How lovely are your branches
Winter: cold, more dark than light, feet of snow hindering the simplest of chores, bodies laden with fabric and furs, vigilantly keeping the fire, source of light and heat. Hours free for whittling, quilting, mending, storytelling, singing, and, when the days came bearing the most darkness, breaking at Solstice when the sun gained a tiny foothold, celebrating.
Perhaps it was the hours cooped up in a small space, too much time spent staring at fires, an ancient version of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but the origins of winter holidays don’t necessarily show humans at their best. Our modern celebrations of light, family, undying trees, public singing, Jesus’ birth have their beginnings in lawlessness, rape, murder & human sacrifice, superstition, oppression, institutional proselytization, and, with time, gross antisemitism. Yay! It’s Christmas!
Growing up in a Christian religious family, we celebrated Jesus’ birthday, with just a hint of Santa Claus. Over time I learned that Jesus was not born in December, most likely being born in late spring, if one believes the bits about shepherds and flocks. The distance traveled would have had the Wise Men showing up at the manger 3 years after the birth-a very long time to stay in a barn. The first Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth at all. It was leaders of approximately the 3rd century church co-opting Saturnalia to entice a broader membership, a practice continued with all indigenous groups throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Explained as a symbol of the wise men bearing gifts, gift-giving also has dubious origins. Perhaps we deserve the debt-saddling, materialistic, corporate mind control that it has become. My parents didn’t really have any answers to my questions regarding our Christmas tree when I explored its ancient origin. Even so, I’ve always loved Christmas trees.
As a child, my favorite Christmas trees were the ones we cut down on our own 5-acres. These trees were part of the woods-always evergreen, but lopsided, branches wide-spaced, tall and gangly, sometimes not able to support heavier ornaments. My mother hated these less-than-perfect specimens, but I loved them! These trees could breathe in our living room. Upright in the water-filled red metal tree stand, their graceful arms languidly reached out, waiting to be adorned with baubles, necklaces of light, snowflakes of paper, shiny strands of metallic tinsel, plenty of space among the branches for layers of wonder. These trees were soon replaced by trained, domestic trees, branches tight together, conical shape perfect from pruning since birth.
As with so many things in a happy partnership, Spouse shares my love of unconventional Christmas everything. From day 1, our trees have been scraggy, weak-branched, sometimes lanky, and always lean. Living at Trail’s End, we purchased living trees to decorate, then, after acclimating outdoors, worked our own reforestation program. Our current residence has provided our best Christmas trees ever. The son of the previous owner worked in the Forest Service and evidently sought to plant a forest on this 1/4-acre suburban lot. Trees overgrown, planted in the wrong places, planted too close together, were subsequently thinned each year, providing us with laughable pleasure. Large trees were taken down, the tops used in the house. The trunks of spindly, scrawny trees had to be engineered to be used in the conventional tree stand. Unsprayed and au natural, our trees would leak sap and harbor other forms of life. One year, we had tiny spider webs all over the place when the dormant creatures wintering in our tree came to in our warm house. Our collection of ornaments: porcelain chickens with moveable wings, glass sea creatures, wooden colorful fish, sheep, birds, simple red or silver balls, a head of garlic, a glittery apple, and a tiny pickle has to rotate given the strength of branches any given year. There should be a contest for a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. We’d be a contender.
Christmas is a mixed bag for me. The origins of Saint Nicolas/Santa Claus aren’t great when seen through the eyes of 2012 tolerance. The seeming manipulation of local customs by a huge religious organization for its own gain is revolting to someone who values diversity and self-determination. The creation and perpetuation of a religious holiday that was not celebrated by the people who actually knew the protagonist seems pandering and confusing. The aggressive consumerism is appalling to someone who thinks an economy based on spending is a dead-end. Still, we put up our tree, we listen to Christmas carols, especially those crooned by Bing, we give each other presents. We think and talk about the customs, the season, the year, each other, and Jesus. Spouse & I answer our son’s questions the best we can, as honestly and appropriately as we can. Facing winter, looking forward to extended light, embracing the hope that Christmas can symbolize, celebrating with awareness and intention, all weave themselves together into a blanket of joy. Humans celebrate. I want to celebrate, snuggle even, deeply.