I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Christmas Traditions: Why We Decorate a Tree

What’s on your tree? Some of my favorite ornaments are some little skates with paper-clip blades my grandmother knit before her last Christmas, an ancient string of popcorn I strung with a girlfriend back in high school, and a tiny carved cross I picked up one Christmas season in Nicaragua that reads “Paz con social justicia.”

I wrote about how our tradition of decorating Christmas trees came to be in my Rick Steves’ European Christmas book. Here’s an excerpt:

The Christmas tree’s roots run deep into the origins of the midwinter celebration. When winter’s gloom descended on ancient pre-Christians, they looked around and saw a few things that didn’t die: evergreens. This seemed to promise that the warmth and fertility of summer would return. After they decorated their huts with holly, ivy, or laurel, they likely took a deep whiff… and dreamed of spring.

The mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, adorned their temples with evergreens as a symbol of everlasting life. The Vikings of Scandinavia considered evergreens the favored plant of their sun god. In many regions, people believed that evergreens, especially mistletoe (which was considered a sacred plant), would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

The custom continued in Christian times, but it wasn’t until about 500 years ago in Germany that the practice of decorating evergreen trees became a part of Christmas. These first trees were strewn with cookies, apples, nuts, and sugar sticks — which children eagerly raided. In the 1800s, when candles became affordable, the tree of lights arrived, and the tradition of the family gathering around the tree to exchange gifts was established.

Lutherans like to believe (wrongly, according to scholars) that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. The story goes that when he was walking home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Christmas trees as we know them got a big boost in popularity in the mid-19th-century, after a London magazine showed Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family gathered around a Christmas tree. Victoria was a favorite with her subjects, and what she did immediately became fashionable — not only in Britain, but in East Coast American society as well. In the early 1900s, during the Art Nouveau age, trees began to be draped in tinsel and ornamented with lovingly painted glass bulbs. The Christmas tree had arrived.

In Germany — the land of — Christmas trees became so popular that during World War I, thousands of them were actually mailed to soldiers on the Western Front. These tiny fake trees, made of feathers and paper, came in a kit, ready to be assembled right out of the postage box. (Next time you’re in Germany’s Rothenburg, you might enjoy the excellent little German Christmas Museum at the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store.)

Highlands, Islands, and Scottish Passions: Three New Episodes from Scotland

rick steves with a scottish piper

 

I love making TV — because it means I can share my love of Europe with millions of travel partners all across America. And I’m especially excited about Season 10 of Rick Steves’ Europe, which is airing now on public television throughout the country. Over the last few months, we’ve taken you to Portugal, England, the Greek Islands, and Sicily — and now we’re wrapping things up with three full episodes about Scotland.

 

karel bauer holding a large camera on a tripod very close to a cow that is sniffing the camera
Cameraman Karel Bauer

We spent 18 days filming these episodes, and we never stepped foot in Edinburgh. We started off with Glencoe, Inverness, the Culloden battlefield, and Loch Ness (“Scotland’s Highlands”). Then we wandered across the isles of Iona and Skye and set sail for Orkney’s wartime harbor at Scapa Flow (“Scotland’s Islands”). And we finished things up with trips to Glasgow and Stirling Castle — enjoying a taste of whisky and a sheepdog demonstration along the way (“Glasgow and Scottish Passions”).

 

colin mairs, simon griffith, karel bauer, and rick steves smiling at a restaurant bar and holding beverages

 

We spent 18 days filming these episodes, and we never stepped foot in Edinburgh. We started off with Glencoe, Inverness, the Culloden battlefield, and Loch Ness (“Scotland’s Highlands”). Then we wandered across the isles of Iona and Skye and set sail for Orkney’s wartime harbor at Scapa Flow (“Scotland’s Islands”). And we finished things up with trips to Glasgow and Stirling Castle — enjoying a taste of whisky and a sheepdog demonstration along the way (“Glasgow and Scottish Passions”).

 

rick steves and tour guide colin mairs similing in front of a wall with street art
With my friend and fellow tour guide, Colin Mairs.

I’m really excited to be able to share 90 minutes of pure, hardcore Scotland with our traveling viewers. Check your local listings — and keep on travelin’!

 

Happy Little Trees: Channeling Bob Ross

rick steves at a painting easel with a painting of mountains and a lake and trees and a paintbrush in hand, smiling. there's a smiling photo of bob ross in the background

 

There’s an artist inside all of us. I discovered that after I picked up a brush and some oils for literally the first time in my life and was freed by my Bob Ross teacher to paint. This “happy little trees” lake scene was an easy one (perfect for a rookie) — and it was close to my heart, as it matched my memories of boating in the San Juan Islands in Washington state as a kid.

