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With his many appearances on QVC and national morning shows like Today, and an expanding product line, Christopher Radko is a household name when it comes to holiday decorating. Christopher Radko’s Heart of Christmas shimmers with his ideas for decking the home inside and out with the warm and ...
With his many appearances on QVC and national morning shows like Today, and an expanding product line, Christopher Radko is a household name when it comes to holiday decorating. Christopher Radko’s Heart of Christmas shimmers with his ideas for decking the home inside and out with the warm and festive spirit of the holidays.
The Well-Dressed Christmas Tree
With all due respect to Santa, the central icon of the season is the Christmas tree. I can't imagine the holidays without the magic of wonderfully decorated trees, each different, each special. Like the hearth or a dining table, a Christmas tree draws people to it — and to one another. Our visceral response to evergreens makes me wonder if they have magical properties we have long forgotten. The scents of pine, spruce, and fir trees not only connect us to the natural world, they actually cheer and invigorate us. No wonder aromatherapists use the essential oils of evergreens for their energizing and healing properties.
A Christmas tree serves as a diary of a family's history: Each ornament records a moment in the lives of its members. As you unwrap your ornaments you might recall that your angel tree topper was a gift from a dear friend. The little glass birds from the Paris flea market remind you of a vacation before a decade ago. You think of your favorite great-aunt when you open the vintage glass icicles she gave you, still in their original cardboard box. And so it goes, with trinkets marking the births of children and their own clumsily crafted ornaments made of dough and paper recording the passage of years. All these fragments of your life hang on the tree and shine back at you, reminding you of who you are as well as the meaning of the holiday. That's why I think of a Christmas tree as having the same evocative qualities as a photo album or a personal art gallery.
Ubiquitous as it is today, the idea of bringing a fresh-cut tree inside and covering it with trinkets was notin general practice in this country until the middle of the nineteenth century. The practice of decorating a Christmas tree originated in Germany (see "Ancient Origins" on page 17), and it was Germany that played a major role in shaping our Christmas customs. We don't know definitively where and when the first decorated Christmas trees appeared in our country; we do know that the charming custom of the Tannenbaum came to our shores with people of German birth. Pennsylvania German settlers are said to have decorated community trees as early as 1747, and the custom of the family tree may have originated with the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the very early 1800s. Others claim that Hessian soldiers stationed at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1776 were the first in this country to cut down firs and decorate them.
But not all colonial Americans celebrated Christmas. The Puritans of Massachusetts banned its observance. Many Northerners continued to consider Christmas celebrations as rowdy and sinful, instead regarding Thanksgiving as the true American holiday. On the other hand, Southerners participated in all-out Christmas celebrations as a key part of the social season. It is not surprising that the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836, followed by Louisiana and Arkansas in 1938. The first decorated Christmas tree in the White House appeared in 1856 during the administration of President Franklin Pierce. After the Civil War, the celebration of Christmas was finally well established throughout the country, and the Christmas tree was central to its observance.
Jewelry for the Tree
Commercially made ornaments of silver and gilt foil and cardboard began appearing in the United States in the 1870s. By the 1880s, printed figures embossed on paper became popular along with the new invention of spun-glass angel hair. But it was the invention of glass ornaments that was to transform the look of Christmas trees around the world. The small town of Lauscha in the Thuringian Forest east of Nuremberg, Germany, had long been known for its glassblowers. These skilled craftsmen produced tiny glass beads for jewelry and dressmaking.
Early in the nineteenth century, the glassblowers found they could blow large glass bubbles, which they made when taking a break from their duties. They silvered the insides and lacquered the outsides of these big globes in bright colors just as they did their beads, and called them Kugels, German for "ball." Later, Kugels were blown into a mold to create a shape, such as an apple, a pear, an artichoke, or a cluster of grapes. Much too heavy to hang on a Christmas tree, Kugels were suspended from the ceiling, a candelabra, or a wooden frame. In addition to their beauty, they were useful in adding reflected illumination to dim, candlelit rooms.
In 1867, a gasworks built in Lauscha pioneered technology that allowed a flame to remain at a consistently high temperature, making it possible to create large, thin-walled globes. The first true glass ornaments — light enough to hang on a tree branch — followed quickly. By 1870, Lauschan glass pinecones, acorns, Santas, fruits and vegetables, and birds were being exported to other European countries.
These delightful trinkets quickly became Victorian status symbols, dovetailing with the collection craze for which the era is famous. The popularity of the ornaments encouraged craftsmen to become more and more inventive. More than five thousand mold designs ensured a constant supply of ingenious subjects. Different but equally wonderful glass ornaments soon were being made in Poland and Bohemia (which later became Czechoslovakia, and later still, the Czech Republic). The glittering and playful decorations perfectly symbolized the joy and light of Christmas. By 1880 glass ornaments were being imported for sale in East Coast department stores. In 1890, F. W. Woolworth began selling them in his chain of five-and-ten-cent stores nationwide. Just before the outbreak of World War II, 95 percent of the glass ornaments sold in the United States had been crafted in and around Lauscha.
