There is something peculiar about the timeless Christmas tradition of hiking into the woods and chopping down a tree, only to strap it to the roof of the car, drive back to the city, and hoist it into your living room to decorate with lights. Not to mention the final touch – topping it with a star and plugging it into the wall. I recognize that the practice is odd, creepy, and probably more than a little bit wrong. But it’s also totally necessary.
Saturday while driving home from Sacramento I saw car after car on the highway laden with spruces and firs. The sight made me smile and think of home.
When I was little, my family would pile into my Dad’s truck wearing our winter hats and mittens and drive to a nearby Christmas tree farm to hike the hills in search of the perfect tree. Midway through the expedition, my hands would be freezing, my brother complaining and my sister wishing she were somewhere else with her boyfriend du jour. We would wander through the woods inspecting each tree – looking for craters in the boughs and one big enough to fit the 14-foot ceiling of the family room.
Upon finding one tree we could all agree on, we would admire its shape and smell. Then my dad would take out his axe and chop the beautiful thing down. I recall being somewhat saddened about its death. However, it took me three decades to seriously question some of the longstanding Yule-time traditions I have fastened myself to.
From the passenger’s seat I watched the faces of the people in passing cars. They resembled warriors returning home from a hunt with a prized stag – looking proud and excited about the beast strapped to the roof of their vehicle that they would soon dress to their liking. I found the whole scenario suddenly quite laughable. But it’s also one that I am not ready to give it up.
The thing is Christians have been chopping down pine trees to get into the holiday spirit since the 16th century. No one seems to be able to firmly trace the origins of the Christmas tree to one particular group or date. The account I have heard repeated the most credits it as a pagan practice adopted by the Germans and passed down from elite circles. The tree was often decorated with candles, sugar candies, and ornaments carved of meats and cheeses.
I’m not certain what it is exactly that keeps me tethered to the practice of purchasing a Christmas tree. Perhaps it’s the fresh smell of the pine in winter. Perhaps it’s how pretty the tree looks glowing in the dark. Or perhaps it is the simple act of decorating it with family.
Growing up, as we opened the boxes of ornaments housed in the attic 11 months out of the year, my parents repeated the stories associated with particular decorations as they removed them from the packaging. You can tell the story of my family through the ornaments on our tree. From cloth balls my four grandparents assembled while sitting together for the first time as a new family to the glass globes given to my parents after the birth of each of their children.
My mom refuses to throw out the ugly old Cub Scout and Girls Scout ornaments we painted and my dad is given the honor of hanging the glass icicles his sister made before she died. My parents both hang the tin foil star they created when living in France and were too poor to purchase anything at all.
At this point I do not have a Christmas tree erected in my own living room in San Francisco. My roommates and I have discussed getting one, but at this point it has not moved beyond conversation. From my bedroom window I can see trees glowing in other apartments. They are all different. Some are tall, some fat, some blink, some are white and pink. But when they are all lit they mean the same thing: there is a family inside and they are home.