Wednesday, December 10, 2008

O Tannenbaum!

It is supposed to alternate between snow and freezing rains this weekend. So, of course, we're going out to choose our Christmas tree.

The local afternoon radio show that I listen to is having the fake vs. real Christmas tree debate today. For our family, there is no debate -- real all the way. I've even switched to real wreaths on the doors. Why live in the Evergreen State and put up a bunch of plastic for Christmas?

Did you know that -- while the tradition of bringing evergreen boughs into homes in the winter has ancient pagan roots and the bringing of an actual tree into the house (hung upside-down!) has old Christian roots -- the father of the modern, lighted Christmas tree is Martin Luther? According to my book, Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas by Ace Collins (Zondervan 2003), the story goes like this:

Legend has it that Martin Luther was walking home on a dark December evening when he was struck by the beauty of the starlight coming through the branches of the many fir trees in the woods around his home. The German Protestant Refromer was so captivated by the way the filtered light appeared that he felt moved to duplicate this effect on the tree he had placed in his home. He tied a candleholder onto one of the evergreen's branches, put a candle in the wooden holder, and lit it. Walking to the opposite side of the tree, he studied the flickering light. He like the effect and attached several more candles in the same way. Not only was the preacher's family impressed, so were his neighbors. A host of them added candles to their own indoor trees, and the tradition of a lighted tree was born.

(A side note: Across the street from the house where I grew up lived a German couple who would, despite all common notions of fire safety, light real candles on their tree every year. We were glad to be across the street and not right next door. It was beautiful, though.)

Luther taught his friends and family that the tree represented the everlasting love of God. He pointed out that the evergreen's colors did not fade, just as the Lord's love would not fade, no matter what the circumstance or trial. The candlelight represented the hope that Christ brought to the world through His birth and resurrection. Thus, to those who knew Luther, the tree evolved into a symbol, not just of Christmas, but of Christian faith in general. (pp 73-74)

When I was a kid, every year I would look forward to going to the tree farm with my dad. One of my bitter Christmas memories was the year I missed out. I had done some weaseling with logging piano practice hours during the week, and somehow my mother found out. So, in my mother's way, she sent my father out for the tree while she stayed home with me and kept an eagle eye on my reluctant fingers as I moped at the piano for half an hour practising, with just a tad of irony, "O Tannenbaum."

Ours is a mixed marriage -- my husband grew up in a home that put up a fake tree every Christmas. But, as in most mixed marriages, one spouse converted. Though he hollered and fussed the first couple of years about the sap and the needles, he eventually grew to love the fresh evergreen smell permeating all the rooms during the most wonderful time of the year. And he began to appreciate the ritual involved in choosing a tree and to accept it as a positive family tradition. In our house, this rite of the season is as follows:

Somewhere around two weeks before Christmas -- if possible on a freezing cold, icy, snowy sort of day -- we drive my car (because of the sap) to the local grocery store's parking lot. There, we meet up with the same two guys we see every year. These guys are great. If we were not already in the Christmas spirit, we would be irresistibly drawn into it by the gap-toothed grins the greet us under the baseball caps of questionable cleanliness that cover so poorly the greasy coifs of stringy hair. We roam freely amidst the lanes of Nobles, Douglases, and Fasers that make up the bulk of the selection. Sadie acts the part of wood nymph, dancing among the pines and firs with careless abandon, often coming too close to a blissful leap out into the parking lot traffic of near-frantic holiday grocery shoppers. And, above all the bustle, you'll hear . . . "Sadie! Get back here! Help us choose a tree!"

We look and look, and then we listen. And the perfect tree whispers to us through the biting cold. So Jason, being the man, gets to stay outside with Toothless the First, wrestling the botanical beast onto the roof of my Honda, while Sadie and I make the Walk of Trepidation to the trailer. As we climb slowly up the steps, the smell of cigarettes seeps under the closed door. Knock, knock, knock. "Come in!" Toothless the Second replies.

Money changes hands. We now own a tree. Sadie, who has been dancing about in the background, hardly able to contain her excitement, finds the opportunity to make a bid for one out of the disreputable grouping of candy canes that sits on a makeshift desk. Toothless the Second smiles ghoulishly as he bends down to offer her her choice. I stand there awkwardly, trying to avert my eyes from everything at once -- from the filthy mattresses with hastily thrown blankets; from the kitchenette with that morning's breakfast dishes forming a festive habitat for microbiological organisms; from the ominously half-opened door in the rear that I shudder to realize is most likely the bathroom; from the general revolt against hygiene that surrounds me.

Outside, more money has changed hands in the form of a tip between Jason and Toothless the First. We then flee with our tree . . . whee! And, when we get home, the story continues, with much swearing and grunting on the part of Jason as he hauls in the needle-covered sap-bleeder while I hover in the background like a nervous bird -- offering, but never really providing, help. Long story short, both our marriage and the Christmas spirit somehow survive the tree stand ordeal, Ella Fitzgerald's unmatchable voice bursts joyfully from the stereo, and the delightful job of decorating begins.

Good times!

To all who decorate the evergreen (and to the rest who do not, but -- I'll bet -- wish they did), merry, merry Christmas!


kadie said...

There is NOTHING like that wonderful smell of a Christmas tree, that is for certain! Josh and I bought a fake tree last family of spiders will find a home in our house again this year. :) But I echo your sentiments for a real tree and we made a pact that when we have kids we will get a real tree...I don't want them to think that it's normal to get your tree out of the box each year and help mom and dad fluff out the branches. And there's nothing like that wonderful smell, it brings back so many great memories of Christmases past. Thanks for sharing. Did you ever make a decision about your Christmas party?

Joelle said...

I just love the smell of pine trees. One of the best scents on the planet!