The local garden centers are selling Christmas trees again. And this year they’re selling “Crisis trees” too; trees of inferior quality that in normal times would not be included in their selection, but nowadays are more in line with our budgets. I haven’t got our tree yet, but that’s what I’ve got my eye on.
I don’t remember much about the Christmas trees we had when I was growing up, except for the Brasilia years. In our first year there we found a potted monkey tail tree – the only thing available that was evergreen and more or less conical in shape. It was pretty much a failure. After Christmas we planted it in front of the house where it sat for months, brown and “dead”. Then it miraculously revived and eventually grew to be quite tall.
The next year my father, of his own accord, bought us a fake tree. A really fake tree. “Imitation” they call it, but it relied more heavily on “imagination”. It stood only about 3 feet high, so we put it on a little table to give it a boost. It’s dominant characteristic – what made it an outstanding tree, in the unique sense – was that it’s branches were made entirely of silver tinsel. At first we boys were rather embarrassed by our scrawny tinsel tree, but when it became the talk of the neighborhood, a sight all our friends had to troop through the house to behold and guffaw at, we started to take pride in it. (Never under-estimate teenage boys…) That tree stayed with us a good many years.
My first Christmas as a married man, Renata and I spent many hours leading up to Christmas creating our own Christmas tree decorations, made of homemade play-dough and paint. We also strung the tree with lines of threaded popcorn. I think it was our best tree ever, simply because we had so much fun creating it. We still have a few of those decorations in our Christmas supplies box.
In a classic, personal example of history repeating itself, in the early 90’s my parents came to spend Christmas with us here in Amsterdam and my father brought along an imitation Christmas tree for us. This one was slightly taller (4 foot) and green! With a bit of fluffing and a healthy covering of decorations, it almost looked real. I even bought a can of evergreen scent to spray on it from time to time. That tree is still doing service, I believe, as the Coffee Room Christmas tree at Christ Church Amsterdam.
When Renata and I were finally both employed, and the girls in their primary school years, we were able to fulfill a lifelong ambition of mine: to have a floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree. Fortunately we were living in a house where I could, at a stretch, reach the ceiling. But we soon discovered that a tall tree at the top is a wide tree at the base. Making space for the tree in a small Dutch house was a challenge. Still, it was nice, at least for a couple years, to have a tree that filled our eyes with wonder and our nostrils with authentic fir aromas.
Christmas trees have no direct connection to the birth of Christ of course. They’re a holdover from our pagan histories. The infusion of “Christian” meaning for the tree itself is at best superficial. But I’ve never found Christmas trees to detract from the central theme; rather, they’re merely a part of the European cultural heritage that has been incorporated into our celebration. Just like having a birthday cake, or cards, or streamers, or presents doesn’t detract from the person celebrating the birthday; rather, these things are meant as tokens of honor. Like any good celebration, the decorations enhance the party, but the focus remains unchanged; as the Donut Man put it in one of his kids’ videos: “Happy Birthday, Jesus!“