The tree is up. Those four words, punctuated by a huge sigh of relief, mark the true launching of my Christmas season. It can be mid-to-late December but before the tree gets planted in the living room corner, before the crumbling kindergarten-era homemade ornaments get pulled out of hibernation, Christmas to me still feels distant and unreal. It couldn't possibly be here again, already, I try to convince myself, especially with candy corn and Thanksgiving leftovers still lurking. But thankfully, the hanging of our household greens jolts me out of bah-humbug denial and revs my holiday spirit. And this year, extra rejoicing: there is no greenish-brown scrape across our 8-foot ceilings where a too-tall tree left its trail. And miracle of miracles, all the lights worked.
How fitting that this mid-winter celebration of birth and warmth and light is so rich with earthy imagery. Indeed the Christian Christmas story is a veritable eco-tale. Eons ago, when the prophet Isaiah foreshadowed the Messiah's birth, he used tree-speak. "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots . . . for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord." (Isaiah 11:1) Later in the New Testament, Jesus's birth was heralded by none other than John the Baptist, the Bible's own back- to-nature hippie, the original eat-low-on-the-food-chain hero (organic locusts, anyone?). Sheep lowed and wise men trekked, with little to no carbon emissions, guided by an all-natural GPS system from above.
From the beeswax candles that my Moravian ancestors hand-dipped in handmade tin molds, to the amaryllis doing its damnedest to shoot forth, to the pinecones and ivy on my mantel, I love Christmas decorating with nature's simple, astonishing bling. Across traditions, whether Judeo-Christian or Pagan, whether the celebration is Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, Kwanzaa or other variations on the theme, something, I believe, pulls us from December's chill and relentless consumer overload toward realness. Toward loved ones and loved places, toward hearth and stove, toward trees and stars, toward stable yard and manger where hungry animals and spirits are fed.
That at least is the case for me. And despite the hassle of trimming the tree, of having to get on my hands and knees to water it and the constant vacuuming of fallen needles, my not-so-fragrant Fraser Fir symbolizes my desire to invite all that is green and fertile and real into my heart and home.
It may seem ironic, and possibly irresponsible, for an environmental columnist to applaud the decorative wonders of a chopped down evergreen. Despite the fact that mine came from a supplier pledging to plant two saplings for each tree cut, there's still a measure of eco-brutality in which I feel complicit. There's the pesticide issue (most farm trees are sprayed throughout their eight-year cycle), the landfill concern if trees aren't recycled into mulch (mine will be), and the petroleum burned to haul the tree from the mountains to my seaside home. I can't defend any of these, but I still stand by my tree.
In fact, I stand by it every night, after the kids are asleep and the dog's been let out, after the dishwasher quits churning and the day's final quiet settles in, and then, when not a creature is stirring, before I bend down to unplug the lights, I am filled with awe and wonder at what this tree represents. I rub its needles between my fingers, inhaling the scent of moss-floored pine forests I hiked through on the Appalachian Trail. I imagine the cardinals and jays, fine-feathered ornaments, that may well have paused in its branches. And I know this is why I bring it in. This is the Christmas gift it gives to me: to kindle my consciousness and my imagination.
When I was about eight or nine, my parents sold out to the '70s fad of the artificial tree. Reusable, yes; convenient, I suppose (though ours was a nightmare to assemble); it was still an aesthetic travesty. Our holiday photos from those days show my sisters and me in our coordinating holiday jumpers in front of bristly green pipe cleaners on steroids. Even worse, however, was the rest of the year, when the disassembled "tree" was stored in a dark, menacing corner of our basement. I dreaded going down there to empty the washer and dryer. I'd get creeped out by the askew "branches" and the hairy crickets and other creatures that hid beneath the tree's plastic-draped skeleton. Perhaps it was more than coincidence that our family's fake tree years were also those of my parents' bitter divorce. All was not as it appeared to be.
Christmas, however, is the heart's affirmation that all need not be as it appears to be, in the best possible way. It is a celebration of miracle and possibility, of holly and ivy, of new creation and shimmering light. It is the promise of pine forests among us, in our humble living rooms, by our fireplaces and our flat-screen TVs. There is joy to this world, to fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, and heaven and nature sing.