Inside the Upside Down: The Murky Origins of a Puzzling Christmas Tree Trend

Photo courtesy of Claridge's
Photo courtesy of Claridge's

In recent years, turning Christmas trees upside down—and occasionally hanging them from the ceiling—has become a bona fide trend. In 2016, London's Tate Britain museum hung a Christmas tree with gold leaf-covered roots upside down from the ceiling. Karl Lagerfeld recently designed one for London's legendary Claridge's hotel (the designer calls Christmas trees "the strongest 'souvenir' of my happy childhood"). In 2017, Target sold an upside down tree for nearly $1000. Now, pop singer Ariana Grande has mounted her tree on her ceiling, top towards the floor.

An inverted tree can create a gorgeous, memorable display—but the trend is also controversial (and, for some, just plain confusing). Critics argue that the upside down tree is a corruption of the traditional, time-honored method of tree display—that is, trunk toward the ground. Proponents counter that it’s an ancient practice itself—one that was an integral part of early medieval Christmases—and that in the 12th century, it was a tradition in Eastern Europe. The tree, they say, was positioned upside down to create a representation of the Trinity and mimic the shape of a crucifix.

But just how far back does this topsy-turvy practice really go? The fact is, there simply isn’t that much recorded information about early Christmas trees, upside down or otherwise. Which makes the inverted tree mystery as tangled as a string of Christmas lights.

Origins Of A Myth


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to myth, the first decorated tree popped up in Latvia in the 1500s (right side up). But as with much of the early history of Christmas trees, even that’s debated—and it’s possible that the Latvia story is a 19th century misinterpretation.

Beyond that, many of the early references to Christmas trees are scattered; most seem to be laws that made the trees illegal (to curb illicit logging) and to regulate which trees could be cut down. A 1561 law in Alsace, which is today part of France, limited a family to “one pine in the length of eight shoes.” There’s another reference that dates back to 1570 in a guild chronicle from Bremen; the guild allowed children to shake a tree in order to dislodge treats like apples and nuts that had been placed in it.

Around the internet, a popular tale traces the origin of the Christmas tree to St. Boniface in the 8th century. As the tale goes, Boniface supposedly saw pagans worshipping an oak tree. To stop them, he cut the tree down, and a fir grew in its place. Boniface used the shape of the tree—a triangle—to represent the Trinity. According to some sources, Boniface hung the tree upside down.

Some people use the story to argue that the Christmas tree is much older than the 16th century. But according to the 8th century bishop Willibald, whose tome The Life of Saint Boniface is the main source on the Saint’s life, this tale is mostly a myth. Written just a few years after Boniface’s death, The Life of Saint Boniface discusses the oak but never the fir, saying that when Boniface cut the oak down, it “burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord.” Boniface then built an oratory from the timber. There's no mention of a fir tree, either upside down or right-side up.

Boniface isn't the only theory for the origin of upside down Christmas trees: Another says that an inverted tree is a Central and Eastern European tradition dating back to the 12th century. But according to the Polish Art Center, before Christmas trees became popular in Poland in the 1900s, it wasn't an entire tree but the tip of a fir tree or a branch that was hung from the rafters pointing down, usually toward the dinner table.

There is some historical precedent for hanging entire trees from the ceiling, however. In his book Inventing the Christmas Tree, Bernd Brunner includes an illustration of a hanging tree from the 19th century. But it’s hanging with the trunk facing the ground, not upside down with the tip facing the floor. “In the small common rooms of the lower classes," Brenner explains, "there was simply no space for [a tree on the ground].”

Hanging trees may have emerged because it was a convenient way to have a small Christmas tree without it being in the way, with the added bonus that it kept any treats that were on the tree away from children. Brunner also mentions that trees were occasionally hung upside down to protect the household, but that practice doesn't seem to have been widespread.

So what did hanging trees in? Brunner theorizes that it was partly due to rafters giving way to the rise of plastered ceilings. "The most they could bear was perhaps an Advent wreath or a wooden frame with candles," he writes.

Back to the Upside Down


Photo courtesy of Claridge's

Recently, however, hanging trees have made a comeback. The trend seems to have started in retail stores, and the goal is the same as it was in the 19th century: to free up space. "By having a tree upside down, you're taking a very small footprint on the floor, and you're placing all the ornaments at eye level," Dan Loughman, vice president of product development at Roman Incorporated, told NPR in 2005. "And then the retailers can move their store products around the bottom of the tree or on shelves, you know, just behind it."

