I am so enjoying this process of meaning-making at Christmas time. I’ve never given it much thought in previous years … just sat each year with the unsettling question of “Why do we do this?” and it feels so good to finally address this. As a result all our usual icons at Christmas are now revealing their stories to me and I’m gaining a greater appreciation for tradition, a greater understanding of humanity and using it all to create my own meaning at Christmas time, and making some new family traditions too.
Why a Tree?
I haven’t really found out where the idea of the Christmas Tree came from. I have read some very interesting stories though! Like Santa, the Christmas Tree has evolved over the centuries, and I was right about it being an enduring pre-Christian, pagan symbol of Nature. I read one story about the fir tree becoming the symbol of Christmas because a monk used its triangular shape to describe the relationship of the Holy Trinity. I am sure it is probable that explanation happened at some point but the tree as a symbol of Christmas is more likely to be because fir trees are evergreen and were a symbol of strength, continuity and hope through the winter. The reverence of evergreen trees has been a Germanic tradition for thousands of years before Christianity and I was horrified to read the story of Donar’s Oak, an ancient tree that was miraculously felled by St Boniface (with a bit of Divine assistance, apparently) who then built a Catholic church upon the site to celebrate the town’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity. Can you imagine?
There are many stories associated with the tree at this time of year: the Yule log, the Solstice Tree, the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. Go and look them up, they are really interesting! It seems to me most festivals are in some way associated with birth and re-birth, with life and death and the mystery surrounding it that holds us all fascinated with how the world works. For me it comes back to the quality of the life I am living, the birthing of my own self as I move through this life journey on this Earth. We can make our own meanings in symbols, we can start new traditions, and I think it is important that we do.
The Tree Inside
Ever since I read the story “The Little Fir Tree” by Hans Christian Andersen I’ve been wondering about the reason we have trees inside our home at Christmas time. I often find Hans Christian Andersen’s stories more than a little melancholic … and this one is as sad as “The Little Match Girl” to me. This little tree was curious about the world, and had his wish for experience granted. He thought he would rejoice when it was his turn to go inside the houses in the winter like his fellow trees do each year. Instead he felt the pain and stinging cut of the axe, enjoyed a few brief moments of Christmas cheer and was then hacked to pieces for burning after Christmas. Hans! Must you?! I could never bear to use a real live tree branch after that – the whole story would shroud the tree in sadness rather than bright and cheery Christmas joy! The good news is, I have since re-written that story for myself and have also found another one about a fir tree, written so exquisitely, and called The Story of the Tree That Dreamt a Flower by Isabel Wyatt in “The Seven Year Old Wonder Book”, which also tells the story of how it came to be that we place stars on top of the tree. This book also has some really lovely stories about St Nicholas in it too. I recommend it as part of your Christmas reading to your children. We’ll be starting it tonight.
So one story heals the experience of another and, thanks to Isabel Wyatt, I’m recovered from yet another scarring Hans Christian Andersen experience (I am sure not all his fairy tales were intended for children). It still doesn’t sit right with me that we celebrate Nature in our living rooms each year by cutting trees down, and bringing them inside the house to die. I must still be missing something here. Christmas tree farms are big business now and they do provide habitat for animals year-round even though the trees are cut down or repotted to be used for one month of the year. The other side of this is that an artificial tree will last for a few years in your home but when you throw it away it will endure for centuries in a landfill. What to do? I’m not sure Christmas would be the same without the tree.
I grew up with a plastic tree. Part of our ritual each year was to take it out of its box from the garage, set it up in the garden and then spray it with the garden hose to wash off a year’s worth of dust. This was just as much fun as decorating it, I think. Christmas in summer in Queensland is hot and sweaty and any opportunity to play with water in the backyard is a delightful one. I also loved the sparkling water drops on the branches, like it was decorated already, and the contrast it made: a perfectly shaped plastic tree ‘growing’ out of the middle of our lawn.
Since having my own family we’ve swayed between real trees and plastic trees. We’ve gave our plastic tree away 2 years ago and have since been using potted trees, however we’ve never had much luck with real trees in pots at Christmas, even native pines. I might as well have cut the tree down in the first place because my good intentions to replant it usually end up with it instead dying a longer, more drawn-out death in the pot, because nurturing pot plants is not one of my skills, and besides since leaving home I have always lived in rentals so planting a potentially enormous pine tree in someone else’s backyard isn’t really an option either. This year I thought we would buy a fruit tree instead. I think I am more likely to plant a fruit tree in our garden, and our landlords are more likely to appreciate this gift, and I am also more likely to want to take care of it. I also thought that planting the tree in a prepared hole might be part of the ritual of taking the tree down after Christmas. Our son can dig the hole, our daughter can sing the ceremony story, our toddler can get dirty, the tree will have a home, our garden will be blessed and we’ll all be happy.
I had no idea, before writing this, that I have more control issues surrounding the Christmas Tree than I did about Santa! Lucky I know how to laugh at myself and am getting better at letting things go! I love the idea of decorating a tree, and it is the part of Christmas I really gain a lot of enjoyment from – provided I can do the whole thing by myself with no input from ANYONE else!! Only I know where those ornaments have to be hung! Woe betide anyone who differs in opinion or who mucks around with my arrangement – that goes for toddlers too! In the past few years our Christmas Tree has been up on a shelf or a little table so little hands don’t disrupt it. I like to make it just so, and I think I don’t breathe properly around the tree until it is all packed away.
Well, we all have our little vices. I’ve tried letting go of it all and last year I think I did rather well, letting the children decorate it (and the house) and resisting the urge to make things symmetrical/evenly spaced/balanced in colour, form and shape. One thing I do hate with a passion (and which my husband loves) is tinsel. Can’t explain why … it makes me wonder what we are celebrating by covering a tree – a symbol of Nature in our homes – with a completely synthetic product that doesn’t even try to mimic anything in nature, and that also sheds little bits of tinsel that stick to my feet and blow all over the house. Man’s dominance over the natural forces? Perhaps I’m taking it a bit too far here! I won’t go on about it. Let’s just agree to maximise household happiness by minimising tinsel in my home. This year I would like to make our own garlands from my expansive scrap fabric stash, and I have some lovely gold fabric to use that may satisfy the family’s urge for shiny, sparkly things.
I may not love tinsel but I do love sparkly things. In all this reflection and thinking about Christmas, the most joyful memory from my childhood is that of lying underneath the Christmas Tree at night, with all other lights in the house turned off, everyone else in bed … just me and the tree and the colourful twinkling lights. I find lights on a tree so mesmering and I was always drawn to the tree lights at night time, totally lost in the peace and beauty of the whole thing. I would lie with my head next to the wrapped up gifts and wonder about their contents. I’d look up through the branches and see the tree from underneath – a whole new perspective of layers and colour and shadows. I even still remember the smell of the dust.
Today is the first day of December and for many families it is tree-putting-up day. I think I grew up with the tradition of putting the tree up two weeks before Christmas and taking it down two weeks after. Other families have their tree up in November. This year I have to say I am rather excited about putting up a tree and making decorations for it, but I don’t think we’ll do it until we can give it proper attention, which for us means waiting until school is over for the year, a whole morning with nothing else to do, carols, holidays. Embracing the light and joy of ceremony, tradition, expression and creativity!