Weekly Edgework #76 - December 12, 2005

Oh, Christmas Tree

For most of my life I have been passionate about having a live Christmas tree in the house to celebrate the season. It is probably a combination of old age and the growing ecological imbalance of the planet that has brought second thoughts about having to have a real tree in the house at Christmas time.

For the first decade of my life my family and I celebrated Christmas quite well, thank you, without a Christmas tree. In the weeks leading up to Christmas we as children were all aware of unusual activity. Our parents obviously had gone on shopping trips while we were at school. But by the time we came home the gifts they had bought were hidden somewhere in the house. When they were too large for the house they ended up in a granary somewhere on the yard. However, when it was too hard to conceal the location of the gifts we were threatened with a licking if we went snooping where they were “hidden.”

December we were forbidden to go to the basement of the house. It was clear that dad was building things for Christmas, but what might they be? Meanwhile, as the countdown to Christmas intensified dad liked to tease us. “If you knew what you were getting for Christmas you would jump over the stovepipe!” he exclaimed. He was referring of course to the stovepipe that snaked its way through our house a few feet from the ceiling connecting the coal stove to the chimney. The more he teased us the more our anticipation grew.

Dad was not one to give in to our pleas to receive at least one gift before December 25th. Some of our friends did. But dad saw that as a weakness on the part of their parents. “Don’t they have a backbone?” he would ask. “It is simply wrong to give children their presents before Christmas day!” He thought even less of parents who took their kids shopping so they got to choose what they wanted.

Finally Christmas Eve arrived. It was clear that the gifts we would be receiving would be coming from our parents – not from Santa like worldly kids thought. But that didn’t lessen the excitement as we snuggled into our beds. We stayed awake as long as we could, listening to the bustle of activity downstairs, and occasionally sneaking a peek through the floor registers that allowed heat to enter our bedrooms past the stovepipes we couldn’t jump over. Finally we drifted off into a fitful sleep.

The first child to awaken on Christmas morning raised a ruckus so that we all awoke with a start. Then we tumbled over each other down the stairs and into the big farm kitchen. And there it was – the kitchen table laden with gifts and Christmas goodies. Of course we knew where to look for our share of the booty – it was placed where we usually sat at the table for meals. Each child received a bowl full of candies and peanuts – our specific portion for the season – and of course gifts or a note telling us where to find them if they were too large to fit onto the table. What mayhem and delight mom and dad witnessed as they observed the drama from the foot of the stairs where they stood half-dressed with hair uncombed and satisfied grins on their faces.

All this changed with the coming of the Christmas tree. And now I am wondering whether we have really gained anything by the mass slaughter of trees from 1956 to the present. Of course many more progressive families had a Christmas tree long before we did. I suppose after our little country church began decking out a Christmas tree for the season, my dad just gave in. Soon we too had a tree and of course a second tree worth of paper was needed to wrap all the gifts to place under that tree. And how much more orderly the whole affair became! Gifts were handed out one at a time while all others awaited their random turn. And of course the sacredness of a frenzied Christmas morning was lost in the shuffle. All because of a tree.

I caught on to the new order of things quickly, however. I loved the smell of spruce needles and especially the glistening tinsel that draped the tree like icicles. What a surprise it was to find out that Ruth’s folks always had the same plastic version of a tree year after year. “How artificial can you get?” I thought. One of the conditions of our marriage contract was quite clear – in our home we would always have a real, live Christmas tree. And for thirty-six years we have stuck to the contract, except for the years we lived in a tropical climate.

Now I am beginning to waiver in my resolve. Not only am I reminded that the treeless Christmases of my childhood easily matched the anticipation and drama of our present practices. I keep thinking about all the baby evergreens that have been killed at Christmas time throughout the past half century – trees that could by now have reforested most of North America had they been allowed to live. This slaughter runs eerily parallel to the story of King Herod killing all young boys surrounding Bethlehem around the time of the first Christmas. If trees could talk, I wonder what they would have to say about our practice of killing so many of their young cousins in December each year and then throwing them into the trash in January.

As you can tell, I am getting old and frail of mind. But how can I help having such thoughts? They just come. And if I don’t talk about them they have a way of eating away at my insides. I won’t be surprised if Ruth and I end up at the MCC Thrift store this year looking for the best artificial tree we can get for ten dollars.