The color of Christmas has been green for centuries -- long before retailers went boom or bust from their holiday sales. Decking the halls with boughs of holly came long before department store Santas.
``The connotation of hope and renewal is represented by the blooming of holly berry during the winter -- even when nothing else can bloom,'' said Karal Ann Marling, author of the just published ``Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday'' (Harvard University Press, 2000).
the Christmas holiday has always been more secular than religious in our nation, said Marling, who is a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota.
Marling points out that the origin of greenery as decorations was not to celebrate Christmas, but rather to celebrate the winter solstice, a practice dating to the Druids, Germanic tribes and even the Egyptians during the time of the Pharaohs.
However, Connecticut residents didn't see much in the way of Christmas decorations until the mid-1800s because the Puritans considered them pagan. But once holiday decorating got started in New England, there was no stopping it. ``Decorating happened almost instantaneous in homes, churches and stores,'' Marling said. ``Elaborate window displays were more than decorations; they were just plain entertainment with the movement of figures.''
``If a few sprigs of greenery were the order of the day in the 1820s, by the 1870s, Christmas decorations were far more fanciful and pervasive in stores, homes and churches -- everything from Santa and his wonderful pack to the Three Wise Men bearing gifts,'' said Leigh Eric Schmidt, associate professor of religion at Princeton University and author of ``Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays'' (Princeton University Press, 1995).
Merchants in Connecticut took great efforts to create holiday wonderlands in their store windows. Elaborate displays in downtown Hartford department stores, such as G. Fox & Co. and Sage-Allen, not only attracted customers but also throngs of window gazers.
Even small-town merchants took great efforts to decorate their storefront windows. Many merchants also shared the cost of displaying Christmas lights with other local businesses.
That tradition continues today in some towns. Retailers on Main Street in Manchester pay for holiday decorations through a special tax for downtown services. Traditional garlands and wreaths are painted on storefront windows and ornaments, which light up at night, line Main Street.
``We really see us as a traditional downtown that sets us apart,'' said Tana Parseliti, manager for the Downtown Manchester Special Services District. ``Things tend to get awfully vanilla in life. The merchants like to touch base with their historic past.''
Enfield Mayor Mary Lou Strom remembers the Christmas lights that were hung across Main Street in downtown Thompsonville when she was a child.
``What made it so magical was that the Christmas lights started from St. Patrick's Church and continued down the hill past the town pond, where the lights were on for night skating,'' she said. ``What I remember of it, as a kid, was the hustle and bustle on Main Street during the Christmas season.''
Although Thompsonville merchants didn't offer the motorized displays like the big city department stores, Strom recalls merchants took great efforts to decorate their storefront windows with glass wax. She said the decorations were of traditional winter holiday scenes, such as snowmen and Santa's sleigh.
Those Santa decorations were popular long before Strom was a child growing up in Thompsonville. The 1880 Christmas advertisement of a Hartford store, the Bee Hive, describes a store decked out in special holiday decorations, including candy canes and images of Santa Claus.
Christmas decorating wasn't limited to merchants. While magazines and manuals offered decorating tips to retailers in the 1800s, they also offered women advice on weaving together greenery, making and buying Christmas gifts and preparing a holiday feast for the family.
Directions on how to weave greenery were especially helpful to Victorian women, most of whom considered it their job to decorate the home. Garlands of greenery were hung -- crisscross style -- on ceilings, looped on stairways, attached to overhead light fixtures and even hung like a curtain in doorways, according to Sunny O'Neil, author of ``The Gift of Christmas Past, A Return to Victorian Traditions'' (American Association for State and Local History, 1981).
Popular magazines that depicted woven greenery adorning everything from mantles to doorways in the home, plus ornately decorated Christmas trees, played an influential role in promoting Christmas decorating in the home.
These magazines, particularly the ones during the 1860s that featured illustrations by Thomas Nast, portrayed Christmas as a time for family togetherness. Although Nast is most famous for his illustrations of Santa Claus, he also portrayed families waiting for their loved ones -- particularly soldiers fighting in the Civil War -- to return home for the holidays. This signified the importance of Christmas as a time for families to assert their ties with one another, said Marling, the University of Minnesota professor.
During the past 150 years, little has changed in how Americans decorate for Christmas. Images of Santa filling Christmas stockings, church bells and Nativity scenes, wreaths and Christmas trees still prevail. The one big difference from the very early days is the advent of electric lights.
And those holiday lights can be seen everywhere, from private homes to elaborate public exhibitions.
Although the big Hartford department stores are long gone -- as are their fancy window decorations -- area residents can enjoy a new holiday tradition. Motorists can drive through a 2-mile light display at Goodwin Park in Hartford. There are also grand public light displays in the city's Constitution Plaza and Bushnell Park. And just over the Connecticut border, is the Bright Nights at Forest Park light show in Springfield.
Originally published Dec. 25, 2000
WINTERTIME IN CONNECTICUT