Tag Archives: spectacle

Merry and Bright: The Spectacle of the Christmas Tree

By Marc Williams

“Spectacle” can be broadly defined as a visually striking display, event, or performance. Spectacle has long been associated with live performance, since costumes, scenery, lighting, dance, and other visual elements are frequently used to enhance the performance experience. In my BLS class, Eye Appeal, we focus on the spectacles that occur not only on stage but also in every day life. In my most recent blog entry, I wrote about the spectacle of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and its spectacular precursors, the cycle plays of medieval Europe–in this post I’ll focus on Christmas trees and other holiday displays.

2013-White-House-Christmas-Tree-e1386618998921The day after Thanksgiving, November 29, 2013, an 18.5-foot Douglas fir was delivered to the White House. Since 1966, the White House Christmas Tree has been provided annually by the National Christmas Tree Association. Since that time, the First Lady has been responsible for creating a theme for the tree each year, and its decoration and lighting has become an annual spectacle for those in the Washington, D.C. area—an interesting blend of politics, religion, and spectacle. There were indeed White House Christmas trees before 1966, but more on that later.

The delivery of the 2013 White House Christmas Tree

Evergreens have been associated with winter solstice for many centuries. In Ancient Egypt and later in Ancient Rome, for example, evergreens were brought into homes to celebrate the continuation or return of life following the winter. Some believe these pagan solstice traditions were adapted by early Christians and evolved into our modern Christmas tree. The earliest recorded Christmas trees were found in 16th century Germany and were typically decorated with apples. The apple decorations are associated with December 24, as the medieval Christian calendar celebrated Adam and Eve’s Day on that date. Christmas trees were introduced to the United States in the early 1800s and were sold commercially by the 1850s [source]. At the time, Christmas trees were a new “fad” in America and many people associated Christmas trees with the German settlers who introduced them.

Interestingly, the White House Christmas Tree has a controversial past. The first White House Christmas tree was displayed by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. In 1899, while Christmas trees had become more common in America, they were still considered by many to be a fad. A White House Christmas tree was by no means obligatory. That year, Chicago Tribune readers mounted a letter-writing campaign urging President McKinley to buck the Christmas tree trend for a variety of reasons—many letters focused on deforestation, with one writer calling Christmas trees “arboreal infanticide.” Other letter writers called Christmas trees “un-American,” since Christmas trees were still considered a German tradition by many. Given the Christmas tree’s pagan connections, some letter-writers viewed the White House tree as anti-Christian. Controversy surrounding the tree continues today, as some critics wonder if the White House Christmas Tree should focus on tradition rather than religion, or if the tree should exist at all.


The Tree at Rockefeller Center

Perhaps the most iconic Christmas tree in the United States is found in New York City at Rockefeller Center. The tree is positioned just above the famous ice skating rink and immediately front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The Rockefeller Center tree has been a tradition for over eighty years and its lighting has become a major entertainment event. The 2013 tree is 76 feet tall, weighs twelve tons, features over 45,000 lights, and is topped with a nine-foot wide Swarovski star.


Two rows of trumpeting angels are installed along the plaza, forming a lane that frames the tree beautifully when viewed from Fifth Avenue. The lighting ceremony has now become a televised event with celebrity hosts and performers; the 2013 lighting ceremony featured Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, the Radio City Rockettes, and many others.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

Here in Greensboro, residents of the Sunset Hills neighborhood create an unique annual holiday spectacle: a neighborhood-wide display of lighted “ball” decorations. This local tradition began with Jonathan Smith’s family, residents of Sunset Hills, about sixteen years ago. The balls are homemade, constructed from chicken wire shaped into spheres, then wrapped with a strand of Christmas lights. The balls hang from tree branches, some nearly thirty feet off the ground.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

The video below features the 2008 display and Smith discussing how the tradition started.

Lighted Christmas Balls In Greensboro, North Carolina

Have you seen any of these holiday spectacles in person? What role does spectacle play in your holiday celebrations?

A Holiday Spectacle

by Marc Williams

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade processes through Times Square.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving with the smell of sage wafting through the house as my mother began a long day of cooking and baking. Of course my morning was spent in front of the television watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And now that I have children of my own, Thanksgiving has come full circle: I’m the one doing the cooking and my son, now four years old, is the one enjoying the parade.

