The Christmas Tree

December 17, 2008

Christmas trees are a beautiful thing.  Following tradition, the weekend after Thanksgiving, we get our tree from a “cut it down yourself” place.  They give you a hand-saw, and after selecting the perfect specimen, you just lie on your back, clear the underbrush, and have at it.


The trunks on the trees we usually pick must be about four to five inches thick, so by the time the harvest is complete, you wind up with dirt all over your back and skinned knuckles on your hand.  But hey, it’s Christmas; it’s worth it!  What’s a little mud and blood?  I just tell Billy Jr. he can wash up, use some Neosporin, and he’ll be fine!


Unlike previous occasions, recently we discovered the trick of borrowing the personal saw of one of the nursery workmen.  About three swipes into it, the tree fell!  Apparently the sharpness of the blade has a lot to do with how easily evergreens are cut down. All these years, and we thought the staff at the farm were just tremendously strong.


As a kid in New Jersey, we never did anything so adventurous as cutting our own tree.  We’d go to the local firehouse parking lot and try to choose the right one from the pre-cut collection.  The standard seemed to be that we should get the fullest and straightest with the fewest bare spots.  Then, muttered comments would be made about how expensive they were, and how they could charge so much, just for a tree…  So we always got the small-needle prickly type as opposed to the more pricey thick and soft ones.  Yanking the Douglas Fir through a funnel-shaped, tree tying enhancer, the branches were bound with coarse brown twine, and off we’d go down the crunchy frosted pathways of suburbia with our prize precariously perched on top of the car.


Perhaps it was because my dad always wanted cathedral ceilings, or more likely because his spatial abilities were not the best – combined with the fact that he spurned the rather gauche approach of bringing along a tape measure – I can’t say exactly why, but in all the instances of purchasing Christmas trees, we never, ever got one that fit the house.  Never.  Not once.


One year we dragged in a pine scented marvel that had to be off by at least three feet, and I’m going to say that only because he lacked the proper tools to cut from the bottom, dad proceeded to trim from the top.  This left us with a truncated cone flush to the ceiling, which if one didn’t know better, looked as though it continued right through into the attic.  Yet, this turned out to be quite an innovation, for instead of having just one spot for the angel, we had a good sized platform for her and several friends.


Almost without fail, no matter where it had been purchased, or however long inspected, as soon as our tree was brought into the house, all sorts of flaws and faults we hadn’t noticed before on the lot, instantly became blatantly obvious!  The trunk wasn’t so straight after all, and there was a bare spot the size of a basketball!  This area of inevitable imperfection would then become the family secret turned to the wall so nobody else could see.


Because of a very long-standing tradition of toppling, after affixing it in the customarily inadequate pressed metal stand, our tree would then be securely lashed to several points on the wall using about sixty feet of galvanized steel cable.  This had become de rigueur because as far back as recollection could extend, someone had always fallen into the glorious pine and taken the whole thing down.


One Christmas morn, upon seeing his new bicycle sparkling amidst the tinsel and glass, my eldest brother Jimmy ran excitedly to hop on board.  These were the days when bikes had just one speed – as fast as you could peddle – and they were usually sized extra big, to grow into.  The notion of getting personally sized for a two-wheeler didn’t come until the days of increased affluence resulting from things like summer jobs and saving up.  So over Jimmy streaked and upward he launched, higher and higher, reaching the top of the lofty seat, going well past and into the sappy arms of the tumbling evergreen.  For days his flannel pajamas stuck to his skin as though they were attached with Velcro.


One year, in what has to be regarded as an heroic attempt to perfectly emplace the angel on her distant peak, my dad leaned further and further and further from the ladder’s top step.  The one that had the yellow and black sticker saying, “THIS IS NOT A STEP!”  Just when it seemed like dad might pull off the 9.9 Yuletide maneuver of the year, he lost his balance.  Immediately sensing impending disaster, he went, “Ahh.”  Then, reflexively snatching the upper part of the trunk with both hands like some kind of primordial ape-man, dad bent the Flexible Fir over in half.  Yet somehow, she didn’t break!


For an instant, a memorable millisecond, with his feet higher than his head, dad took on the appearance of John Pennel the great American pole-vaulter of years gone by.  But that vision soon faded as my father lay sprawled on the carpet next to the angel also deposed and dazed by the fall.


Naturally, with each untimely tip, we came away with a few less ornaments than we had before – all of which were tiny and fragile connections with generations gone by.  There were the Depression era Christmas balls and fine glass beads from Great-Grandma Dastole, and wartime globes that actually looked like grenades.  We’d laugh at their unlikely appearance, but mourn their passing when eventually they fell and broke.


Year by year, there were fewer and fewer.  Those that hadn’t broken, the flood of 1972 took away.  Even the ones that survived the annual crash faded over time and the old style lights that once burned brightly suffered the process of peeling paint and dimming output.


Then, no matter how special our tree had been, or conscientiously watered, its needles began to shed.  Alas, while we had done our best to prolong its presence, we had simply postponed its inexorable demise and the somber occasion when it would be taken down and carted away.


Seasons would come and go, and as the ornaments changed on the tree, so too did the relationships of those who gathered round to decorate it.  Children got older and went off to school.  Grandparents retired to Florida.  Loved ones passed away, people got married, and divorced, families moved and relationships changed.


New trees were gotten and fresh traditions were started in different homes where little voices could be heard wishing for Santa.  Once again, tiny hands could be seen uncannily honing in on the most delicate decorations mistakenly placed on the lower and heftier, yet more accessible branches.


When Skye, our Sheltie, was a newly housebroken puppy, she apparently felt our Christmas tree was a seasonal accommodation to keep her from having to brave the icy cold snow in her bare feet.  But even with many cats and dogs and kids, nothing ever happened to the tree that a little more wire or tape couldn’t fix.  No matter how tattered it looked or crooked it became; it was always beautiful and wonderful.


Long ago, evergreens were seen to represent eternal life.  Yet, even with the best of intentions and expertise, we all know they have a definite mortality, as do we humans.  All too soon our “fir” starts to thin and our limbs begin to droop.


Still, there is one tree that has stood the test of time and will endure far beyond any Scotch Pine or Sequoia.  Those who have seen it know it is the most marvelous tree, the most formidable, the most unwavering.  It is God’s tree – The Tree of Life.


As the human race, walking in the Garden, and reaching up beyond our grasp, have we not all fallen from the trees of our loftiest ambition?  Have we not all felt the pain of our imperfect predicament and even the ultimate fragility of our deepest affection?  Yet, nourished in the love of God, the Tree of Life cannot be broken, nor will it be swayed or its foliage ever fade away.


Held fast in forgiveness and grace, this Tree is eternal, and very, very large.  It has the power to heal all of our broken memories and redeem all of our personal mistakes.  In its eternity, it sanctifies our vulnerability.


To some, its wood will resemble that of the Manger, and then a Cross.  Yet for all God’s children, it will span the course of time and bridge the great distance we have set between ourselves and our sisters and brothers.  With roots that plumb the depth of our darkest despair and branches rising up with the fruit of our brightest dreams, the Tree of Life will cover every abode and shelter the final passage to our real Home.


And thus, however big or small, full or bare, pre-cut or prefabricated in plastic, our Christmas trees are the perennial sign and symbol that in Christ, God will forever be with us.  And so in Christ, we shall forever be with God.