Christmas trees don't have to be evergreen

December 19, 2004|by Dorry Norris

The tradition of the evergreen Christmas tree might have come to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio. The custom spread slowly. In New England, the Puritans had banned Christmas celebrations of any sort. Their influence took a long time to overcome - schools in Boston stayed open on Christmas Day through 1870. In 1851, a Cleveland minister nearly lost his job because he allowed a tree in his church.

While today the evergreen as a Christmas tree seems the most traditional, it isn't always so.

For the Moravians, as for many Europeans, branches of cherry trees were cut on Dec. 4 (St. Barbara's Day), put in a crock of water and placed near the fire. When it was time to decorate the tree, the tiny buds had burst into bloom and the branches were covered with tiny pink blossoms - a symbol of rebirth, of the spring to come.


Moravians are a Protestant denomination that started in Moravia, known today as Czechoslovakia. They came to America in 1735 and settled in Georgia. When that settlement failed, they moved to Bethlehem, Pa., bringing their Christmas traditions with them.

Visitors to the recent holiday open house at the Washington County Rural Heritage Museum had a chance to enjoy one of those traditions. Sally Waltz of Smithsburg, a docent at the Hessian Barracks in Frederick, Md., created a beautiful Moravian Christmas tree. It was decorated with authentically appropriate handmade ornaments. The handout that she prepared describing the ornaments on the tree is my resource for this column.

To many, the most surprising additions to the tree are the pretzels. According to folklore, a Moravian monk, who also was a baker, observed that children in prayer crossed their arms. Wanting to make something that would be both a reward and a reminder of their prayerful attitude, he created pretzels. In time they became a fixture on the Christmas tree.

In Europe, candy molds were used to create beeswax ornaments. Because beeswax has a high melting point (147 degrees), the ornaments made from it are durable and safe to hang in windows and on Christmas trees. People were eager to buy beeswax figures, like the wax hearts on our tree, for decoration.

The tiny baskets hung on the tree by each child contained - if they had been good - a piece of candy on Christmas morning.

Well before they appeared as Easter decorations, eggs dyed by using onion skins to create patterns embellished the Christmas tree. These eggs, when kept from year to year, deepened in color and became more beautiful, more like marble.

Potters in the area of a Moravian settlement sometimes used scraps of clay to make ornaments. These decorations usually were in the shape of farm animals, bells and tulips. The tulip, with its three petals, represented the Holy Trinity; the animals, a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem.

In 1815, a Pennsylvania tinsmith made his contribution to the tree by cutting 6-inch strips of tin, 1/4-inch wide. He gave them two twists so they would catch the light. Waltz suggests that he didn't want to call them tin icicles, so the word "tinsel" was given to his creation. By 1830, tin also was used to fashion stars for the tree.

Ornaments made of scraps of hand-woven cloth were fashioned by children into various shapes, stuffed with wool and hung on the Christmas tree.

Census records from 1790 show there were 10,000 weavers in Pennsylvania, so there must have been a lot of scraps about. Our tree is hung with a collection of lovely hand-woven hearts.

The Moravian star, also called the Herrnhut Star, originated in the Moravian boarding schools in Germany as an exercise in geometry. The three-dimensional star is made of folded strips of paper. Paper often was scarce, but when it was available, children in Pennsylvania made the stars for the tree.

Today, many Moravian churches make and sell the stars. After studying the directions, one comes to believe that buying them, at any price, would be far more sensible than following the very complicated directions. But still, if children could do it ...

The stars might have 12 to 26 points. They are a reminder of the "great and heavenly light from Bethlehem's manger shining bright."

The stars on our tree have 16 points and add the finishing touch to our cherry branch tree.


Last week's Posol recipe was missing 1/2 pound of boneless pork cut into 3/4-inch cubes. It is browned with the onions.

Here is the complete recipe:


2 slices bacon, diced

1/2 pound boneless pork cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1 cup onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, diced

1 2-pound can whole hominy, drained

1 teaspoon dried oregano or 1 tablespoon fresh

2 bay leaves

1 small can diced green chilies, drained

1 hominy can of water (you might have to add more)

In a heavy kettle, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp; remove and crumble. Add pork and brown. Add onions and garlic and cook over medium heat until soft. Add bacon with remaining ingredients, cover and cook over low heat for at least one hour. Check occasionally to see if you need more water to keep the hominy from sticking. When it is completely cooked, most of the liquid will be gone.

Remove bay leaves. Serve in bowls with toasted flour tortillas. Posol might even be better when it is reheated.

In New Mexico, posol usually is served with red or green chile. You can top it with fresh salsa from the produce department.

Serves four.

Herbarist, lecturer and Hagerstown resident Dorry Baird

Norris is a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America and author of "The Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook." She welcomes questions about the nonmedical use of herbs. Send e-mail to her at or write in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD 21741.

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