After decades in which machine-made ornaments were the norm, mouth-blown glass ornaments are enjoying a revival. I am proud to have played a major role in reinvigorating this craft.
Buying the Tree
But even the most beautiful ornaments cannot do the job alone. Selecting the right tree is crucial to getting the look you want. First, you need to decide on a real or an artificial tree or even a living tree with its roots balled in burlap. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. There are also many species of real trees to choose from (see "The Naked Truth" on page 186) and different types of manufactured trees (see "The Art of Artifice" on page 191).
If you have decided to go natural, you have the option of buying a cut tree or going to a tree farm to cut down a live one. The former usually allows you more options in tree species; the latter offers a fresher tree. A cut tree you purchase in a church parking lot may have been harvested over a month earlier. Properly treated, a fresh-cut tree should last for up to eight weeks, according to West Virginia Christmas-tree grower Eric Sundback. Each tree farm tends to specialize in certain species. If you are set on a certain species, call ahead to make sure it grows what you are looking for. Many growers have found they can successfully raise trees not native to the area if climate and soil conditions are appropriate. If you do plan to buy at a tree lot, go early in the season when selection is best and the trees have not had time to dry out.
Another option is having a tree shipped directly to you from a tree farm. Although this approach may be more expensive (once you factor in shipping charges), you should be able to get exactly what you want in terms of species and size. (UPS handles trees up to seven feet tall.) And since the tree is not cut until you order it, it is likely to be fresher than trees from the neighborhood lot.
The Web is full of listings of growers around the country: Just direct your search engine to "Christmas" + "trees." To narrow your search, add the name of your state. The Web site grandly titled "All Christmas Tree Farms in the USA" (www.christmas-tree.orgrealindex) actually delivers on its promise. Simply log in your state to find a list of growers in your area, as well as information on tree species, prices, and directions. There are also links to individual tree farms' Web sites, some of which allow you to order online or by phone. Nova Scotia-based PLC Resources (902-863-8000; www.plc.ns.sympatico.ca) will send you a balsam fir in a variety of sheared styles and a broad array of sizes. Mountain Star Farms (888-567-2981; www.mtnstarfarms.com) offers both Fraser and balsam firs. Blue Mountain Tree Farm (888-220-TREE; www.freshchristmastrees.com) delivers to your door a Douglas, Fraser, or Concolor fir ranging from five to seven feet tall.
Before you hop into the car (or go online), measure the height of the room where you plan to place the tree. The tree should be at least a foot shorter than the ceiling in the room where it will be set up, but don't leave so much space that it looks out of scale. (Take the height of your tree topper into consideration as well.) If the tree will be visible from all sides, make sure you find one that is uniformly well shaped. On the other hand, if the tree will be placed against a wall, you can probably get away with a few imperfections.
Choose a tree with a healthy green appearance, a strong aroma, and a minimum of brown needles. Needles should be flexible and remain firmly attached when you run a branch through your hand. To test for freshness, raise the tree a few inches off the ground, shake it, then drop it firmly on the butt end to see if needles adhere. Don't worry if a few inner brown needles drop off. Check the cut base for drops of sticky resin, indicating it was freshly cut. Also make sure the trunk of the tree is straight, particularly the bottom six to eight inches.
Setting Up the Tree
The right tree stand is absolutely essential to protect your tree and your precious ornaments. (Before you bring the tree in the house, see "Handle with Care" on page 188.) I had a disastrous experience eighteen years ago when I foolishly replaced our family tree stand with a shiny new one that turned out to be incapable of holding the twelve-foot tree. There are various types and styles of tree stands. Go for the best quality you can find (preferably heavy-gauge metal) and make sure the stand fits the diameter of the trunk. If the stand is too big, it may not hold the tree securely; too small and it simply can't contain the trunk. Some types allow you to compensate for an irregular trunk. Never shave down the sides of the trunk to fit a too-small stand. Not only will it be unstable, it could cause the tree to dry out prematurely. (For information on other containers, see "Underneath It All" on page 38.)
After strength, the most important characteristic of a stand is water capacity. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, a good rule of thumb is one quart of water daily for every inch of the tree trunk's diameter. So, a tree with a four-inch diameter, which is average for a six-foot tree, would require a tree stand with a capacity of one gallon of water, but this is the bare minimum; you would have to refill it daily. Once a tree dries out, it cannot be refreshed. If you have a vintage decorative tree stand, be sure that it is still in working order and use it only for trees of appropriate size and dimension. Since it may not have an adequate container for water, you may prefer to use it for a feather tree.
