This weekend we are in the small medieval town of Ravensberg, in the western part of Germany, to experience their famous Christmas Market, and to sample the holidays European-style. And I’ve learned that the actual Christmas Tree tradition began very near here, on the western banks of the Rhine.
It began in the 16th century when someone simply got the idea to bring in an evergreen branch from the forest. The humble gesture hinted at pagan roots, back to the days of worshipping the natural world. Known sometime as a Paradise Tree, it symbolized the Garden of Eden, and the bounty given to us by God.
And it is said that the early trees were sometimes burned in huge bonfires in the town squares. What a magnificent image, a massive tree crackling and snapping, and going up in a huge yuletide bonfire. An alchemy of fresh forest life combined with cold, wintry death; like a mixed tribute to our own mortality.
And it strikes me just how closely connected we really are to both life and death in this season.
Ever since I was a kid, Christmas has always been about the tree. Growing up, my father’s enthusiasm for finding the perfect holiday tree left a vivid mark on me. Having a parent be passionate about something, anything really, is a special thing for a child. But I think it was also a good thing that we kids understood, and could temper, his brand of exuberance.
Because, like the trees themselves, Dad’s traditions were a little bit unruly, and sometimes needed to be pruned of the rough and scratchy parts before we passed them down to our own children.
I remember the years that he drug us through barren tree farms in West Virginia, admiring and comparing, while our little feet froze in our boots. And the times when we chose them from a crowded, city lot, and he would hold them up, judging, for what seemed like hours, one against another.
One year the tree was too fat to get through the rectory door, severe pruning was needed. Another year it was so thick and full that it covered our entire baby grand piano. Mom wasn’t so keen on that one. A few times Dad would grossly misjudge the size and he’d end up having to chop off just the narrow crown for a stunted mini-version, which really disappointed us.
And then there was the memorable year that Dad was given a used tree, a hand-me-down from some church function or other. That night, a windy snow storm was kicking up, when we eagerly packed into the car for the drive to pick it up. But back at home, after we pulled into the driveway, we watched, crestfallen, as Dad went to take it off of the car, and all that remained was an ugly, naked branch, with a few needles stubbornly clinging.
It had to be tall, it had to be full, and it always had to be unique in some way. We would pick it because it had its backside missing, or a burned scorch down one side. Or it suffered from tree scoliosis, or was actually two conjoined twins – one sprouting unattractively on top of the other.
Or maybe because no one else wanted it, a misfit. Or because we’d waited too late, and it was nearly the last tree on the lot on Christmas Eve.
And my father could never settle for ordinary, triangular shapes, his picks were usually like shadows of large bears. But the tree had to have charisma – and it had to, literally, possess the room. It had to take your breath away when you first walked in the door.
In the week before Christmas, I always wanted to be near the tree. Some nights before bed, I’d lie under it, in my pajamas, the sap from the lower branches getting my hair all sticky. And I’d look up into the tree, wishing for what, I don’t really remember. But I distinctly recall the fresh balsam smell – bracing and clean, almost like having a corner of forest right in our living room.
I came to appreciate the importance of the fresh-cut evergreen. My friends’ artificial trees weren’t real Christmas trees in my estimation, and to Dad they were an abomination. In the plastic, commercial, disposable world of our seventies childhood, Dad gave us something that was real.
And I remember him telling us about his own great-grandmother’s blue Christmas tree. It was entirely blue – blue decorations, blue ornaments, with soft angel hair swaddling the limbs like cocoons. But what made it extraordinary was that it was covered in white candles. Real wax candles to be saved until Christmas Eve.
And once lit, the tree became a vision. It had to be monitored, and could only stay illuminated for a short time, but those moments of pure light and fresh greenery burned a big impression on my father.
I always asked him, why a blue tree? And he would reply that it was just the way his great-grandmother wanted it. And so I have come to feel the same way, and I’ve now adopted her legacy of blue.
The Kendall family tradition has been to drive out to Wagner’s tree farm in rural North Carolina. It’s a family farm with acres of trees, and a small pond down at the end of the property. After we choose our tree and cut it we take a walk around the pond.
We started coming here when our border collie, Henry, was alive and he would love swimming in the cold water, lunging after the sticks we’d throw for him. We always said that he looked forward to it every year. So the Christmas after Henry died, we sprinkled his ashes in the pond water on the farm he so loved, and talked about what a sweet and loyal dog he was.
The tradition saw a lot of changes. For a few years before Mac’s ankle surgery he struggled to make it around with the use of a cane.
And there was the year I had been sick, and I was trying hard to feel a sense of equilibrium, of normalcy.
And then, just last year, the Christmas right after Mom died, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to take the little walk at the tree farm, but we did.
