Monday, December 24, 2012


THE HISTORY OF the Christmas tree is nowhere near as bright and clear as that beloved holiday centerpiece itself. It is full of twists and turns and myth, conflicting facts and fanciful stories...

Some speak of pagan roots; some trace it to ancient winter festivals; some find the tree's long history as a symbol of rebirth and everlasting life more than worthy of its connection with Christian yuletide celebration...

I choose to address the history of the Christmas tree through my own personal history, by sharing memories of Christmas trees through from the vantage point of my childhood and later as a wife and mother.

Our Painesville City in the 1940s, when I was a child, was full of Mom and Pop stores in a large downtown where Christmas trees were all around us. We saw them in the beautifully decorated Christmas storefront windows. We saw them being carried home on top of family cars, or being dragged along by families on foot from downtown Christmas-tree sellers. We saw them being decorated and then lighted on porches, inside houses, churches and schools; in yards and at the town square...

In those days my father insisted that our family have live, balled Christmas trees. Our trees could then be re-planted outside after Christmas, and in later years our yard was dotted with the evergreens that had briefly lived indoors with us. As we grew older, we could look upon those trees that had started small like us and grown with us, and we could recall the year each tree had come into our home...

In the 1950s, after Dad had died, the whole world seemed to love aluminum---aluminum siding, aluminum cookware, aluminum Christmas trees... I came home from school one day and was shocked to see a shiny aluminum tree in our front window. Instantly, I hated it.

It didn't help a bit that a multi-colored rotating beacon lit it up like a rainbow. The new tree wasn't green; it didn't have a history; you couldn't plant it after Christmas; it didn't have a Christmas tree aroma; it didn't appeal to me at all!

My opinion was in the minority, so I tried to tell myself that Christmas was no time for carping. After all, the tree had been purchased and set up in our living room with all good spirit and intention. There was nothing I could do but co-exist with it and try hard not to think about the unfortunate fact that it could be stored after Christmas for re-use year after year.

LATER, WHEN BOB and I were newly married and looking toward Christmas with very little cash to spare, a pine tree blew across the road in front of our car. We didn't see a house around for miles, so naturally the little tree became our gift. We took it home and set it in our farmhouse, and with that little bit of handling, the tree lost all its needles!

We camouflaged its bareness with long tinsel---cheap to buy at a dime a package---and topped it off with a tree-top angel I had put together from a fragment of lace. If that tree was far from perfect, it was our first tree as husband and wife.

As we stepped back to admire it, our dog raced across the room in pursuit of a country mouse that had found its way inside, and together those two critters brought down the tree.

We untangled dog and tree, but the old-style tinfoil icycles were unforgiving; for the rest of Christmas, our naked tree looked like a roost for birds, with nests of foil tangled in the branches. No matter; we had our merry Christmas, comic tree and all.

Then, when our eldest son was just a few years old, we watched as he bonded strongly with the first Christmas tree he was old enough to be fully aware of. He spent many happy hours napping in its shadow, but he became a somber presence as, on New Year's Day, we stripped the tree and got it ready for disposal. When we tried to pull the tree out through the doorway, it wouldn't budge; our boy had thrown his body on the tree because he couldn't bear to see it leave the house!

In a trauma-gentling compromise, the tree became a feeding place, full of goodies for the winter birds. Anchored in a snowbank, it was visible from our windows, creating happiness for birds and boy alike. A new tradition had begun.

BY THE TIME our brood had grown to three boys, we had begun the long-running father-son ceremony of going out to a country tree farm and cutting our own holiday tree. From here, it seemed our children alway chose a tree that needed help. A tree that was too fat, too short, too skinny, too skimpy and/or hopelessly lopsided would be all the more appealing to them. One tree, as I remember, was rescued from the farm's pile of rejects. Its trunk was so hopelessly crooked it couldn't stand completely upright, and on Christmas Eve it crashed down onto the dog as he rested nearby. We calmed the animal and, using a long string, we tried the tree to a nearby banister, where it stood blantantly askew (but nonetheless beloved) for the rest of the holiday.

Wild thorn trees entered the Christmas picture when the boys decided we needed more than just one tree. From the woods each year they would bring in a sawed-off multi-limbed branch of a thorn tree. Attaching it to a base, they would outline the twisty branches with tiny lights---a tradition they continued through their teens. I liked those trees.

WHEN THE KIDS were grown and raising families of their own, it was once again up to Bob and me to find and decorate a Christmas tree for ourselves. One year it dawned on us that live trees might be the cause for my yearly Christmas allergy attacks. It was time for faux fir!

A young friend helped us choose a good one, and each year helped us shape the branches properly for a realistic look. Our grown children didn't comment on the change, nor did we. Thinking back to the aluminum tree of my own youth, I presumed it was their sense of Christmas kindness, and I didn't want to challenge it.
Then one year a son remarked, "You guys are finding really pretty trees... We always were afraid you'd buy fake trees as soon as we were gone." (Oops! Confession time! We may have lost some points there.)

Now in our later years, we continue to put up a nativity scene and generously deck the halls (and windows and banister's and tables and doors) with plenty of Christmas. But Bob and I no longer put up a Christmas tree. Absence of the tree has the advantage of leaving more space for seating at family gatherings, and with all the other Christmas color we've installed, it was years before anybody seemed to notice. A tree is just a decoration, after all, and in our Christmas gatherings, our loved ones are the greatest ornaments.

WE HAVE OUTDOOR Christmas trees in good supply, however, and these stately woodland evergreens have reached up to the sky far longer than we people have resided on this property. Long after indoor ornaments are packed away, those trees remain before our vision winter-long, elegantly draped with snow and ice by Mother Nature. Sometimes wind or sun will warm the branches just enough that they will shrug and toss away the ice like broken crystal.

Then Mother Nature kindly comes along and decorates them all over again for us, until the winter's done.