SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
When we put up the Christmas tree last year, our dog became very puzzled.
“Dude, there are all kinds of trees surrounding this house already. Seriously, just come outside with me next time. Mind the yellow snow.”
Amazingly, he said all that with a glance.
If you take an objective, dog-like look at America’s Christmas traditions, you quickly realize we’re a little crazy. We bring a tree inside; we haul electric lights outside. People who refuse to listen to music that’s not still in the top 40 happily sing carols that were written by people who thought the Earth was flat.
(It’s a sphere; just thought I’d throw that in.)
And we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, even though most experts agree Jesus was actually born in the spring. Why? Because it’s close to the shortest day of the year. What else are you going to do in late December? Go to the beach? Get that garden in? Take a road trip to Buffalo, New York?
I doubt very much if Jesus would care when we celebrate His birthday, especially since the truly important Christmas holiday is Easter. By then the days are much longer, so we don’t need the pick-me-up.
The Christmas tree is one of the most interesting and puzzling aspects of Christmas decorating. It’s also big business: Trees in all fifty states are grown for the express purpose of being chopped down in a celebration of life. I used to drive through an area of Michigan that had more trees than Indiana has deer on the roads.
The origins of that tradition make sense, though: In ancient times, anything that stayed green all through winter held special significance. Without evergreens, people in past winters would sometimes completely forget what color was. It was like being stuck in a 50’s TV show, without the laugh track.
Evergreen boughs, hung over doors and windows, were reminders that spring would return. They also helped keep away witches and evil spirits, and as a bonus could be garnished with garlic to fight off vampires. So far as I know, they did nothing against banshees or marauding politicians.
But it was the Germans who, with ruthless efficiency, decided to just bring the whole darned tree inside. Martin Luther added lighted candles to the tree, bringing us the Christmas tradition of homes burning down.
Christmas trees didn’t come to America until the 1830’s, when German settlers arrived with the tradition. Naturally, the neighbors were curious:
“So Hans, why did your house burn down?”
“Oh, I brought a tree inside and hung candles on it.”
A lot of Americans were against anything like carols and trees anyway. People in New England got fined for hanging decorations, although it was legal to hang witches, as long as you didn’t decorate them.
Then, in 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (of “in the can” fame) were seen standing around a Christmas tree. Suddenly it was all in fashion, even though hanging witches didn’t catch on at all. They were often decorated with popcorn, berries, and nuts, a great idea to guard against food shortages. (The trees, not the witches.) Rodents were a problem. (With the trees. Well, maybe both.)
Then, in 1850, Christmas trees went up for sale commercially in the United States. Next thing you know the early version of Wal-Mart, then known as “Mart”, got ahold of it, and the rest is history. They went up in Rockefeller Center, at the White House, and in Woodinville, Washington, where a 122 foot tall, 91 year old Douglas fir does not get cut down every year.
I like that idea, of leaving the Christmas trees alive. I don’t like the idea of going outside in December to look at them, so never mind. Besides, since 77 million Christmas trees are planted each year in an industry that employs a hundred thousand people, closing the business down would result in an unhappy holiday for many.
I used to love having a live tree. The wonderful scent, the look of it. Then I grew up, and after that I loved it for three days: From after it was up until it started dropping needles.
There’s a reason they’re called needles.
Now I have an artificial tree. I love my artificial tree. It looks exactly like a real tree if you squint a little, and I’ve never had to tweeze a single needle out of my foot. The dog, while still puzzled, doesn’t harass it. It has never burst into flames, not even for me, and I can break anything.
It doesn’t dry out, or spoil, and I don’t have to dispose of it every season. It’s durable and doesn’t wear out for years.
It’s a lot like fruitcake.
Ah, but that’s another puzzling tradition.
|My wife and I sometimes confuse Christmas with Valentine's Day, but a tree's a tree.|