As the holiday season is upon us, while I live life Down East surrounded by a big open sky, a sea with no end and glorious evergreen vegetation, I find my thoughts drifting to when I was a young boy living in Pennsylvania, and to Christmas trees.
As some of us may know, the tradition of Christmas trees originated in Germany by way of seasonal customs and piety passed down starting in the 16th century. Well before that, other cultures — the Romans, Egyptians, Celts and Vikings — believed evergreens brought health, good luck and perhaps even everlasting life to those who adorned their homes in greenery. It was the Germans who brought the evergreen tree inside and placed lighted candles on it. The 1830s saw Pennsylvania German settlements decorate trees, and by 1890 Christmas tree popularity was on the rise in America.
All of the Christmas trees of my youth were filled with big colored lights and always draped in tinsel. Depending on my family’s financial condition, the tree would vary in size, yet — to my brothers and me — our tree was always perfect. Once it was adorned with a star atop, the tree was complete, although beneath it was an empty magical landscape waiting to be filled. By morning those empty vestiges of anticipation would be brimming with wrapped packages. Within minutes all of it would be transformed into mounds of paper and empty boxes with bits of tape waiting to catch passing pajama feet.
After we became parents, our Christmas tree would be one of the last items to be decorated. It would have clear lights, no tinsel and be filled with all types of ornaments and mementos — a cornucopia of memories clinging to green branches. They were shiny and fragile, in colors of gold, silver, red and green; the objects wrapped the tree in story. Handmade items from our children, gifts from friends, family keepsakes, reminders from places we visited, dated ornaments and those signifying something purely special — baby’s first Christmas, our first Christmas — were placed on the tree. Together all of these priceless items tell a story, and each year a new ornament is added.
In a park in the Pennsylvania town where we raised our children, trees are decorated in a theme during the holidays. Stories are told of organizations, community clubs, lost souls, found friends, school classes, those who need, those who give and those who serve our community and country. The park is decorated in colorful lights, festooned in greenery, and holiday music plays non-stop from a single speaker tilted up to the sky. In that park the holiday season is brightened by community spirit, goodwill and the stories held within the boughs of every Christmas tree there. Hands come together, lights twinkle, carols are sung, and each and every Christmas tree provides hope and tells its story.
A Christmas tree is also that one-of-a-kind symbol that gives focus to the spirit of the day being celebrated. It is a communal gift of story and spirit all wrapped together in green goodness, draped in lights and brimming in scented memories from our past. In homes big and small, in places of worship and business, in backyards and homes Down East, amidst the machinery that makes a life here work, the Christmas tree stands lighted and ready.
For some people, that very same spirit can be found in a particular place rather than from a decorated tree. I have a friend who started a tradition a long time ago, and every year I look forward to seeing where he winds up to reflect and celebrate Christmas.
Every December, he ventures off to a place and chooses a spot where he and that place can join hands and share a moment. He then places a red glass ball ornament in that place: on a tree branch, an old stump, on a rock or next to a waterfall, even in front of a crumbling steel mill. He takes a picture of it — the ornament and the spirit of a place are all captured with a click of the shutter — and that photo is sent to family and friends. It is a solitary moment full of story and glad tidings. I find this tradition unique and strangely inspiring, but then, so is my friend.
The Christmas tree we now place in our home faces the sky and water of Starboard Cove. It contains vestiges of all those trees from my past, as a child, as a parent and as a community member. And, like my friend’s solitary red ornament, the tree catches the light, shines a glorious smile and provides memories of past Christmas days. But most importantly, our Christmas tree brings focus to that brightest star of stars and captures that special something we feel during the holiday season. Christmas spirit? Maybe. I like to think it has more to do with our humanity and the love we have for each other that makes it all feel just right.
RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor