Relative Claus: Part III 

How Lovely Are Thy Branches

No no no no, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that just because you like Christmas trees that you are a sicko, that you expose yourself to underage cherubs, or anything like that. The Christmas tree phenomenon is a complex thing, deeply rooted in our cultural psyche and perhaps even our genes, and there are many wholesome reasons why we are drawn to them, even if they are perverted.

Today’s Christmas tree is a vestige of the widespread pagan practice of using evergreens to symbolize life in the dead of winter. Archaeological and anthropological evidence indicates that veneration of the tree dates from at least 4,000 years before Christ, and that it played a part in the primitive cosmologies of many major religions.

But the Christmas tree phenomenon is about more than just trees. It is about lights in trees. Many cultures have combined tree worship with lights during the winter solstice. Consider the candles of Chanukah. Consider Amaterasu, the Japanese Sun-Goddess who was lured out of her cave by a festival of bonfires and dancing around a decorated tree. Consider the many pagan rituals that enact the return of stolen fire to the heavens at the solstice. The pagan celebration of the tree was incorporated into Christianity by the Roman Catholic Church, not banned like so many other pagan rituals. Why it was not abolished is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the pagans were determined not to stop evergreen worship and the Romans knew it. Perhaps the Romans were charmed by trees transformed into shimmering visions of color and light.

Even the Unabomber would probably concede that Christmas trees can be truly beautiful. It’s beautiful how people come together around the tree to create art, how we surround the tree with an Edenesque bounty of earthly delights and cheer. The Christmas tree is all of these things: lights and trees and warmth and god and countless more archetypes cascading like firefly sparks through our collective unconscious. It is perfectly understandable why we like Christmas trees. It is, however, perverted as well.

A few facts:

1) The Christmas tree that you celebrate in your living room is either dead or dying, with no hope for recovery.

2) The commercial value of a Christmas tree is based on the balance of the vertical segments, the foliar density of the four quarter-faces, and the taper from tip to base, a 70 percent taper being the ideal.

3) per•vert (pur-vurt) v. turn [a thing] from its proper course or use.

The Christmas tree industry, which employs over 100,000 people and occupies over 1 million acres in the United States, is an industry based on ritual sacrifice: We direct the growth of these trees to our specifications; we mortally wound them, and then we dress them up and watch them die in our living rooms. This year, the National Christmas Tree Association estimates that sale of Christmas trees will meet or exceed 36 million trees, up 700,000 from last year.

Here in Missoula, those who choose a disposable Christmas tree can bring the remains to McCormick Park, where they will be mulched for use by Parks and Rec. For those who want a less perverse Tree of Fire this winter, you have options. Many choose to go artificial. Some purists see plastic as a perverted form of the Christmas tree and what it stands for, that there is just no substitute for a real live dead tree. I disagree. I think that if the Christmas tree stands for anything, it stands for art. In this context, a plastic Christmas tree is pure kitsch. Some artificial trees even have joints in their limbs, so you can set them in a wide range of casual gestures.

Another alternative is to get a real live living tree in a pot. Decorate the tree at Christmas, and then keep it around all year as a houseplant. That’s arguably a more respectful way of honoring the Tree of Fire. Or you can plant the potted tree in the springtime, thereby contributing to the net sum of trees in the forest, rather than depleting it.

A drawback to the potted tree is that a tree that will reach an eight- or 10-foot ceiling will have such a large root mass that it would in most cases be prohibitive to keep it in a pot. Therefore, potted trees will be smaller than the jumbo size trees we Americans have grown to love. It begs the question: How big, exactly, does a Christmas tree need to be? Does size matter?

There is an old Swiss story about a woodcarver who heard a beautiful song emanating from an ancient fir tree. He visited the tree often, fell in love with the tree, ran his hands on the bark. He decided that he wanted to carve a statue of the Virgin Mary from this tree, and convinced the villagers to help him fell it. They did, with misgivings, and their hearts grew heavy as they dragged the tree back to the village. The statue was the most beautiful carving of Mary that anyone had ever seen. When he finished, Mary opened her mouth and once again sang the beautiful dulcet tones of the tree. And that was the last time the fir tree sang.

A beautiful, sad story. And menacingly twisted, no? It is almost, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for ...

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