Like most children, I was always greatly excited when, at last, the time came to get the Christmas tree. In those early years, my father would pack my brothers and I into the family car to head out to Lulu Island to find the most beautiful tree. Many years later, my husband and I and our friends would go to a property in Yellow Point where we could find, not a perfect tree, but one that was crowding out another and should be removed to allow the better tree room to grow. Those trees, my young daughter claimed, were like something from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas: scrawny, crooked, misshapen. Eventually she bullied us into buying a Christmas tree from a lot.
No matter where they were found, all these trees provided a good base for lights and decorations and offered that wonderful smell of the outdoors which so interested our various cats and dog, but some of my favourite trees were the ones my husband and I had in Montreal when we were first married. We had no decorations and very little money but we managed to get a tree. I had remembered a Christmas story I loved as a child about a lonely tree who was left behind when others were taken away to homes where they shone with light and tinsel. Happily, some children went out to hang cookies on that little tree and then the birds came to sit on the branches making it the most beautiful tree of all. Inspired by that memory, I made birds of various sizes from coloured construction paper and baked cookies with faces made of raisins, nuts and bits of maraschino cherries.
The practice of bringing evergreens in the home goes back hundreds of years. Egyptians, Romans, Celts and Vikings liked to bring various green plants and evergreens into their homes at the time of the winter solstice, in some cases to keep away evil spirits and illness and in others to celebrate new seasons, new growth and life over death.
The origin of the modern Christmas tree is often attributed to Germany, and I grew up singing O Tannenbaum in honour of that. One legend about the German celebrations proposes that Martin Luther was responsible for the origin of the Christmas tree in 1500. As the story goes, Luther was walking through the snowy woods and was moved by the beautify of the snow glistening on the branches of trees. In response to this he brought a small tree into his house and decorated it with small candles to illustrate the Christmas sky.
It was the Victorian period that brought trees into popular use in Britain and North America. Queen Victoria, her German husband prince Albert and her children were pictured around the Christmas tree:
Indigenous people have celebrated the winter solstice for millennia. While the tree is not the focus of solstice festivities, Tsatassaya White tells me that the cedar tree is of central importance to indigenous people, a tree of life that is a central source for ceremony and for many applications including cooking, clothing and ritual. To learn more about indigenous solstice festivals, you might sign up for the livestream event that Tsatassaya and Crimson Coast’s Dance Society are hosting on December 20th:
We continue to learn new things about the importance of trees in our lives. A friend sent me this recent article in the New York Times which describes the research of UBC Professor of Forest Ecology, Dr. Suzanne Simard. The article describes her work into mycorrhizal networks, the underground communication systems through which the dynamic exchange of resources and alarm signals through which resources and wisdom flow from the biggest and largest to the youngest and smallest trees:
Reading about the awareness and sensitivity of trees makes me wonder about the practice of cutting them down for our Christmas festivities, but many articles suggest that the Christmas tree industry provides positive benefits:
There’s something heartening about bringing a little of the outdoors into our homes. Not just the scent, but the spirit of the tree. As it is an ancient symbols of growth, transformation and connection, it’s not surprising that, at this time of isolation and separation, our Christmas trees are inviting us to communicate with them. We feel affection our Christmas trees, as ee cummings described so poignantly in his poem Little Tree, which my friend Mark sent to me yesterday:
Trees are sending out good messages to us: Stay in place. Connect. Grow. Pay attention. Feel grateful.