These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
traditions and the teleology of trees: a reflection
Every year that I can remember, my mom would set up a tree at home — for the entire month of December the colourfully decorated faux evergreen sat in our living room flaunting its presence, declaring the season with its ribbons, lights, and fragile orbs, and signalling the impending changes an end of year brings. The tree became a centrepiece of not only Christmas but New Years too — its arrival ushered in the period of celebrations that composed mid-winter, all of which revolved around family gatherings.
The tree was as packed with decorations as the month was with events — its branches were dotted with decor even as our regular lives were punctuated by family. The presents beneath it symbolised the hope, the curiosity, the excitement of the end of a year and the start of the next. The tree's appearance teased the approaching holidays: the freedom from responsibility, and the treasured extra time with Mom and Dad. Its presence meant we were half-way through the school year, and half-way through winter. And as it sat there, balancing its own weight and the weight of what it held, the tree reminded us of the completeness that our little family provided. We may not have had everything, but we certainly had each other.
That tree was an anchor around which the year floated — the glowing body around which the satellites of our daily lives orbited. The tree was comforting in many ways — and it was revered, anticipated, and loved.
Last weekend, Rebekah and I packed up our kids after their naps and carted them off for our semi-regular Sunday afternoon shopping run. It was the usual kind, with a specific mission, only this time it was more festive-minded. We had set out to find gifts and a few more decorations to liven up the handful we already had. And so we bought candles, table trimmings — and a tree.
We have a tree.
Sometimes it's still surreal. It was certainly surreal in the store as we picked one out. Every now and then when I come home from work and plug in the tree so that its lights shine before our window I get this out-of-body sense wash over me — a questioning, confused sense: Did this really happen? Is this really my tree? But that tree I thought I'd successfully resisted for theological reasons now fills the living room in eminence if not size. The future stories, the one-day memories circle about the little tree almost making its stringed lights seem brighter — its decorations slightly rocking in the breeze of tomorrow-year's promises.
As the gentle glow of our own little four-foot tree — scantily peppered with ornaments and yet seemingly so full — breaks the dark of our living room, I can't help but wonder what our kids will think and feel when one day they too reminisce.
Will the tree be a source of renewal and quiet affirmation? A symbol of tranquility and love? Will it be like it is for me a sort of talisman, conjuring up the magic of nostalgia — and the sense of peace, excitement, and homesickness such a magic brings? Will it be the end, and the beginning, and hint at all the in-betweens?
In our household, we refer to it simply as The Tree, or at times more formally as The Holiday Tree. It sits upon our side-table at the centre of our front room, and it is one in a line of a tradition I'm happy to inherit and pass on to our kids. The biggest misconception with my Christmas/Holiday stance, I think, is that I'm entirely opposed to decor such as trees, and lights, and other ornaments. But I'm not. I suppose the purchase of this tree is a way to prove that.
However, for me, the tree has no association with Jesus' birth beyond the fact they coexist at the same time of year — I would feel the same love, warmth, and sentiment toward the tree if it had come around in January or March. I have no problem with colourful trees and dangling LEDs — I welcome them — but I believe they symbolise something wholly other than does the small nativity display across the room. The tree, for me, bears no witness to the Messiah nor does it speak to the celebration of his arrival.
This of course is not in any way to say that theology or the Christmas story and its message had no part in our celebrations growing up — because they did. We all knew what this was really about — why we gathered, why we celebrated, what was at the heart of all this effort. We never forgot Jesus. We heard the stories, we were taught the theology — we celebrated and praised Adonai and his Anointed One. But at some point for me the two stopped meeting. It's no accident my sentiments above didn't mention Cristes Maesse. It's not that we didn't celebrate Jesus — every year we did and it was central — but the accoutrement of winter somewhere and somehow stopped having a relationship with him.
The tree was not and is not Christmas. But it still plays an important part — perhaps a much more important part than I've allowed to let on — in the narrative of the Holidays. And December wouldn't be the same without it.