Above: The Christmas Tree in Ober Park in 1916. (Courtesy Pittsburgh City Photographer, Archive Services at the University of Pittsburgh)
In the next few weeks, millions of trees, some live, some freshly cut, some aluminum and some deceptively real-looking plastic ones, will find their way into our homes and neighborhoods.
Last winter, on the day after Christmas, several folks in our neighborhood were introduced to a new and wonderful tradition from Germany from our friend Susanna Ortner.
Known in southern Germany, Susanna’s homeland, as Christbaum Loben (In Praise of the Christmas Tree) it is a time to walk about visiting neighbors under the pretext of admiring their Christmas tree and sharing a bit of schnapps, wine or some sweet treats at each house. It was good that we all walked! What a wonderful, should I say, gemutlich, tradition: meeting neighbors, spending time with old friends and being surprised at the great variety of ways folks decorate their trees.
Some were quite splendid and had elaborate and costly ornaments. Some were decorated with cookies, others with homemade ornaments, and one was completely free of decorations except scattered snow. I admired them all and thought of the many trees of my lifetime.
Growing up in the “Christmas Story” era of the ’50s, the tree in our home and in those of my Brighton Heights neighbors were either Spruce or Scotch Pine with lights, metallic icicles, paper chains and a sundry collection of ornaments. Our tree usually went up on December 24 and was gone by early January – none of this Halloween to Valentine’s Day type of Christmas season.
There was also a community tree in Legion Park, decorated by the Brighton Community Club. I imagine similar community trees were found throughout the Northside.
John Ober, famed brew master and civic leader of Allegheny City, probably made certain that a community tree was erected in the center of the formal park he presented to Allegheny City. In recent years I’ve appreciated the tree placed in the heart of the Historic Deutschtown business district on East Ohio Street.
Last year the National Aviary transformed a gigantic Blue Spruce outside their facility into a magnificently lit tree in the Allegheny Commons, and the tree in Brighton Heights grows taller each year. One of my fondest memories is of the community tree of Allegheny West in the late ’70s.
To me, this tree symbolized one of the beauties of life in a diverse urban neighborhood. The massive evergreen was provided by the Muellers, who operated a parking lot at Brighton Road and Western Avenue.
The decorations placed on the tree were all made by neighbors from a variety of materials. Mirror pieces, gleaned from the Paramount Glass Co. in Manchester, were cut and glued into reflective snowflakes. Ribbons and trinkets were attached to metallic pie plates. Rolls of aluminum foil were transformed into long chains. Plywood stars, cut by Alex Watson and Merle Dickenson were painted and “glittered” by young and old residents of the neighborhood.
One homebound neighbor, Alden Craig, an artist in his own right, sent several shopping bags of unique ornaments. Gift bags, filled with an orange, an apple, cookies and candy were assembled for all the kids as well as folks living alone in small rooming house units scattered in the community. In those years, our good neighbor Neil Savage was the embodiment of Santa in a magnificent suit of velvet and fur.
On a Sunday evening a week before Christmas the community assembled to decorate our tree. Allegheny West Civic Council’s vice president in those years was Major Don Peterson of the Harbor Light Salvation Army facility located in the neighborhood. Don arranged for a small brass band of SA musicians to accompany the carol sing. The Major also provided the “Sally Wagon” which served hot chocolate and cookies everyone. Santa distributed gift bags to all.
The Tree Event was indeed a community sharing and celebrating all the positive images associated with the season. No “Humbug” here! Just Goodwill and lots of “Merry Christmas” greetings as we gathered around tree. There are indeed many good reasons or an annual Christbaum Loben in all of our neighborhoods.