December 14, 2012
I know it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone anymore that most of what we consider traditional Christmas symbols-wreaths of holly, boughs of mistletoe, spiking grandma’s egg nog-are actually appropriated from pagan traditions. It’s even no accident that Christmas is celebrated pretty close to the Solstice, both of which fall close to New Year’s Day. They’re all celebrations of renewal, of the old passing away and ushering in a new world, although I kind of wonder why Christmas is celebrated in the winter while Easter-also borrowing from pagan tradition–is celebrated in the spring. Maybe whoever decided when the Christian celebrations should be held just flipped a coin, because it seems like they could just as easily be the other way around, although winter is bleak and dark enough as it is, so I suppose reminding everyone of the crucifixion right in the middle of it would be too depressing even if Jesus does make a triumphant comeback in the final reel.
The one tradition I don’t understand, though, is the Christmas tree. Don’t get me wrong-I love Christmas trees, and have fond memories of putting one up. I even had a few relatives who would send me an ornament as a Christmas gift, which I would open and immediately put in a box for a year, so it was a nice way to acknowledge that we each thought of each other once a year. And I always loved the ornaments. When I was young I especially loved those metallic red and blue and silver balls, but after a few years when we’d accumulated a sizeable collection of reindeers, snowmen, lace stars, little tiny Santas, and brass cutouts with "Cihrs-1983" engraved on it my mother wouldn’t let me put those on the tree anymore. She said they were tacky, but I think the truth is that whenever they fall-and there would always be fifteen or twenty that fell every year-they’d break into a million pointy shards, and no amount of vacuuming would pick them all up, so you’d always fine at least one in the summer whenever you walked across the floor barefoot. And I remember how I begged my parents to get bubble lights, and then we did, and I would watch them intently, in spite of being told that a watched bubble light never bubbles.
Anyway, at first glance a Christmas tree seems like an appropriate seasonal symbol. Christmas trees are traditionally evergreens, after all, so they’re symbolic of surviving through the winter, and somehow chopping down a leafless or dead tree and bringing it inside just wouldn’t be that festive, no matter how many bubble lights you put on it. But as I said Christmas and the Solstice are celebrations of renewal, of rebirth even, or at the very least of survival, so it seems contrary to the spirit of the season to celebrate by killing a tree. Pine trees are also, according to some British folklore, unlucky, and it’s especially bad to fall asleep under one, which leads to the tradition of older siblings encouraging the youngest ones to sleep under the Christmas tree. And we don’t just kill the tree. We chop it down and bring it inside and decorate it while it slowly dies and dries out, and since that’s not already enough of a fire hazard we decorate it with frayed strings of electric lights that have been scrunched up and stored in the attic for more than eleven months. And some people still like to go for that air of authenticity and use candles, because nothing celebrates the holiday spirit like setting a giant tree on fire right in the middle of your living room.
Actually the equally old, equally pagan tradition of the yule log makes more sense for a celebration, especially since there is a tradition of placing small gifts for children under each end of the yule log, because nothing celebrates the holiday spirit like getting your children gifts and then burning them. And I don’t have any childhood memories of a yule log, at least in part, I think, because for most of my childhood we didn’t have a fireplace. I never thought of this as a problem for Santa, though-I figured he just picked the lock. In fact I was a teenager before I first heard about the tradition of a yule log, and my first thought was, "I’ll what?" For a couple more years I thought it had something to do with "The King And I" always being on television around this time of year, but that’s another story. Although, speaking of Santa, I guess the Christmas tree is more festive than a big sign that says "LEAVE PRESENTS HERE". You know the guy’s so hopped up on milk and cookies, not to mention wind chill and reindeer farts, that if there weren’t an obvious place for him to drop the presents there’s no telling where he’d put them. So having a Christmas tree can be a nice thing, although I think symbolically and ecologically it’s still better to have a fake one. And aesthetically, since you don’t have to worry about sticking it in the corner right next to the heating vent to cover up the bald patch. But I still prefer the ones that actually look like trees. My grandparents had one of those solid white monstrosities that looked like it was made out of twisted garbage bags. The only fond memories I have of it is the time I tried to set it on fire, and it wouldn’t even burn. It just melted.