot of festive attention but one custom is a little more unusual – and possibly slightly macabre to our minds.
The country’s dark winter days have led to a tradition of visiting the graves of family members after dark. Candles in hanging lanterns are left around the graves, creating a magical scene, with entire cemeteries lit up by lanterns glowing in the snow.
If the whole Christmas gift-giving frenzy feels too much, why not follow in the footsteps of several cultures that delay handing out presents? In Guatemala, for example, children enjoy gifts under the tree on Christmas morning but adults don’t exchange parcels until New Year’s Day. Use the idea as the basis of a sophisticated adult-only celebration, bringing your wider family and friends together with love during the dark winter days.