The Macy’s parade has been around since 1924, when Macy’s department store on 34th Street decided to hold a parade as a marketing ploy. Macy’s employees dressed in costumes—clowns, cowboys, and the like—and walked with Central Park Zoo animals on a six-mile route through Manhattan. The parade was a success for Macy’s, became an annual event, and is now the most popular holiday parade in America. The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California and Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans are also major parades, and communities all over the country stage parades in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, fall harvests, and other occasions. Parades big and small are commonplace, yet many viewers probably don’t realize that modern parades owe a debt both to theatre and to the church.

During the early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in Europe began dramatizing events from the Bible in an attempt to share the liturgy with a growing population that was largely illiterate. Church interiors were utilized in these liturgical dramas, with the central nave area of the basilica used for spectators and the columns along either side of the nave were used to separate different “stages,” or “mansions,” as they were called. The audience would walk from one mansion to the next, one mansion featuring the Garden of Eden, the next featuring Noah’s Ark, and so on. Interestingly, this staging technique—in which the spectator moves in and out of different acting areas—is still used today. It’s the same staging technique encountered in a “haunted house” attraction, and is also used by theme parks. Disney’s famous It’s a Small World After All and Pirates of the Caribbean rides use the same concept, although the audience is seated in a boat that moves through the attraction.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III forbade the clergy from participating in these liturgical plays. The performances were enormously popular but the Pope believed the scripture was becoming obscured by scenery, costumes, special effects, and scripts that were becoming increasingly colloquial.

The plays, known as “mysteries,” then moved outside the church. In some cases, the plays were held immediately outside the church—right on the church steps. Large stone basilicas with impressive steps and entryways could make for impressive theatrical backdrops. In some towns, performances moved to a town square. The image below from the Valenciennes Passion shows a town square that has several “mansions” built into its existing architecture for the performance of a 25-day long play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ. The city’s own gates appear to be used as the gates to Jerusalem, with a setting constructed for the temple, another for the sea, and so on.

Setting for the Valenciennes Passion, 1547.

In other towns, the spectators were spread out, with groups seated on risers in different areas of the town. For these mystery plays, the sets, costumes, and actors moved from one audience to the next on pageant wagons. These impressive devices could “dock” with an existing stage platform, providing a custom backdrop for the performance. Also, the wagon would also carry all the props and costumes needed to tell the story. These pageant wagons are the forerunners of our modern parade floats; the audience sits or stands as the small staging area moves to them. The performance occurs, then the float moves along the designated route.

An English pageant wagon.

Spectacle was of tremendous importance during the mystery plays. Because the church was no longer the organizing force for the performances, the plays were presented by other groups in the community. In England, for instance, the responsibility was given to the local craft guilds. Typically, each guild was responsible for one story: finding the actors, building the scenery and costumes, and paying their share of the overall expenses for the event. The guilds were typically assigned a story related to their expertise: the shipwrights would present Noah, the goldsmiths would present the three kings, since they could supply gold crowns, the blacksmiths might be in charge of nailing Christ to the cross, and so on. The guilds took tremendous pride in their contributions and their efforts were dazzling: some wagons featured trap doors for surprising entrances and exits, others featured elaborate scenic detail that was stunningly lifelike, while some featured flying effects and other stage magic.

Indeed the same is true today at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. New balloons and floats are added each year, and these new efforts are consistently focused on providing a new spectacle that has never been seen in a parade before. In this year’s parade, for example, Cirque du Soleil provided a new float that is the biggest in parade history, complete with acrobats and contortionists—it was like a little self-contained circus.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Dreamseeker” float in the 2013 Macy’s Parade.

In my BLS course Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss modern-day spectacles like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and historical spectacles like the mystery plays. We consider why we are so consistently impressed by the “wow factor” that spectacles offer, and wonder what draws each of us individually toward these spectacles. For me, the Macy’s Parade takes me back to my childhood home, watching television in my pajamas with the smell of sage in the air. What memories do you associate with the Macy’s Parade? Or do you have another favorite holiday spectacle?