Today I took down my Christmas tree – a bit earlier than usual, but it was getting a bit prickly and I thought it was best to spare it the indignity of acute decline. The ritual of dismantling the Christmas tree endures as a sacred celebration of reverence for the continuous thread of life winding through and in us season after season.
This year was different.
I have known 73 Christmas trees. The first was a miniature Douglas fir chopped down from my grandfather’s farm in Northern Minnesota – at least that’s the memory my mother shared with me about the stark Christmas of 1947 in a tiny trailer where she and my dad lived in a small post-WW2 makeshift village of seminarians in Saint Paul. They had gone up North for Thanksgiving weekend, bringing the tree and Thanksgiving leftovers back with them in the 1937 Ford to brighten up their 400 square foot home. They put the tree on a file cabinet and moved my crib to the space between the file cabinet and dad’s desk where a bright lamp was so attractive that it burned my face when I pulled it into my crib to play with it.
I have no memory of this event, but it so traumatized my mother that she still recounted the story on her last Christmas when Alzheimer’s had stolen from her every other fragment of her life. Holding her hand in front of the fake Christmas tree at the Presbyterian Homes Memory Care Unit, she turned to me and said, “Have you met my oldest daughter? She was burned by the Christmas tree in 1947. It was a miracle that she survived, but God is good.”
“Mama – that was me. Look at me. I’m fine. See – no scars. You don’t need to worry about it.”
Looking deep into my eyes and scrutinizing my face, she could not connect the person beside her with the baby in the crib. “You have no idea how that was for me. A new mother. So much worry. But she healed quickly and I don’t think it she remembers it.”
Well, that much was true. Our next few Christmases were in the North Woods of Remer, Minnesota, where my dad pastored a small church while still in seminary. The parsonage was a small cottage with rudimentary kitchen plumbing – a pump – and an outhouse. My dad lived in the city during the week and came up on weekends for services. Christmas tree lights beamed from the parlor window onto the church ladies trudging through the deep, white snow with casseroles, cookies, and Julekage for December prayer meetings and Bible studies hosted by my mother on Wednesday nights. The coal-burning furnace could only do so much, so I snuggled in the warm laps of hard-working bodies exuding wood smoke and talcum powder as they shared heartfelt stories, prayers, songs, and hopes. I learned Christmas carols from the people who gathered around our Christmas tree singing every beloved verse from memory.
Years and years of Christmas trees. People and memories passing anew through each season. Every year, the Christmas tree ritual is the same – finding the right tree, bringing it home, gathering the people and decorations, enjoying the special foods and libations, singing the carols, loading the tree with lights and treasured mementos – to launch the joyful season of Christmas, hope for a new year, and reconnection with family and friends. Every year the tree offers itself as a tangible anchor for human celebration only to be unceremoniously stripped and dumped into the chipper when it’s all over. I have always loved the Christmas tree ritual, but never gave the actual tree much thought beyond its role as an accoutrement for Christmas festivities.
This year was different. I loved my tree, thankful for its presence in my home as it slowly passed from life to death. A tree is a living thing whose life is cut short just so we can dress it up for Christmas. This year I talked to my tree and listened to its branches and needles, breathing in its forest scent of winter, sharing its memories of sky, creatures, and seasons. I marveled at the wisdom of Saint Augustine embodied in my tree – a tree glorifies God just by being a tree.
Saying goodbye to my 2020 Christmas tree is an act of reverence and gratitude for another year of life.
A tree glorifies God just by being a tree. Thank you, Tree, for sharing your life with me.