Sunday, December 23, 2007

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree...

In the Western world, the Christmas Tree is almost as central to Yuletide celebrations as the birth of the Divine Child and the appearance of Father Christmas. For me, it could not BE Christmas without a Tree. One year, when I was very poor, the best I could do was to find an evergreen branch to decorate. Another year, on Christmas Eve, a lot was giving away the trees that had not sold and I dragged one home almost literally at the eleventh hour.

This year, I realised I neither could carry nor decorate a tree of any magnitude and severe ice storms made it impossible for me to make a visit to the nursery early. It was on Thursday that I finally was able to go to the nursery for the tree. Few remained. Certainly my vision of a live tree was crushed by reality. All the live trees apart from those that remained firmly rooted in the ground had been sold. Early cold weather had ensured safety until Spring for those that remained in the ground. All that remained were a few cut evergreens and none of those represented the perfect image found on greeting cards. The tree I brought home was more than slightly imperfect, with a rather large hole in one side where no branches had grown. Furthermore, the man at the nursery had carved too large of a hole in the bottom of the trunk and the tree listed dangerously to one side after I set it in the stand. A long struggle to pack the hole sufficiently to enable the tree to stand proudly upright ensued.

I then realised I had no lights, having chucked out my tree lights last January after taking down the Tree. They had lasted quite a few years, but had become completely unreliable. No longer are lights made to withstand the assault of time, or to allow easy replacement of a single bulb.

Another day's delay in the trimming of the Tree as I had to go to a local shop for fairy lights. Now, two days before Christmas, the Tree has been trimmed with lights and a small number of decorations. The Christmas Fairy or Guardian Angel was the first to take her place at the top of the Tree as always. As this is rather a small Tree, she almost dwarfs it, but it would be unthinkable to replace her with a lesser being or any inanimate object.

My struggles with the Tree certainly do not deserve a post, but perhaps my thoughts while trimming it do. One of my first thoughts was to transform the imperfection of the Tree from a negative aspect to a positive one. Upon reflection, there may be two reasons to praise the imperfection of a Christmas Tree.

Nature's Trees are not symmetrical as a rule. Branches grow towards the light, and left to their own devices in the wilds, trees will have trunks and branches that are bent and irregular. What is a Christmas Tree after all but a symbol of Nature that is brought into the house, welcomed and revered for its Natural qualities? The scent of the sap and needles is evocative of the season. The promise of eternal life is conveyed by the Evergreen quality of the Yule Tree. An artificial tree, like a statue of a god, is nothing more than a symbol or substitute of the reality. I cannot comprehend how any one can be satisfied by an artificial tree IF real ones are available. In regions of the world where evergreen trees cannot be found, artificial trees make perfect sense, but everywhere else, a real evergreen has power that no artificial tree, however beautiful ever could hope to embody.

For those who think that the act of cutting a live tree in order to bring it into the house for the season is a waste of a living organism, I would respond that it is a Sacrifice and thus has great meaning and potency. The Tree stands in the place of the Sacrificed God, a promise that Death is the portal to rebirth. If the Tree did not die, life could not be reborn.

The Winter Solstice always has been a time of contemplation of death and hope that the darkness of Winter will bring the world to Light in the Spring. The death of the Evergreen and the rituals that surround the Christmas Tree are potent for Christians and non-Christians alike. For the Christian, the Tree represents the Cross upon which the Christ will be nailed on Good Friday. For the non-Christian, the Tree itself is the ultimate Sacrifice and represents the World Tree, from which all Life depends. Nuts and berries originally would have been placed on the Tree as symbols of the bounty of life. Coloured glass balls replaced them for the most part, and yet the symbolism is the same.

As usual, I have wandered from the point, which was to find a positive meaning in the imperfection of my Tree. The first was to be reminded that Nature does not conform always to human ideas of perfection but must be respected in all her natural glory. The second was something I noticed today, while hanging ornaments in the gaps between the branches to attempt to balance the appearance of the Tree. I realised suddenly that the imperfection of the Tree gave me more opportunity to display the ornaments. A Tree with thick, balanced branches would not require any decoration, but my Tree did!

As I unpacked the glass ornaments this year, I realised that glass in its fragility and delicacy is a very appropriate material for Yule tree ornaments. That which is fragile must be protected and special care must be taken to preserve it from year to year. In some way, it is apt because life itself is fragile and delicate. Happiness too is fragile...