Take a minute to put some of your favorite Christmas music on the CD player to get in the mood. Then, before you even think about decorating, step back and regard your tree. Is it perfectly straight? Is the best side facing you when you enter the room? Is it too bushy at the bottom where you want to set up a tableau? Or does it seem sparse in one area? This is the time to remedy any natural failings. To remedy bushiness at the base, simply remove a few bottom branches, standing back to survey your work after each amputation. If foliage around the base seems scrawny and you have height to spare, simply retrim the trunk and set the tree up again. If there are empty areas elsewhere on the tree, tie or wire adjacent branches together to enhance fullness.
Lighting the Way
To get the blazing glow that is a trademark of a Radko tree, I recommend wrapping lights. Compared to stringing lights over the branches, wrapping is deliberate and far more labor intensive. On an 8-foot artificial tree, we may use as many as 3,000 bulbs. A key advantage of a quality artificial tree is its ability to support the weight of so many bulbs. A real tree of comparable height can handle about 800 bulbs. As a rule of thumb, I recommend using a minimum of 100 lights for every foot of height.
Before you start, be sure to check all your strands of lights for worn electrical cords and replace any dead bulbs. Follow manufacturer's instructions regarding how many strands can be plugged together; six is the usual number. Always plug lights into a surge protector. Remove any tags on the lights after reading, and save them. It's a good idea to wear gloves, as real trees, particularly spruces, may have sharp needles, and an artificial tree will be coated with a fire retardant, which may irritate your skin.
Start a few inches above the base of the center pole or trunk, well away from the water bowl in the case of a real tree, and wrap around it several times to make the tree seem to glow from within. Then pull the lights out to the end of one of the branches on the lowest tier, running them under the branch. Work your way back along the branch, firmly wrapping the light cord around the branch and any strong offshoots or tips. On a natural tree, be careful not to wrap so tightly as to constrict the branches. When you get back to the trunk, repeat the process on another branch on the same tier, working up the tree. With an artificial tree that has sections, connect light strands so that they are self-contained in a section. For this reason and for general ease of use, I recommend using lights in strands of 50 rather than the more unwieldy 100.
For a heavily lit look, wrap all the branchettes; for a less intense look, skip the secondary branches or light every other one. After you have wrapped a small portion of the tree, step back and look at your handiwork. Now is the time to make any adjustments. Once you decide what degree of light you like, maintain that pattern. To achieve a consistent look, only one person should do the actual wrapping. A helper can come in handy, however, for unwrapping new lights, untangling old lights, testing each strand, and passing them to you. Count on about four hours for an 8-foot tree with 800 bulbs; 3,000 bulbs on an artificial tree could take a beginner eight to ten hours. This time commitment explains why florists may charge up to $30 or more per foot to light a tree.
Spacing between bulbs is another factor in determining a look. Strands are sold with bulbs 4, 6, 8, or 10 inches apart. The smaller the distance, the more intense the impression of light. Lights also come in an amazing array of styles. (See "Light Fantastic" on page 49 for a discussion of different light styles.) I love the large C-7 bulbs, which come in a kaleidoscope of hues. Tiny Italian lights are also wonderful (and, because they produce less heat, have a less drying effect on a natural tree). I avoid miniature clear glass bulbs, which have become so ubiquitous in parks and outdoor dining areas that they no longer say "Christmas" to me. I like to mix minis and C-7s on the same tree. You can also mix a decorator style, such as bubble lights, with twinkle lights or C-7s, but each type must be plugged only into others of the same type.
Strands of lights are available in multicolor, single hues, and such combinations as red-and-white for a peppermint candy-cane effect, but you can create your own special and unique combinations with replacement bulbs. For example, purple, green, and gold lend a harlequin effect; red, white, and blue, a patriotic look. Or light the tree in one color, say, gold, then accent the tips of branches red. If you are using more than one color, step back regularly to check out the overall effect and avoid clumps of color.
I recommend using quality lights, such as those manufactured by GKI and other manufacturers that sell their products in Christmas stores and other high-end retailers, rather than those available only over the holidays in supermarkets and pharmacies. Quality lights burn reliably for years, meaning you don't have to replace individual bulbs as often. They also offer a greater palette of colors, and because bulbs are double-dipped, those colors are richer. Buy only light sets that are Underwriters Laboratories-approved, ensuring that the cord is insulated and the bulbs will not overheat. (Look for the UL hologram tag.) In the case of miniature lights, avoid straight-line construction. When one bulb burns out, all the rest go out. To be sure, look for three entwined cords. In the case of C-7s, you should be able to comfortably hold a lighted bulb in the palm of your hand for about a minute. If you can't remember when you bought a light set, it is probably time to replace it, since regulations have recently been tightened.
I've found even people who treat their ornaments like the crown jewels often don't give Christmas lights the respect they deserve. Think ahead when you take down your tree. If you just toss your light strings into a box willy-nilly, you'll waste hours untangling them a year later. Arrange them neatly on their holders and replace any burned-out lights so you'll be ready to go the following year.