And I used to worry that I’d have trouble getting the kids to commit to the activity, with their busy schedules and all. Or that it might turn into a rushed or forced, obligatory thing. But it seems like every year we linger just a little bit longer on the walks around the muddy banks.
And when we get the tree home, another ritual has been for my son, who is six-foot-three, to perch on his dad’s shoulders, that are six-foot-four, to place the homemade tinfoil and macaroni shell star on top. What started as a photo-op when Lewis was a toddler, has become a harrowing, potential ER event that I look forward to with glee.
Each of these traditions around the tree feel so brief, they are such small moments, but seem frozen in memory, year to year, like a story. A chapter added every year with special anecdotes and details.
The year little Lewis cried (for hours) because there were no gummy worms in his stocking.
The year the hot water boiler imploded on Christmas Eve, and two generations gathered to open gifts in a 30 degree house, wearing down coats and blankets.
The year we had our two tiny kittens meowing from their boxes under the tree at daybreak, giving away the surprise.
They are all stories told too quickly, with each year flying by, one into the next. And me wanting to frame them, like snowflakes sprayed on a pane of glass, to hold on to, individually, and remember.
One of my favorite Hans Cristian Andersen’s fables, The Little Fir Tree, illustrates this idea of impermanence, and the fleeting joy of Christmas.
A little evergreen tree spends its entire life longing to leave the forest and to be carried inside the house for the extravagant Christmas festivities. And, of course, once it gets its wish, and after the holidays end, a servant comes and chops the tree into little pieces:
“My days are over and passed”, said the poor tree. “Why didn’t I enjoy them while I could?” Now they are gone.
The wood blazed beautifully under the big copper kettle, and the fir-tree moaned so deeply that each groan sounded like a muffled shot. But as each groan burst from it, the tree thought of a bright summer day in the woods, or a starlit winter night
… And so the tree was burned completely away.
Like the little conifer, each of us spends our time longing for what we don’t have, the future, the next thing. We don’t appreciate the gracious moment as it is.
But it seems to me, that Advent is the answer to that. Advent requires that we focus only on the tiny moment that we are given. And if we are still, we might begin to see that the sacredness is in the actual waiting itself.
It’s in the pause that celebrates all possibilities – a moment of transcendence greater than anything we can even hope for.
And the funny thing is, what we are longing for is what we’ve already been given. It’s the love that is all right here, all around us, if we are mindful, attentive to the moment.
But, like the little tree, we fall prey to our desires and our impatience to have everything, all at once. We can’t simply slow down and savor the sweet joy, and appreciate the promise of love already fulfilled, the ever-present love that brought us here and sustains us.
I see my mother, in a pink chenille robe, with tired eyes and a huge smile, as she crawls under the tree and reaches to find a gift for me. I see her joy as she watches me open a gift that only she knows I will love.
The reflection on her face is one that holds such clear adoration – she sees me as I am, or maybe as I want to be.
And now I see that it was truly a reflection of herself, of her own beauty, her own goodness. Such a gift, in and of itself, and it staggers me. Something revealed only now, after all these years, like a forgotten present hidden under the bed.
Gifted to me without her even alive.
And I see her bending over the open oven door, turkey baster in hand, grease sputtering, wearing a glamorous velvet dress trimmed in gold. She lets me help with the table, she knows I want to write something, to create, to show off, to design the place cards. She doesn’t care if they are perfect, she just wants them to be from me.
And later, she is at the table, holding hands with all of us, and smiling at Dad, looking exhausted, but so beautiful in the candlelight. And now I wish I had lingered over each of those moments longer – why didn’t I?
Because looking back, I appreciate even more those years my mother made Christmas so unbelievably special, and I never want to lose those memories. But over time I know they will fade and burn away; because we all go the way of the little fir-tree.
So, I’ll hang the blue ornaments and string the blue lights on the tree, another year, like always, and think of Mom. And when the living room lights are turned off, I’ll let my heart melt into the softness of the blue.
Like my great-great grandmother, so many years ago, I just have a preference for the color. It is soft and muted and allows me to look deep into the branches, through all of our exquisite ornaments, and see the sticky shingled trunk, a humble reminder of our special afternoon at the farm.
And I’ll savor the fresh, glorious verdure of the bright branches. And breathe in the crisp, spicy scent. And I’ll pay homage to the little sapling that was rooted so deeply, so purposefully, in the earth, and watered by spring rains and fed by the Carolina sun.
And, if I listen closely, maybe I’ll be able to hear the tree’s soft moan, like a tiny sigh, or a warning, or like the sweet surrender of a heart breaking.
An expression of saudade – grief and ecstasy caught in the same moment.
And I’ll feel so grateful to the little fir-tree, as it stands dying before me, majestically ablaze with light and love, like an oblation, a brief but temporary gift – all for me.
Cover Photo: Christmas Market, Zurich