Since prehistory, the winter solstice – the longest night in the year – has been a special time. All around the world people offered sacrifices to entice the sun to come back. Evergreen boughs and lots of lights were used to encourage nature to get past winter’s darkness and start growing again.

To observe the solstice, ancient Romans decorated trees and gave gifts during Saturnalia, the festival honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. For ages, the Germans decorated fir trees with apples and candles.

When England sent Hessian soldiers over to fight in the American Revolution, the soldiers brought their winter customs with them. In 1846 the Illustrated London News ran an illustration of Queen Victoria and German Prince Albert with their children around a Christmas tree. Decorated trees suddenly became fashionable – not only in England, but around the world.

With Evanston’s 150th anniversary approaching, here are suggestions for some old-fashioned winter activities. 

Residents can cut down their own trees and decorate them with treats. Since few people have their own woods, 99 percent of holiday trees are grown on Christmas tree farms. Chicagoland tree farms can be found easily on the Internet.

Some places offer both cut-your-own and pre-cut trees. Some places offer hot cocoa and baked goodies that add to the festive experience. It is a good idea to call ahead and find out about the selection available, prices and the best time to go. Some trees are sold per tree and others
are sold at so much a foot.

Before shopping, the Christmas tree owner-to-be should measure the spot where the tree will go – and take along a measuring tape or ruler when shopping for the tree. All trees look much smaller outdoors. It is wise to start early in the day so the tree can be selected in daylight.

If the weather holds, fall or even spring attire will suffice; otherwise, warm clothes and sturdy boots for tromping around in the mud are a must. Cut-it-yourself-ers will need a saw for cutting down the tree, an old sheet or plastic to wrap the tree and a piece of rope or clothesline to tie the tree onto the car.

Decorating the tree with homemade ornaments brings back olden times, when people sat around stringing popcorn and cranberries and making paper chains. Adding candy canes and decorated gingerbread helps create a vintage-style tree.

After the holidays, trees can be recycled either at home or by the City. Propped up in the yard, the former Christmas tree offers shelter to the birds; mulched, it protects tender perennials for the remainder of the winter. Trees placed in the parkway any time in January will be picked up and recycled to good use.

According to ancient Midwest lore, all trees – every needle – should be out of the house by the second of February, or dire things will occur. This cleanup could be another family activity.