What to Hang on Your New Year’s Tree

Spruce up your Christmas tree by transforming it into a different wintry American tradition.

Close up of a Christmas Tree

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After all of your spent wrapping paper has been recycled and your Christmas tchotchkes have been nestled in a box for next year, the most daunting post-holiday task remains: taking down the tree. But you needn’t tackle that last item so soon; you could transform it into a New Year’s tree instead.

The New Year’s tree is a widespread winter tradition that is usually attributed to the yolka of the Soviet Union. After the 1917 revolution, Christmas trees (an old German tradition) were discouraged by the new atheist state — along with Christmas itself — as a bourgeois religious tradition. The decorated evergreen was revived after a few decades as the secular yolka, or New Year’s tree, topped by a big communist red star.

Despite popularizing the custom immensely, the Soviets did not invent the New Year’s tree. Records in the U.S. as far back as the mid-19th century include mentions of New Year’s trees. La Salle Extension University in Chicago incorrectly posited that they might have displayed the first such tree in the world in 1928. Theirs was the “New Year’s Tree of Knowledge,” covered with thousands of pledges for personal achievement from business people around the country. It wasn’t the first New Year’s Tree in the world, though, or even in the United States.

They’ve been with us since at least 1863, when a New Year’s tree “richly loaded with gifts” graced a Methodist church in Madison, Wisconsin. Throughout the early century in the U.S., many community groups rang in the new year with New Year trees that held toys and treats for local poor children. They were apparently so common that one Baltimore Sun reader wrote in to the paper in 1915 to sarcastically suggest, “Why not a New Year’s tree for the poor cats in the alleys? Ye gods and little fishes, what next?”

The yolka of Russia has traditionally been decorated with ornaments of regional significance, like smiling cosmonauts and corncobs. If you’re thinking about repurposing your Christmas tree for New Year’s, there are plenty of other creative options to spruce it up into an interactive party piece. Whatever shape or color it may take, the New Year’s tree is above all a symbol of hope for the coming year, and that’s something we could all use right now.

Top Hats, Ribbon, and Tinsel

In place of the star or angel that might top your Christmas tree, give that fir a fancy top hat. Your tree could already be donning some tinsel, but the post-Christmas color options open up beyond the traditional red, gold, and silver. Curl some ribbon and tie it to the branches. Make it a shiny, kaleidoscopic conversation piece.

Noisemakers, Bells, and Confetti Poppers

Decorate your tree with glittery, colorful party favors, and, as midnight nears, the family — or party guests — can pluck them off to ring in the new year with bells, noisemakers, and showers of glitter and confetti.

Resolution Cards

Set out blank cards and pens so your guests can write out their New Year’s resolutions and stick them on the tree. If making New Year’s resolutions seems a little stale, tell people to pen their hopes and dreams for the new year, or one thing they can’t wait to leave behind. You could save the cards to review next year, or burn them along with the tree in the backyard.

Toys and Candy

Maybe the kids already got their fill of sweets and trinkets at Christmas or Hanukkah, or maybe you don’t mind spoiling them for one last holiday. The New Year’s trees of yore held small presents for children, and you can keep the tradition alive with a second round of stocking stuffers. They might not be getting a drone or a tablet from the New Year’s tree, but it beats the apples we used to give them.

Featured image: Christmas show window, 1910-1915, Bain News Service, George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

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