There are those who purchase new decorations each year for their trees and decorate the Tree with a 'theme' that changes from year to year. In our family, however, as in many homes, the Tree represents the history of the family. Each ornament tells a story and represents either a specific moment or the giver. Some are more beautiful than others. Some better exemplify my own taste but each is valuable and each decoration belongs on the Tree.

On my Tree, I hang a few particularly lovely gift tags that accompanied gifts through the years, usually from my parents. The old-fashioned German paper and heavy cardboard tags with their gilt edges to me are some of the most glorious Christmas images and it seemed appropriate to add them to the Tree decorations. With their handwritten messages, they have special significance and remind me that, wherever I may be, my family's love is with me.

At the same time, I am glad that I have my own Tree and have created my own traditions through the years. As much as I miss my family and would love to spend Christmas with them, I am happy that I was forced by circumstance to develop the strength to create my own home and my own centre of being.

My Christmas Tree now represents a fair part of my adult life, although much is lost perforce when one moves from place to place and continent to continent. Even so, I have a few ornaments that evoke memories from other times and places and people who no longer walk this earth. Loved ones who have died are represented on my Tree. In fact, one prized ornament in the form of an embroidered cloth Unicorn is worth its weight in gold to me. The giver never had money nor security but managed somehow to give me a special decoration for my Tree one year when my own life was fairly difficult. That friend died very young and the unicorn evokes both joy and sorrow now.

Yet, is that not the very symbolism of the Christmas Tree, to recognise that the gift of life is purchased through death?

One year, we had a Tree that reached almost to the ceiling and it was decorated with very valuable porcelain ornaments by Lennox and Waterford. While a child of two was napping, the tree fell to the ground with a resounding crash, shattering more than a few of the ornaments. The child never has forgotten the drama of being awakened by that sound! (Nor did any of the adults.) At the time, she told one of the adults, 'I will make new ornaments for the Tree for you. I will make them from paper so nothing will break the next time the Tree falls.'

The child understood the tragedy inherent in the drama and wanted to 'make it all better' somehow. At the same time, she did not realise that the falling of a Christmas Tree was an unusual event. When she spoke of 'the next time the Tree falls', she was speaking from the vast experience of being two years old. In her own memory, Christmas Trees fell crashing to the floor... (From that year forward, any Tree that tall was tethered with invisible wire to a post if necessary to prevent that drama from occurring ever again.)

Whenever I hang a paper ornament from the Tree, I recall the year the Tree fell. It was this, in fact, that made me realise that glass and porcelain ornaments have special value because of their delicacy. In the same way that favourite memories must be protected and preserved, glass ornaments must be given particular care. Those that survive year after year are endowed with special worth. One marvels in fact to know that a glass ball that looks as though it would shatter at the lightest touch has seen many years of service on the Christmas Tree.

The Christmas Tree is central to Yuletide for me, but the creche is magical as well. My creche is not part of my own family's history but belonged to some one else. About five or six years ago, an old man who lived in the neighbourhood died and his best friend cleared out the house and held a jumble sale of the items his children did not want. All items were sold at the same price, which was minimal.

I was walking home from the market when I came upon the display on tables outside the house. To my surprise and delight, I saw a large, handmade wooden creche on one table. I asked if any figures had been found for it and the man told me that there were some, that he had placed them in a box somewhere and, if I were interested, he would give them to me with the creche. I bought the creche without looking at the contents of the box. It was an extremely hot day in July, as far from thoughts of Christmas as one could be...

At home, I opened the cardboard box and was amazed to find a complete Italian Nativity set dating probably from the 1940s or 1950s. None of the figures was chipped or otherwise damaged. It saddened me for a moment to think that this creche had been part of a family tradition for decades that summarily had been swept away by the man's death. His children had not cared enough to spend any time with his possessions before deciding to consign them all to a jumble sale.

Their loss, however, was my gain. I vowed to treat the creche with the reverence it deserved and to set it out each year not only in a ritual of my own but in continuation no doubt of a long tradition in some one else's family. Oddly enough, it resembled a creche that my family had when I was a child, long replaced by something far more elegant and fashionable...

Christmas, like any other significant festival, does not belong to one person or one family but to every one. Even when we are alone, we can participate in the collective joy of the season. I spent one Christmas alone in London and it was fairly grim in some respects but on Christmas Eve, I was able to attend Midnight Mass at the Brompton Oratory. No King nor Queen could have had a better Christmas Eve celebration than that. Now my memories of Christmas are joined by that magnificent experience... like life itself, joys and sorrows, loss and gain are intermingled. The threads are united and woven into a rich tapestry that is composed of all the memories of the season of Yule.

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