A. SHRIKUMAR gathers facts and trivia behind the Christmas tree tradition

The congested East Avani Moola Street is awash with the colours of Christmas. A fresh tinge of artificial greenery has overtaken the stretch as plastic Christmas trees have sprung up on the platforms on either side. While the paper-made stars hang dreamily from shop roofs, glittering bells, shiny balls, ribbons and festoons cramp the spaces inside. Kathirvel Kannan is busy with the festival sales. He takes out an 18-feet Christmas tree for a customer from inside his narrow storeroom behind the shop. “People usually buy such big ones for the churches,” he says, between counting the money. “We get orders from across the State and sell thousands of trees every year. Last year, we packed 10 such huge trees to Santhome Church in Chennai. It was donated by a devotee in Madurai,” he beams.

Started as an accounts book shop, Kathirvel’s store is 60 years old and one of the oldest shops selling Christmas gifts and decorations in the town. “We were mainly into papers and notebooks. Later we branched into paper art works,” he recalls. “There was a time when we made our own Christmas trees and sold them for Rs.500 or 600 depending on the size.” The tree that Kathirvel sold was made by tying thin bamboo sticks and iron rods together which formed the frame of the tree – the trunk and branches. Glossy green paper was wrapped and rolled over the frame and thin strips of the paper were cut and stuck to the tree to resemble leaves. “It looked shabby and flimsy compared to the current ones. Yet those were novelties at that time,” reminiscences Kathirvel.

Until two decades back, the readymade Christmas tree was largely unknown to Madurai Christians except for a few rich households that managed to pack the trees from relatives or friends living abroad. Jovil Rajesh, an engineer, says, “Our first artificial Christmas tree was bought from the US through a friend there. Before that, we used to cut branches of a living Christmas tree and decorate it at home.” Many say that the Christmas tree used in Madurai was not a pine or fir, but a native variety of tree called ‘Savukku maram’. “Almost every big compound had that tree and during Christmas, those trees would vanish suddenly, as people would be cutting them for decorations. It’s not a coniferous tree but as the fall of the foliage resembled the Christmas tree, people used it for the festival,” says Soosai, a businessman. Branches of the Savukku tree were made to stand in a pot filled with mud and the lights and other hangings were tied to the leaves. “It involved lot of work and the branch dried off in three days.”

“People wanted to keep the Christmas tree decoration for over a month starting from December until New Year. And we cashed in on this need,” says Malliga at Vinayaga Gifts and Novelties. “Nowadays, the market is flooded with trees from China and Taiwan.” The China-made Christmas tree comes in three varieties – pine, optic and plastic. The sizes range from one foot costing Rs. 150 to 18 feet for Rs. 25,000. “There’s a new variety of white Christmas trees from Taiwan, this year. It’s fast moving as it resembles a snow-covered tree,” says Kathirvel.

Trees made with optic fibre are the latest as they emit light and some of them also play music. Pine Christmas trees come with thin needle like leaves made of plastic bristles and another variety has thicker leaves made of plastic coated paper. “These trees last longer and the customer has to buy a new tree only after a few years. They are also foldable for easy storage. Even a 12-feet tree can be disbanded and fit into a box,” says V.J. Jain of Sha Kevalchand Sonaji Shop that has been selling Christmas decorations for the past 25 years. “Christmas trees are not made in India. The China trees are cheaper and are easier to procure.” Most shops buy these trees from wholesale markets in Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata, while few get it directly from China.

At a time when artificial trees have taken over Christmas decorations at homes and churches, The Gateway Hotel at Pasumalai, has come up with the idea of a live Christmas tree. A 70-feet tall Ashoka tree which is said to be more than 50-years old is decorated as a Christmas tree. “This will easily be the tallest Christmas tree decoration in the city,” claims Sumant Khanna, Sales Manager. “Since the pine and fir variety of trees doesn’t grow well in Madurai weather, we converted the Ashoka tree into a Christmas tree.”

Many Christians say that the Christmas tree has no significance in bible or in Christianity, while a few others deem that it was introduced to symbolize life and growth. “It’s done for decoration purpose and especially for kids. There’s no meaning behind the Christmas tree,” says Betty, a software engineer. However, the tree has come to be an integral part of Christmas celebrations.