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"). Target currently sells an upside down tree for nearly $1000.

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 Finnish Tourism Company Is Hiring Professional Christmas Elves

iStock.com/kali9
iStock.com/kali9

Finland isn't quite the North Pole, but it will be home to a team of gainfully employed Christmas elves this holiday season. As Travel + Leisure reports, the Scandinavian country's Lapland Safaris is looking for elves to get guests into the holiday spirit.

Lapland Safaris is a tourism company that organizes activities like snowmobiling, Northern Lights-gazing, skiing, and ice-fishing. The elf employees will be responsible for leading guests to their buses and conveying important information, all while spreading holiday cheer. The job listing reads, "An Elf is at the same time an entertainer, a guide, and a mythical creature of Christmas."

Each Lapland Safari elf will receive training through Arctic Hospitality Academy prior to starting the job. There, they will learn "the required elfing and communication skills." Training will be conducted in English, but candidates' knowledge of French, Spanish, or German is a plus.

To apply, aspiring elves can fill out and submit this form through Lapland Safaris's website. The gig lasts from November 2018 to the beginning of next year, with employees having the option to work at any of the company's Finnish destinations (Santa's workshop is unfortunately not included on the list).

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

Aaugh! 10 Facts About It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Lee Mendelson hadn’t planned on a career in animation. But when television sponsors saw the filmmaker’s documentary about cartoonist Charles Schulz, they asked if the two could team up to produce a Christmas special based on Schulz’s Peanuts strip. The result, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was seen by roughly half of all households watching television during its premiere on CBS on December 9, 1965.

Mendelson went on to produce other Peanuts primetime specials, but 1966’s It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown remains one of the most endearing. As you prepare annual sympathy for poor ol' Chuck (“I got a rock”), check out some facts about naked composers, vomiting voice actors, and CBS’s bizarre ultimatum.

1. THE FUTURE OF ANIMATED PEANUTS SPECIALS DEPENDED ON IT.  


Warner Home Video

Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez had very high aspirations for A Charlie Brown Christmas. When they screened it prior to its premiere, however, they felt it didn’t live up to its potential—and CBS agreed. The network said it was the last Peanuts special they would buy. But after it delivered huge ratings, CBS changed their mind and asked for more. When the two delivered another hit—the baseball-themed Charlie Brown All-Stars—they thought they had earned the network’s confidence.

Instead, CBS told them they needed a special that could run every year, like A Charlie Brown Christmas. If Mendelson couldn’t provide it, they told him they might not pick up an option for a fourth show. Despite Schulz and his collaborators being annoyed by the network's abrasive attitude, they hammered out a story with a seasonal clothesline that could be rerun in perpetuity.   

2. THE VOICE OF VIOLET PUKED AFTER EVERY RECORDING SESSION.

It’s standard practice these days to use adult actors to mimic juvenile cartoon characters: adults are (presumably) better able to take direction and deliver a performance in line with the director’s wishes. But for many Peanuts specials, children were used to voice Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and the rest. Anne Altieri, who portrayed both Violet and Frieda, was so nervous to be part of the show that she threw up every time she was done with a recording session.

3. IT WAS THE FIRST TIME LUCY SNATCHED THE FOOTBALL FROM CHARLIE BROWN.

In animated form, anyway. When Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez were brainstorming scene ideas for the special, talk turned to the fact that Lucy’s habit of pulling the football away from Charlie Brown had never been seen in animation. They also decided it would be a good time to introduce Snoopy’s World War I Flying Ace. The joke had appeared in the strip, but Mendelson thought it would work even better in motion. He was right: the sequence with Snoopy in a doghouse dogfight is one of the most memorable in the Peanuts animated canon.

4. IT’S SECRETLY ABOUT SANTA.

The Great Pumpkin saga was adapted from Schulz’s newspaper strip, where he had conceived it as a metaphor for some of the hope (and disappointment) associated with Saint Nick. Schulz disliked the idea kids heard of a jolly fat man who delivered presents all over the world when he knew many families could only afford one or two gifts for the holidays. “The Great Pumpkin is really kind of a satire on Santa Claus,” he told Mendelson. “When [he] doesn’t come, Linus is crushed.”

5. THE MUSIC COMPOSER WAS FOUND NAKED BY COPS.


Warner Home Video

The jazzy scores of the early Peanuts specials were the work of composer Vince Guaraldi. When he was busy putting together “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” for the show, he decided to break for a shower. When he came out, he thought he heard noises outside and went to investigate, naked, and locked himself out in the process. Keyless, Guaraldi tried climbing a ladder to a second-floor window when cops spotted him. “Don’t shoot,” he said. “I’m the Great Pumpkin.” Police, who were many months away from getting the joke, let him back inside.  

6. A LISP ALMOST RUINED THE SHOW.

Kathy Steinberg was only four years old when she portrayed Sally for the first time in A Charlie Brown Christmas: her big break came when Mendelson, her neighbor, started work on the specials. While Steinberg had some limitations—like being too young to know how to read a script—things were going well until producers realized she was on the verge of losing a tooth. Fearing a lisp would ruin the voiceover work, they rushed to get her lines done. The day after finishing, the tooth fell out.  

7. KIDS SENT CHARLIE BROWN CANDY FOR YEARS.

One of the most poignant moments of any Peanuts cartoon comes when downtrodden Charlie Brown opens his Halloween goodie sack and discovers he’s been given rocks instead of candy. According to Schulz, this so angered viewers that for years his California office was inundated with sacks of treats addressed to the character.

8. THE ORIGINAL AIRINGS WERE SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT.

Production costs for the early Charlie Brown specials were subsidized by television sponsors Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison snack cakes: the brands appear at the beginning and end of the broadcast. The Coke “bug” appeared for several years before getting phased out. 

9. CBS GOT A LITTLE SALTY ABOUT LOSING THE RIGHTS.

After spending decades at CBS, the rights to three holiday Peanuts installments went up for grabs in 2000. Though CBS could make the first offer, it was ABC who made the winning bid. Privately, CBS executives were not at all pleased about the business decision to take the football away. “It's a shame that a few more dollars meant more to them than years of tradition and loyalty," one network employee anonymously told Variety

10. SOME SCHOLARS THOUGHT THE GREAT PUMPKIN WAS REAL.


Warner Home Video

A real myth, at any rate. Talking to the Schenectady Gazette in 1968, Schulz said that since the special began airing two years earlier, he had received a number of letters from academics wondering where the Great Pumpkin story had originated. “A number of professional scholars have written me about the origination of the legend,” he said. “They insist it must be based on something.” Schulz suggested they broach the topic with Linus instead.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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