I got snared by the Bob Ross gang in Baltimore, at a convention for public television programmers. I was there to talk about my TV show, Rick Steves’ Europe — and they were there to promote the late, great painting guru’s program, so beloved in public TV, The Joy of Painting. I ended up (uncharacteristically) sitting down for an hour and enjoying the stroke-by-stroke instructions. And I loved every minute of it.

Thank you, Bob, for the delightful reminder that there’s lots of adventure and self-discovery out there that doesn’t require a passport — and thank you, public television, for reliably sharing both our shows across the USA.

 

Jaunty Fashion, Proud Cultures, and Fighting Hunger in Guatemala and Ethiopia

men in red striped pants in guatemala

 

After a very productive scouting trip in Ethiopia and Guatemala, I’m home again — and I’m already looking forward to going back. I’ll be there again in April with our crew, to film a one-hour public television special on the hows and whys of modern development aid.
 
My trip was made possible by many wonderful non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and I’d like to credit them now for their support and commitment to making our world a better place.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a great impact on Ethiopia. They were my primary “fixer” there, and Meron Semunegus, from their Addis Ababa office, was my guide. Gates is synonymous with smart development in Ethiopia — a country with a changing image, thanks to recent progress.

I’m a big fan of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), and part of the inspiration for this project came from David Beasley, the executive director of the WFP. A year ago, I had dinner with him in Rome, where he oversees the distribution of UN funds to fight hunger, and his passion for this challenge was contagious. On this trip, I visited WFP health posts in southern Ethiopia and Guatemala. In Guatemala, I worked the director of the WFP there, Laura Melo.

In Ethiopia, I visited a village in the Tigray region supported by A Glimmer of Hope, which provided many vivid examples of how to help people help themselves. And we visited with Bete Demeke, who heads up Project Mercy — an NGO that’s innovating winning ways to stoke development.

In Guatemala, I hired Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education and Experience (my alma mater in Central American educational tourism) to provide me with essentially a private tour. CGEE’s Guatemala Site Coordinator, Fidel Xinico Tum, was my primary guide there. We met with Nate Bacon, of InnerCHANGE, to learn about Guatemalan gangs and life in a Guatemala City barrio, and Karen Larson of Friendship Bridge took us to see their microloan and women’s empowerment work at Lake Atitlán.

I spent a very busy day in Huehuetenango with the Guatemala director of Project Concern International, Pascale Wagner, seeing the impressive work they do — and another experience-filled day in Nebaj with Chris Megargee, seeing the inspirational work of Agros International in three communities (El Paraíso, La Esperanza, and Cajixay).

Every day on this trip, I met people whose mission is to help struggling people lift their lives out of poverty. And I flew home excited to make a TV special that shows that the battle against extreme poverty is a battle worth fighting — and it’s a battle we can win. Stay tuned.

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My $1,000,000 End Hunger Challenge

Thank you for joining me over the past few weeks as I’ve traveled through Ethiopia and Guatemala. Together, we’ve learned about the root causes of hunger and extreme poverty — and the power of smart development to create a better, more stable world. Judging from your comments, I know many of you were inspired to ask, “How can I help make a difference?” Here’s your answer: Every Christmas, our traveling community comes together to raise money for Bread for the World, an organization that helps hungry people both at home and abroad.

This year, as our government considers drastic cuts in aid to hungry people, our community’s holiday tradition feels especially important. I’d love your help in empowering Bread to speak up for hungry people in the halls of Congress. This is advocacy (like lobbying — but for what I consider a very good and important cause: explaining to our elected representatives how their legislation impacts hungry people). When it comes to fighting hunger, I believe Bread’s advocacy work gets me the most bang possible for my charitable buck. That’s why I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of their work for 30 years.

My challenge: This year, we are going to raise a million dollars. Here’s how it works: You make a $100 gift to Bread for the World. I’ll match your donation 2-to-1 (contributing $200 for each $100 given), up to $700,000 — and send you my European Christmas gift pack or my Complete Collection DVD Box Set as a thank you. If I can inspire 3,333 of you to join me in this initiative, we’ll hit our million-dollar goal!

I see Bread for the World not as a charity, but as a service. Our support can help Bread help millions of struggling people in our country and around the world. Go to www.ricksteves.com/bread to get on board — and please let your loved ones know about this challenge, too. Imagine: As an extended family of caring (and traveling) people, together we can empower Bread for the World’s work with $1,000,000. That will put a special dose of love into this holiday season.