In Defense of Red Christmas Trees

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- First Lady Melania Trump finds herself at the center of quite the Christmas furor. Last week she unveiled the White House’s holiday furnishings, which include not only the traditional tree in the foyer, but also, in the East Colonnade, 40 topiary trees — all of them red.

Critics were not happy.

The Washington Post labeled the display “kooky.” Television comedians had some great material. Journalists solemnly reminded us that in much of the world, red needles signal trees that are sick. And that the color upsets us at some deep level because it signals danger. Meanwhile, the Twittersphere erupted with comparisons to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Now, I will admit that the whole thing seems to me something of a tempest in a treepot. If on the other hand we’re henceforth to be saddled with Christmas-tree-color police, someone tell me, please, how to deputize them in the struggle against blue lights.

I mean, think about it. When exactly did blue become a Christmas color? When I was a kid, you almost never found a blue bulb on a strand of lights. Now you can’t avoid the blue plague. Buzzfeed tried to spread the alarm a year ago. Alas, the word has not reached every Middlesex village and farm. Try to find a string of colored lights that features only the traditional warm Christmas colors. You can’t.

Maybe it’s a patriotic thing. After all, Thomas Edison’s pal Edward H. Johnson, who in 1882 became the first to light a tree with electric lights, used bulbs of red, white, and blue. In 1913, Washington celebrated what the press called the city’s “first Community Christmas,” featuring “a giant Norway spruce, illuminated with red, white and blue electric bulbs.”

Or maybe it’s not patriotism. Maybe in that smoke-filled back room where we all know that all the decisions we hate are secretly made, the Randolph and Mortimer Duke of holiday lighting discovered that blue bulbs were going begging. If they could add blue lights to the strands without cutting the price, they could make a killing.

But wait! Shouldn’t that strategy have failed? If consumers really prefer Christmas without blue lights, then competitors would have kept the traditional colors, and the Dukes would have been forced to lower their prices or eliminate the blue lights. So maybe buyers don’t care about the color of the lights ... or maybe all the manufacturers are in the back room! It’s a cartel! But, no, that wouldn’t work either, because the cost of entry into the holiday-light-strand market appears to be low. So it must be that we don’t care (he wrote while gazing at his own Christmas tree, the blue lights merrily twinkling).

As so often, the possibility that I’m wrong sent me to the history books. It turns out that blue lights at Christmas possess a provenance of which I knew nothing.  Let’s go back to the December 1915 issue of the journal Primary Education, which carried an article about how to teach first-graders arithmetic by using Christmas candles. And, sure enough, we find the essay chock-full of such examples as this one:  “Jane has 3 blue candles and 2 pink candles.”

Let’s continue our journey, back to the days before electricity was routinely available. In 1882, St. Nicholas Magazine, a periodical for children, published a musical Christmas play by Ruth Ogden entitled “Among the Pines,” which included a chorus that among other things recites this bit:

Then hang the blue lanterns on ev’ry bough

And twig of the hardy pine;

For who’d care to see a brave Christmas-tree

Without these blue lights of mine.

And that’s not even the earliest reference I found. In 1868 a Vermont newspaper described the excitement of children over their Christmas tree “to be hung with red and blue candles.”

I could go on. But you see the point. Discovering that blue has long been a Christmas color left me stunned. (If not quite wordstruck.) A part of me still wants to fight back. (Where is Buzzfeed when I really need it?) But I am a scholar, and history is what history is. So let me be a big boy and admit that I was wrong all along. The fact that I don’t remember blue lights from my childhood doesn’t mean there weren’t any.

All of which brings us back to the first lady and her red Christmas trees. I admit that on first seeing the images, I was as stunned as most people. But on consideration, I was wrong here too. And I don’t think the Christmas-tree-color police should get involved either — not unless they want to ally themselves with an unfortunate period of history.

In 1950, the mayor of Patterson, N.J., had a red tree thrown out of city hall, on the ground that red is the color of Communism. Some 15 years later, the merchants at a shopping plaza in Kingston, N.Y., had to defend their own red tree against similar charges. The head of the merchants association wrote to the local paper, urging those who were opposed “to reconsider their objections and join us in promoting the spirit of Christmas and the Universal desire for peace on earth.”

Good advice. Let’s all try to do better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.