The traditional Christmas tree is an evergreen because evergreens keep their foliage year round, hence the name, so they’re symbolic of life surviving through the winter, of renewal and hope at the very darkest and coldest point of the year.At least that’s the conventional wisdom, but at a certain point when I was a kid I started wondering if this was really the case. If it’s all about life and renewal why does the tree have to die? And let me add this was long before hip people started bringing live trees into their homes, decorating them, and then planting them outside once Christmas was over, pretty much guaranteeing that the tree, used to being in a nice warm house, watered regularly, and treated with great kindness, would die of shock.
The idea that a traditional real Christmas tree is not really a symbol of life but the sacrificial murder of a living thing in order to appease the cruel winter spirits didn’t come to me easily. After all we always had a plastic tree that spent most of the year in the attic. One of our holiday rituals was unpacking it from its box and putting it together. The metal ends of the branches that were inserted in the trunk were color-coded and had corresponding marks on the trunk itself for the benefit of anyone who’d never actually seen a tree and wouldn’t know that the biggest branches would go at the bottom and gradually get smaller as they went up. If we’d ever had a yule log I might have gotten the idea that there was some kind of ritualistic sacrifice going on since it was a tradition that went back to pagan times, even if it was the burning of a dead hunk of wood rather than an animal or a person. But we didn’t even have a fireplace until I was fifteen when my parents turned half the basement into a rec room and had one installed so they could have cozy fires in the bottom level of the house that would trick the thermostat into thinking it was July so my room, at the very top level of the house, would be freezing. And since we didn’t have a fireplace I just figured Santa, like everyone else, came in through the front door and, like the mailman, just parked his sleigh on the street rather than bothering with landing on everyone’s roof.
Also I’ve never known anyone who had a yule log. It was one of those things I heard people talk about but never actually saw and for years I didn’t even realize it was an actual log and thought it had something to do with the fact that during the holiday season at least one TV channel would show The King And I, probably for the benefit of adults who were sick to death of singing and dancing animated characters and would rather see some real people singing and dancing, but that’s another story.
What put the idea in my head that the cutting and eventual destruction of a Christmas tree is more symbolic of death than life was my decision to cut down my own Christmas tree and use it to decorate my room. I was nine, by the way. I wasn’t trying to separate myself from the family or anything like that. I just thought it would be fun to go through the whole ritual of going into the woods, cutting down a tree, and bringing it home. Except in my case I’d be going to the rocky vacant lot near my house. Not exactly Robert Frost territory but I worked with what I had. I didn’t have a hatchet either but I found a rusty old saw in the basement that I figured would take down any of the stunted cedar trees that grew among the rocks. I picked one that was a little taller than I was and went to work on its trunk. First though I cleaned off the bagworms. If you’ve never heard of them bagworms are caterpillars that make cocoons out of evergreen needles and silk and hang from the branches and it only now occurs to me that they’d make interesting decorations if spray painted different colors and given a coat of glitter and when they eventually turn into moths that’s a special bonus.
Anyway half an hour and half an inch into the trunk I realized there was no way I was going to bring the tree down before June so I moved onto a slightly smaller one. And then a third one. I went through several more before I finally got one that was small enough that I could yank it out by the roots. Stuck in a can with its base wrapped in a blanket in my room it looked more like a decoration for a doll’s house than the majestic towering tree I’d hoped for. And as I carried my bounty home I felt guilty, thinking I’d needlessly killed half a dozen or so trees in my quest. That at least I didn’t need to worry about. Those trees grew in a pile of limestone between two busy roads. They could survive anything. Even the holidays.