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.
This post is the best kind of Yuletide present, Chris. And nothing had to die in the process.
Your comments are the best kind of gift: something is given but nothing is lost.
I heard the Charlie Brown Christmas theme music playing in my head the whole time I read your post.
That’s hilarious because even though I didn’t mention it I was thinking of A Charlie Brown Christmas while writing this and have a follow-up post about that sad little tree Charlie Brown gets.
I remember on one occasion getting a branch off a native Eucalyptus tree to use as our Christmas tree. Decorated it and everything.
It looked like utter crap 😀
At least it smelled nice. I assume it smelled nice anyway and having a Eucalyptus tree is fitting for an Australian Christmas since down there Santa’s sleigh is pulled by six white kangaroos.
Or so I’ve heard anyway.
Someone tried so hard to make the boomers a thing….we still want the deer though!
You know, it honestly never occurred to me as a child to question what the whole tree murder thing was even about. I just loved coming down the stairs every morning to that wonderful evergreen smell.
I was far more preoccupied with an ornamental “tree” my grandmother had that consisted of a foot tall central cone covered all over with festively wrapped toffees representing foliage. No one was allowed to eat the toffees. Ever. Because then it couldn’t be brought out and dusted off and displayed the next Christmas to torture all the little sugar-happy grandkids anew. I never could wrap my head around why anyone would build a decoration out of candy if it wasn’t intended for eventual eating.
That reminds me of gingerbread houses that, in my experience, were purely decorative. Some people do eat gingerbread houses, but only after they’ve been sitting out a couple of weeks and have gotten crusty. Okay, I’d still eat a gingerbread house that had been sitting around since early December. They just seemed like a waste of good candy and frosting. At least they weren’t a waste of good gingerbread since everyone I’ve ever known who made a gingerbread house from scratch used graham crackers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gingerbread house that was really made from gingerbread.
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My dad planted a tiny live Christmas tree in our back garden one year after Christmas. He planted in under the bathroom window. Many years later, it had grown to be taller than the house and completely blocked light to the bathroom and one bedroom. It had to be chopped down in the end. We were so mad at him for killing the Christmas tree!
Am surprised Rolf Harris songs are still on YouTube – his name is mud in the uk after his crimes against children where disciovered and he went to prison.
That’s a shame your father had to cut down the Christmas tree. I know these things are hard to predict but surely he had some idea that it might thrive and would eventually have to go.
And I’m afraid Rolf Harris songs are still out there. I wish some decent person would re-record his songs. I really do still enjoy his music but I also find it hard to listen to his voice knowing what he did.