That year, store owners reported bewildered responses to the inverted trees, but the trend hung on, and in 2017, it seems to be gaining ground beyond the shopping mall. As Loughman said in 2005, "I think consumers go into retail stores to buy ornaments, and they buy their trim and—to get a certain look. Whatever they see in the store they want to replicate at home."

If you feel inspired to spice up your tree trimming this year, there are many options out there, from Amazon to Home Depot to Walmart. Or you can go the traditional Polish route and cut off the tip of a fir tree off and hang that from the ceiling.

A version of this story ran in 2017.

15 Parenting Tips From History’s Greatest Fathers

istock
istock

From William Shakespeare to Benjamin Franklin, these famous fathers may span generations and nationalities, but they seem to agree on a few basic parenting principles: educate your children, love them, be a role model, and continue to expand your thinking as your children do the same. In honor of Father’s Day, here are 15 parenting tips from the ages.

1. Lock Up Your Liquor Cabinet // Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) 

In Montaigne’s 1575 Essays, the French Renaissance philosopher expresses his opinions regarding child rearing (and a multitude of other subjects). Among them was that parents should live modestly so they can give their children the majority of their resources, that a father should be honest with his children about his feelings, and that he shouldn’t try to be a frightening figure. Montaigne also wrote, “I think it more decent and wholesome for children to drink no wine till after 16 or 18 years of age.” Of course, modern parents will want to keep their children away from the liquor cabinet for even longer, since the legal drinking age today is 21. 

2. It Gets Better // Miguel de Cervantes (c. 1547-1616) 

When Cervantes wrote “time ripens all things; no man is born wise,” in part two of Don Quixote, he wasn’t talking specifically about fatherhood, but it certainly applies. You don’t know what it’s like to be a parent until you’re thrown into that situation, and from there, you spend the rest of your life learning. 

3.  Be Able to Pick Your Child Out of a Lineup // William Shakespeare (1564-1616) 

During Act Two, Scene Two of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Launcelot says to his blind father, Gobbo, “It is a wise father that knows his own child,” before revealing himself as said son. Shakespeare himself had three children with his wife Anne Hathaway. 

4. Encourage Intellectual and Physical Growth // Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Franklin was self-taught after the age of 10 and eventually earned honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and St. Andrews in Scotland. But Franklin wasn’t just book smart: Sometime during the course of his learning, he picked up a darn good parenting philosophy. Franklin, who had three children with his wife Deborah Read, once said,  “A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.”

5. Give Them Liberty // John Adams (1735-1826)

The second president of the United States and father of six children believed his brood should uphold the same patriotic values he fought for. “Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom,” he once said.

6.  Parent for the Kids You Want // Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

Goethe’s professional philosophizing wound its way into his personal life as well. The German playwright, poet, and father of seven children said on the topic, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”

7. A Symbolic Father Can Be Just as Loving // Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) 

Father of four and influential German playwright and philosopher Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller said, “It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons.” 

8. Instill a Love of Reading // Horace Mann (1796-1859)

Since he was an education reformer, proponent of public schools, and the “father of the common school,” it’s no surprise that Mann urged fathers to instill a love of knowledge in their children from an early age. He said, “A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.”

9. Don’t Ignore Your Friends Just Because You Have Kids Now // Victor Hugo (1802-1885) 

While Victor Hugo’s works (most notably Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) favor themes of despair and alienation, the author and father of five was generous and inclusive when it came to love. Hugo said, “Son, brother, father, lover, friend. There is room in the heart for all the affections, as there is room in heaven for all the stars.” 

10. Be the Fun Dad and the Serious Dad // Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

As the leader of the Transcendentalist movement, Emerson advocated self-reliance, individuality, and the goodness of people and nature. When it came to parenting his four children, he advised, “Be silly. Be honest. Be kind.”

11.  Set a Good Example // John S.C. Abbott (1805-1877) 

American historian and minister John Stevens Cabot Abbott’s books (The Child at Home, Or, The Principles Of Filial Duty and The Mother at Home, Or the Principles of Maternal Duty) are full of moral and religious teachings. He wrote, “We must be what we wish our children to be. They will form their characters from ours.”

12.  Provide for Your Kids // John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) 

John Stuart Mill was a British moral and political theorist, philosopher, economist, and politician. In On Liberty, he wrote ,“It still remains unrecognized, that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society.” Mill also argued that if the government enables self-sustainability and personal freedom, individuals as well as the society as a whole will be better off. 

