Sunday, December 6, 2009


As I write this, we’ve been having our first snow of the season; we can see it starting to collect in corners of the sidewalks and the gutters of the streets. The road surface reflects light, and drivers seem more sedate and fewer in number.

It’s been a big weekend in the city. Friday night was the Living Windows, downtown, and the Governor’s Mansion candlelight tours. Saturday was Christkindelfest and the citywide Christmas parade. I’m pretty sure the kids who participated in the parade were mostly the same ones we looked at in the “Living Windows.” Same choirs and scout groups! But it was all very cheerful and entertaining.

There’s more to blog about than I’ve had time to type. Hopefully I’ll post a little in retrospect. Tonight, however, I’m doing a “here is where I am right now” post.

I’m on the sofa, my shoes off, my foot aching. I think that screw in my bone gets cold and then takes extra time to warm back up.

On the stereo, a recording of Joseph-Guy Ropartz’s Le Miracle de Saint Nicolas. (Fitting for today, le 6 Décembre, n’est-ce pas?) Happy St. Nicholas day!

Annnnnd . . . we put up the Christmas tree today. It is there, right in front of me.

It’s not really a Christmas tree. It’s more of a “contraption.”

It’s probably the coolest and most valuable thing I own. . . . I feel very strange saying that, however, because I don’t feel as if it belongs to me. We are merely its current caretakers.

It’s technically a Weihnachtspyramide, a “Christmas pyramid” that consists of a roughly pyramidal structure with a vertical central axle that bears platforms upon which may be placed Christmas figurines. Atop the axle are paddles (like a beanie cap) that spin because they catch rising air from the heat of candles placed below.

You’ve probably seen these wooden pyramiden, usually ones that were hand-carved in the Erzgebirge region of Germany. They often have little candles at the four bottom corners to provide the heat necessary to turn the platforms into little processionals at the center.

Well, my family’s pyramide was built by my great-grandfather Albert Thomas in about 1890. This is the same great-grandfather who created the home that we live in (which is a long story I won’t go into now); it’s my dad’s grandpa on his mother’s side. Albert and his wife, Wilhelmine, were German immigrants who arrived here in Jeff City in 1888.

The pyramide was already about twenty years old when my grandma was about five, in 1910, which is when we got our first picture of it. Grandma is sitting next to it with a big bow in her hair, and she’s holding a nice big doll. Many of the ornaments in that picture are the same that we put on the tree today.

Literally, today. It is always an experience to set up the tree; to carry it down the creaking steps from the third floor where it resides in its own special closet, with a door wide enough to accommodate its annual migration to the living room.

It takes two people to walk it down the steps and squeeze it gently through the doorway into the front hall. Though we pack it with tissue paper each year, the bell ornaments attached at the center still tinkle and ring at each jostle.

It’s traditional to sing “O Tannenbaum” as we carry it. I’ve only recently learned the German lyrics, having “faked it” for many years.

Until I was a young adult, carrying it downstairs was always done by my dad and Uncle Richard. They are both capable as well as immensely careful. The tree is bulky but very light. It is a fragile, old thing, and a dear thing.

I was terrified the first time I helped carry it downstairs. I must have been about twenty. My dad reassured me, and I did all right.

Dad and I carried it again today. We set it carefully on its card table, which we had draped this year with a white felt skirt that my Great Aunt Minnie (Grandma’s sister) had decorated one year with sequins and pictures she’d clipped from her Christmas cards. The Santa Clauses and candy canes, snowmen, poinsettias, roses, angels, and snowflakes are glued on with Elmer’s. It was a nice project for Aunt Minnie that year, since she’d broken her knee on the sidewalk outside of Dallmeyer’s jewelry that year—this must have been in the 1950s.

I don’t use this skirt very often because it’s so fragile, but this year I wanted it.

The paddles are a separate unit that fits at the top. It’s kind of a bugger to get it to fit right, but we always get it somehow, eventually. Again, it’s not heavy—just very fragile. The paddles were made out of wood from old fruit crates.

The Santa Claus at the very top is another separate piece, always packed in the boxes with the various ornaments.

