O Tannenbaum

Trees dressed in their best showcase global cultures at the the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick.

By: Indrani Datta
   Somewhere between Charlie Brown’s little tree and the majestic Norwegian Spruce at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas tree is one of the most familiar images in the world. But, to paraphrase Duke Ellington, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that trim.
   In the spirit of celebrating the beloved tradition of trimming the tree, the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick is hosting its 17th Annual Festival of Trees through Jan. 29. Fourteen trees showcase trimming traditions, along with a menorah representing the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
   "We wanted to use our museum as a venue for other ethnic groups to share their heritage," says Patricia Fazekas, curator of the Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation. "It’s our most popular event."
   Handmade traditional ornaments are featured on all of the trees. Fruit, nuts and cookies nestle next to strings of lights. On the Hungarian tree, walnuts are delicately fixed with golden pins, while the Italian tree’s fruit and nuts hang in netting. Shortbread is a staple on the Scottish tree.
   Deneice Oroszvary has been decorating the Scottish tree at the festival for 12 years. Over the seasons, she’s accumulated both decorations and experience. To make the shortbread ornaments harder, she substitutes salt for sugar. "I used sugar the first few years but little kids kept taking bites out of them," she says. "They seem to last longer now."
   Scotland’s strictly Presbyterian trees normally eschew lights, but Ms. Oroszvary threads some among the plaid ribbons and shortbread. Her teenage daughter will bring authentic Scottish decorations when she returns from a semester in Scotland.
   Nearer to Edinburgh than New Brunswick is the Colaiste Joseph School in Kilmallock, Limerick County, Ireland. High schoolers from Colaiste Joseph brought their tree decorations when they visited New Brunswick in October.
   The students came to New Brunswick under the auspices of the Sister Cities program. Besides the Irish tree, this year’s festival also features a tree decorated by another of New Brunswick’s sister cities — Fukui, Japan.
   New Brunswick has a surprisingly long historical relationship with Fukui. In 1867, one of the first emigrants allowed to leave Japan came to study at Rutgers University. Over the years, a tradition of student exchange has strengthened the bond between the cities. One example of the impact of this bond is the availability of Japanese language instruction in the New Brunswick public school system.
   Although the Christmas tree is not a Japanese tradition, seventh and eighth graders in Fukui made decorations representative of Japanese culture. Japan’s paper is famous throughout the world for its artistic quality as well as its transformation into origami. The Fukui students made colorful kimonos, cranes and intricate lanterns, augmenting their paper creations with pottery.
   "The level of detail is amazing, like the folded necklines of the kimonos," says Jane Tublin, executive director of international programs for the New Brunswick Sister Cities Program. "It gives you a better understanding of Japanese culture when you look at the care the students took."
   The first-graders in Gloria Beckford Lettenburger’s bilingual class at Roosevelt Elementary School have been working on their tree decorations for weeks. The Hispanic-Latino tree is decorated with respect to what the children are learning in class.
   This year, the students learned about the legend of Palomita, as celebrated by the Huichol people in Mexico. Palomita is another name for Mother Corn, who came to earth as a dove but took the shape of a woman to teach people how to plant corn. Touched by the people’s grateful thanks, she married her daughter Maiz Azul (Blue Corn) to a member of the tribe. And that’s why the Huichol region of Mexico uses blue corn.
   The dove at the top of the Hispanic-Latino tree was made cooperatively by all the children in the class. As students tied their pieces of yarn onto the dove, they shared what they were thankful for and made a wish for the coming year.
   "The children are very excited about going to decorate their tree," says Ms. Lettenburger. "Being invited to be a part of this festival helps them feel valued. They love that their work is admired — it gives them a sense that they are part of a larger community."
   The American Hungarian Foundation’s idea to bring different parts of the community together was inspired by Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which hosts a similar tree trimming extravaganza.
   A pamphlet provided by the Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation details the different traditions of the 14 different trees featured in the exhibit. The countries represented are Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Poland, Scotland and Ukraine, along with Hispanic-Latino people.
   As with the Japanese tree, sometimes the decorations are not traditional tree trimmings, but visitors come away with a sense of the culture, whether updated or old-fashioned.
   "They weren’t glamorous like we are these days with glass ornaments and shiny tinsel," says Agnes Hagmueller, a member of Danish Archives Northeast and the Danish Brotherhood and Sisterhood. "They shared what they had at hand."
The 17th Annual Festival of Trees is on view at the Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation, 300 Somerset St., New Brunswick, through Jan. 29. Hours: Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m. $5 suggested donation. For information, call (732) 846-5777. On the Web: www.ahfoundation.org