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Family continues Austrian tradition of tree decorating

Joseph Jagemann holds one of his grandfather's toys from Austria while pointing out traditional decorations that adorn the Christmas tree in his Taneytown home Dec. 24. Jagemann's family has been decorating their tree in a traditional Austrian fashion since the late 1800's.
Joseph Jagemann holds one of his grandfather's toys from Austria while pointing out traditional decorations that adorn the Christmas tree in his Taneytown home Dec. 24. Jagemann's family has been decorating their tree in a traditional Austrian fashion since the late 1800's. (DAVE MUNCHSTAFF PHOTO, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Tree decoration is serious business for Taneytown resident Joseph Jagemann, who, each year, rings in the holidays by continuing a more than 100-year-old tradition, which began an ocean away.

Jagemann's father, Walter Jagemann taught Joseph, 81, what he calls the spiritual method of decorating the tree. Walter learned the process from his mother, Anna, who grew up in Vienna before moving to the United States in the early 20th century. The method reflects spiritual connections among each item on the Christmas tree and an important part of the decorator's life. Before Walter died in the 1960s, he wrote down the proper method in his journal to share with his family down the line.

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Joseph said he continues his father's tradition every year as he rings in the Christmas season.

According to Walter's journal, each tier of the tree represents each generation in the family, with the chain decorations, including the garland, representing the bond of Christian love. As each garland chain loops down to the lower levels and younger generations, Walter wrote that it represents the love of parents for their children. After the ornamentation, including glassware, apples and candles, the tree is then draped with metallic tinsel, which Walter said represents the Holy Spirit coming down from God through the generations of the family.

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"Graced by man's devotion, a humble tree of the forest becomes a symbolic representation of the relationship of the Holy Trinity to mankind, and God's blessing rests upon it," Walter wrote.

According to Walter's journal, the tree itself is the foundation of setting up a spiritual Christmas scene. Joseph said his father worked for years as a scenic designer for productions on Broadway, so he retained a key sense of design and order that extended into their home decorations.

"He always had an artistic bent toward beauty and how things should be," Joseph said. "He was a bit of a perfectionist."

Joseph said his father would insert extra branches to ensure a properly proportioned tree. The Jagemann family would also run wire underneath existing branches in order to lift and support them. This support was vital both for the aesthetics as well as for safety, for another factor in the tree decoration was the use of live candles as lights.

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According to Walter, each candle represents the souls in each generation of the family. Joseph said the family was careful to place the candles on the edges of the branches, away from any flammable needles. As an extra precaution, he said they often kept buckets of water filled underneath the tree for use in a moment's notice.

"It was very dangerous, but we were very cautious," Joseph said. "All of the years we did this, we never had any fires."

Joseph said the natural light of the candles, when bounced off of the garland and tinsel, created a gorgeous glow in the house.

"We used to sit in the dining room and look at it at night while we played 'O Holy Night' and 'Silent Night' on an old wind-up phonograph," Joseph said. "We would sit there and take in the whole display with the lights all turned off and little spotlights on the tree."

Joseph has four children, whom he has shared this tradition with. He said they each have a laminated copy of their grandfather's instructions, and they each carry on the family legacy with their trees every year.

"This whole celebration is about family, religion and the importance of togetherness," Joseph said. "This tradition brings it all together."

Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or jacob.denobel@carrollcountytimes.com.

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