After we remove the tissue paper from the inner cavity, the first job is usually to get a damp paper towel or two and wipe any dust or pieces of greenery from the floor of the base, which we call the “garden.” There’s a little wooden picket fence around the perimeter.

Before too many ornaments get placed, we set up the little houses and trees in the garden, then put the Nativity scene in place. Onto the first platform go a partial collection of miniature sheep that date to the tree’s earliest years (we have a nice picture from 1915 that shows them plainly).

It’s a family joke to say, “every year, we add a new ornament”—but it’s actually pretty true. Grandma insisted on keeping the tree young. Keeping it pretty.

And that’s the attitude that’s kept the tree alive all these years: It changed; it changes. The candles gave way to kerosene lamps, then to a small wall-mounted fan that made the paddles spin. Since about 1957, a music box at the base gently turns the axle while chiming “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.” That’s how I’ve known it my whole life.

Similarly, strings of multicolored Christmas lights replaced the glow (and danger) of candles and coal oil lamps. And the baubles and beads have occasionally been swapped out for new and shinier as the years went on. Also, many of the ornaments represent new faces and places of the family. There’s a modern blown-glass chili pepper that I’m sure came from my uncle and aunt when they lived in New Mexico, for instance.

Meanwhile, we continue to put many of the old ornaments on it—little fruit baskets, which always make me think of how precious and rare fresh fruits used to be by the end of December. Wax angels, which are also some of the oldest ornaments. We are always careful not to place them near light bulbs that might melt their pink arms and legs. There are a couple of bottle caps painted to look like Santa faces, with a cotton-ball beard glued on, that I think were made by one of my uncles. It looks like a third-grade project.

When you’re the caretaker of something that represents the experiences, memories, and culture of multiple generations of your family, it’s an awesome and wonderful thing.

I hope lots of people get to see it this year.


Shelda said...

That's just amazing! What a wonderful story, and a wonderful family tradition. Thanks for sharing it!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you, Shelda; your kind words mean a lot to me.

And yes, it is a really wonderful symbol of family connections across the generations.

Glenda in Co said...

Thank you for sharing a very cool family heirloom and even cooler family traditions and memories! I have never seen one of these before! (I think I came to your blog looking for jello molds/recipes/pictures and I am really enjoying reading your archives!)

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi, Glenda! Thank you for your kind comment. I daresay you will never find a Weinachtspyramide like ours, as it has such a long, wild history I doubt any others exist. (Although I keep thinking I would like to try building another one someday, and make it be like this one was, in the beginning.)

I'm checking out your blog, too, and enjoying it quite a bit. Since it centers around cooking and "burning down the kitchen," I think you'd enjoy my post about Sara Moulton:


Thanks again,

Anonymous said...

I LOVE tradition and this is one of the best traditions, of which I've ever heard! Thanks so much for sharing. If I were in town (Columbia), you bet, I'd be down to see it, but I'll be in St. Louis. Your article warmed my heart! Frohe Weihnachten to you and yours! Cheri

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you, Cheri. For future reference, I think we'll be having an annual "open house" day some weekend in early to mid December for people to come and see the tree. I will announce it on the Opulent Opossum Facebook page.

Thanks for the comment--and the enthusiasm!


Unknown said...

I sure wish I could come see it in person! It looks AWESOME! Our main tree pales in comparison, though it has some older ornaments too. In our living room, there's a (fake) white tree with mostly antique PINK ornaments that I've collected. Drink some egg nog for me!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you, Cindy, for your kind comment. I would love to see your trees, too! You are not that far away from here. Someday, Sue and I will put out more of the decorations we have--in addition to the Schroeder family Weihnachtspyramide, we also have the groovy antique aluminum Christmas tree Sue inherited from her Great Aunt Margaret--it has the "spinner" spotlight and everything. But though all the pretty stuff languishes in our "Christmas closet," I'm glad we keep making the choice every year to sacrifice most of the decorations, and the fussing with doodads, in order to spend more time being with people. Maybe when we're retired we'll become "the Christmas house"!