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A Legacy Of Alice Gray

A tree for Christmas

Alice Gray became an important friend and associate of Lillian Oppenheimer in the Origami Center and for many years she edited The Origamian.

One of Alice’s innovations that has received widespread and well-deserved publicity is the happy tradition of Origami Christmas Trees. Alice began in a small way when, for a change, she dressed a small tree for her own home, using origami insects for decoration reflecting her interest in insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Just when this was we do not know, but it seems likely that it was before the summer of 1963, when she first met Lillian Oppenheimer and began her long association with the Origami Center in New York. Another year she also decorated a small tree for her own office at the Museum.

Alice went on to prepare a tree for the Entomology Department at the Museum. Again we do not know when, except that it was certainty before Christmas 1964. The quite small Origami Christmas tree in the Entomology Department became a regular event and was looked forward to by the Museum staff and Museum's visitors. The Museum Directors, too, liked the tree for its own sake, although they could probably also see its value for public relations. So they asked Alice to decorate a bigger tree to stand under the lofty cupola in the main vestibule of the Museum. Alice readily agreed, expecting a tree perhaps six feet high. But she was aghast when a monster of a tree 25 feet tall was delivered; she almost gave up when she considered the enormous task it called for. But Alice's determination won through and she quickly recruited Museum staff and their relatives to help to fold the huge numbers of origami models required. This was still not enough and she went to her friends at the Origami Center and she sought the help of boy and girl scouts and anyone else who could be pressed to join in. It is amazing that the feat should ever have been completed, but completed it was and the annual Origami Christmas tree has now become an established tradition at the American Museum of Natural History with a large Christmas tree being created anew every Christmas time.

It was a tradition that quickly spread as other folders offered to decorate other trees. Michael Shall, an associate of Alice at the Origami Center, helped Alice in the Museum for many years, and in addition he began to decorate a tree for the New York office of Japan Air Lines. The idea spread and all over America origami trees were decorated. The fashion spread abroad, to Britain, where a tree was decorated for the London Office of Japan Air Lines and then to Holland where Marieke de Hoop organised the decoration of another 25 foot tree in Utrecht. Michael Shall crossed the Atlantic to help her. Then in 1993 Marieke organised the decoration of an even bigger tree, the biggest in the world at 45 feet high in a shopping centre at Eindhoven. Decorations were requested from paperfolders all over the world and once more Michael Shall came to help. Another giant tree was decorated in The Hague for Christmas, 2001 So the Origami Christmas trees have become an international tradition and one of the most potent advertisements for origami. They all originated from the small tree in Alice's home soon after she discovered paperfolding. They are Alice's gift to the world and will for ever be her memorial.

Four years after she had visited Japan, Alice became the co-author of a book with the well-known Japanese folder, Kunihiko Kasahara. Japan Publications, who had offices in both Tokyo and the United States, approached the Origami Center with a request for help in preparing a book of origami aimed at American primary schools. The book that resulted was called "The Magic of Origami" and was published in 1977. A special feature was that "The Magic of Origami" contained many folds suitable for use as Christmas tree ornaments. Alice had long felt a need for such a book and it remains an excellent manual for decorators of Origami Christmas trees.

Alice Gray died in 1994 at the age of 79, and Michael Shall died at the distressingly early age of 45 in the spring of the following year, 1995. The tradition of decorating Origami Christmas Trees was continued by their colleagues among their friends in Origami USA whose office continued to be at the Natural History Museum. In recent years June Sakomoto has led the team which decorates the tree. Each year a different theme or scheme of decoration is chosen and some truly magnificent trees have been the result. In 2001 over 3700 paper cranes were used to decorate the tree in commemoration of the victims of the tragedy the previous September when the Twin Towers were destroyed by international terrorism. In 2002 the paper models were incorporated into a sweeping spiral garland that wrapped round the tree, while in 2003 a theme of Origami Under the Seas celebrated the opening of a new Hall of Ocean Life at the Museum.

At the same time, folders in many parts of the world continue the tradition by using Origami decorations on their own Christmas trees in their homes, offices, shops and shopping malls.


David Lister

Based on an article about Alice Gray originally printed in British Origami no. 168, October, 1994.

Updated 3rd April, 2005

   
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