13. Get it Right the First Time // Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) 

Douglass spent his early years as a slave in Maryland before escaping at the age of 20, going on to become an active abolitionist and human rights advocate. The cruelty of his childhood no doubt influenced his views toward parenting. (He had five children.) “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” he wrote.

14.  Go Outside // John Muir (1838-1914) 

Muir was a naturalist, conservationist, and a father of two. In Muir’s book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, he wrote, “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.” 

15. Keep Them Smiling // Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) 

Wilde said, “The best way to make children good is to make them happy.” During the early years of his marriage to Constance Lloyd, the couple collaborated on publishing children’s books and had two sons of their own.

The 10 Most Dog-Friendly Workplaces in America

iStock/Lisa5201
iStock/Lisa5201

Bringing your dog to work might seem like it could be yet another job to handle, but the benefits of having your pupper by your side while you get through the daily grind—for both you and your co-workers—are numerous. Which helps explain why Take Your Dog to Work Day, which will be celebrated on June 21, has been a beloved holiday for office workers for more than 20 years.

According to a survey conducted by the dog lovers at Wellness Natural Pet Food, 65 percent of pet parents believe that having a dog in the workplace is a great way to boost company morale, while a whopping 75 percent of respondents said that pets can help to defuse stressful situations at work. In fact, nearly half of all dog moms and dads surveyed take their four-legged friends' wellbeing so seriously that "pet perks" are one of the factors they deem important when considering a new job offer.

So, in honor of Take Your Dog to Work Day, Wellness crunched the numbers in order to determine the 10 most pet-friendly companies in America. Did your employer make the cut?

1. Amazon // Seattle

On a daily basis, there could be as many as 6000 pups working out of Amazon's Seattle headquarters. Fortunately, the company makes them all feel at home with several on-campus dog parks, a doggie deck, and treats at the reception desk in every building. Because they're all good boys.

2. Harpoon Brewery // Boston

Boston's Harpoon Brewery loves welcoming four-legged friends into the fold. In addition to allowing dogs in the office throughout the week (which is located close enough to the Boston Seaport for a leisurely stroll), they host an annual "Dogtoberfest," where dogs and their humans tour the brewery for a beer-tasting (for the humans only, of course).

3. Trupanion // Seattle

Pet medical insurance company Trupanion takes pet perks to a whole different level with its in-house team of dog walkers and an onsite emergency team who are always standing by to ensure your dog’s health and safety throughout the workday. In addition, they allow a three-day paid bereavement period for employees dealing with the loss of a pet.

4. Ben & Jerry’s // Burlington, Vermont

Two of the world's greatest things—dogs and ice cream—come together in one magical place at Ben & Jerry's, where the 35 to 40 pups who hang out in the office on a daily basis are treated to yummy snacks and playtime. The company also regularly brings in veterinarians to help educate pet parents on everything from normal dog behaviors to training tips.

5. Contently // New York city

Dogs are content at Contently, a content marketing firm where good boys and girls are regularly found roaming the halls or taking naps in conference rooms. Contently employees even have access to a Slack channel for all pet-loving employees to share advice, tips, and adorable pics.

6. Procore // Carpinteria, California

Parties? More like “Pawties” with Procore’s dog-friendly happy hour. Dogs are able to play around outside while chowing down on treats and water when needed. In addition, pet insurance is one unique employee benefit you won't find in many other places.

7. Ticketmaster // Los Angeles

Dogs get a ticket to join their parents at Ticketmaster's Los Angeles office—another company where pet insurance is a great perk.

8. PetSafe // Knoxville, Tennessee

Celebrated pet brand PetSafe makes having dogs in the office a win-win for both employees and employers. As the company makes high-quality toys, treats, and more, they've got a never-ending supply of product testers right there to make sure they're headed in the right direction.

9. TripAdvisor // Needham, Massachusetts

Why leave Fluffy or Fido at home with only a pet cam to keep them company when they can just spend their day dozing off right next to your desk. TripAdvisor's extremely dog-friendly atmosphere means that you'll regularly see dozens of pooches frolicking around the office together.

10. Purely Elizabeth // Boulder, Colorado

It would make sense that natural pet food brand Purely Elizabeth would encourage their dog-loving employees to spend more time with their pets by bringing their tail-waggers to work. You probably won't hear Rover complain, as testing out new treats is regularly part of the deal.

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