Before moving to my Downtown Detroit loft, I restored and owned an early 1900s Tudor. The late-Victorian elements of the house’s design and the numerous fir trees that filled the front and back yards—draping the leaded windows like festive lace—made the annual installation and decoration of a Christmas tree a ‘must.’
And growing up in the U.P. (where fir trees also abound), the yearly trekking into the woods to choose (and chop down) the tree was a fixture of my childhood (albeit one which was sometimes savored more of a National Lampoon than a Hallmark holiday movie).
However, now that I live in a Downtown Detroit loft (appropriately enough just east of Griswold Street), I no longer put up a tree during the holidays.
It’s not that I don’t love trees (I do). Or that I don’t have the decorations (I do). But, simply, because I just don’t need to.
From my living room and bedroom windows, I look out at a 13-story Christmas tree. Through the early evening and night, I can see the blinking lights of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan building’s towering display of holiday festivity.
While the BCBS building is several blocks away, I have a perfect view of it (along with an incredible skyline of the city). My windows look out over Woodward, directly across the street from the former site of the historic J.L. Hudson Department Store.
And you don’t need to be right in the heart of Downtown Detroit to find longtime residents of Detroit with fond memories of Hudson’s during the holiday season: it was a child’s wonderland of holiday dreams, from the 12th-floor ‘Toyland’ (where Santa ‘resided’ from his arrival at the Thanksgiving Day Parade), to the nine-story ‘Christmas Tree of Lights’ that lit up the windows above the first floor (which were literally ‘dolled’ up for the season with delights that filled many a ‘wish-list’ whispered into Santa’s ear).
The brilliant ‘lights’ of the season also decorate my building (and all the buildings along the blocks north and west of me), which are strung with curtains of color. (While I appreciate the aesthetic effect of this, Little Dog is equally thrilled with the fact that our nightly walks are peppered with people who ask if we can take their picture in front of the residences, restaurants, and storefronts—since Little Dog is always petted, if not asked to be ‘in the photo.’ And, yes, okay, it is a little weird to me that my dog could very well end up on someone’s ‘Season’s Greetings from Our Family to Yours’ card.)
But, actually, that too speaks to why I don’t need to put up my own ‘individual’ tree…because when you live in Downtown Detroit, you find yourself part of a larger family—one who Lives here, Works here, and Plays here.
Detroit was known as ‘The City of Lights,’ or the Paris of the Midwest, in the early 1900s, and we put up more than ‘lights’ to celebrate the season. There is also a 60-foot Christmas Tree less than a block away from my loft at Campus Martius Park—which (and as a Yooper I fully appreciate this) everyone can enjoy…even on skates.
Campus Martius is also the site of Menorah in The D! Where the 26-foot Menorah, designed and built by artists Erik & Israel Nordin of the Detroit Design Center, was lit on December 16th and will stand until December 24th to celebrate Chanukah, the Festival of Lights.
Wait. Christmas is Christian, and Chanukah is Jewish. Why is this blog about both?
Because that is what makes the communal displays of light that I get to enjoy every December living in Downtown Detroit even more appropriate to the true history, and meaning, of the tradition.
You see, throughout history and to all of our ancestors those decorating our homes with green boughs had meaning. Pre-Christianity, the Winter Solstice (falling on December 21st or 22nd) was significant as the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It was believed that this occurred because the sun god had lost strength up until this time, and from here on out would get stronger. The ever green of evergreen boughs hung above doors and windows were reminders of the strength the sun god would regain and the return of summer. Essentially, of better times….
And Detroit itself is proving that, yes, even though there are sometimes periods of difficulty, better times do return. You don’t need a Downtown Detroit loft to realize that the city is experiencing regrowth.
Egyptians also celebrated a similar rebirth at this time of year, by bringing greenery into their homes (palm rushes) to show that their god Ra was on the cusp of recovering from his illness (experienced as the darkening of the days). The greenery symbolized the triumph of life: which again is appropriate to Detroit, as it is a city that not only symbolizes, but celebrates the life of those who live, work, and play here.
Vikings celebrated a similar sun god to the Egyptians (Balder), while Romans decorated their homes with greenery in honor of the Saturnalia (so-called for Saturn, the god of agriculture) and the celebration of the (literally) fruitful period that would follow.
For the Druids, the greenery was a ‘symbol of everlasting life.’ Which anyone who lives, works and plays in Downtown Detroit also has ample evidence of….
In the 1600s in Germany, trees were decorated with sweets and flowers, a symbol of delicacies and blooming, which we have ample evidence of in Detroit with all of our new Downtown eateries!
Historically, red symbolized ‘knowledge’—which we have ample evidence of Downtown with all of the start-ups, industrious companies, and individuals who have been built upon and build up knowledge (including Thomas Edison, a Michigander, who first lit up Washington Blvd and whose assistants are credited with coming up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees!).
But well before that, in the early 1500s, Martin Luther decorated a tree with candles so his children could see how stars twinkled through the dark night.
And maybe it is that, the idea of the lights that guide us—with beauty, hope, and knowledge—and never go out, that speaks best to why I don’t need to put up my own tree. The ever-green of the fir tree and the lights that permeate our city celebrate the idea of the constant presence and promise of further growth, as well as a beacon through the night.
And, that—the most beautiful of all decorations this city provides me—is why I do not need to put up a tree in my Downtown loft.
Though, I just might do it.
If only to celebrate the spirit of all my neighbors, our shared history, the beautiful future of this city, and our continual growth together….