It’s not hard to account for potted houseplants. There is something compelling about bringing some essence of the outdoors inside. Blossom and leaf. The green of living things. Nature’s nourishing aesthetic brought near. Houseplants, sure, but trees – as in Christmas trees? Isn’t that a bit of space-consuming overkill?
Innovative decorators, no doubt trying to modernize and amp-up the accessory, once-upon-a-time reconceived (ill-conceived?) the tree in silver foil colored by a rotating wheel on a spotlight, but that proved a passing fad. Given the fact that nature can be so natural, we allergy sufferers are grateful that some creative genius came up with the idea of a more-or-less authentic-looking artificial tree. But faux, foil or real, why a tree at all?
The story is often remembered and told about how Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, was walking home one winter evening and became enchanted by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. Wanting to recreate the scene for his family -- and apparently not wanting to bother them with coats and gloves for a walk outside -- he cut a tree, set it up in the main room and, in an act that screams "fire hazard", wired its branches with lighted candles.
Other sources suggest that the Christmas tree tradition goes back much earlier, to the Roman observance of the Winter Solstice during which homes and temples were decorated with evergreens to mark their trustful anticipation of the approaching but still-distant time when farms and orchards would again be green and fruitful. Supposedly the Druids asserted a similar confidence in nature's resilience with evergreen decorations in the depth of winter.
As have we. In addition to the fancier version in our Great Room, a quite stately, if simpler, companion graces a corner of the barn, keeping the nativity set company -- or perhaps providing additional shelter. The objective rationale for its installation out there was the holiday entertaining we hosted earlier in the season in that austere setting. We drape off the miscellaneous tools hanging on the walls and back out the heavier equipment to make room. The concrete floor is easily swept and no one worries about spills on the grease/hydraulic fluid/oil-stained floor. The tree seemed requisite decoration.
But we have left it up – neglectfully, perhaps, but in a broader sense appropriately. There is, I think, something right about nesting a promissory tree in that space to which the equipment of garden and lawn and brush have been returned. Dormant, for the most part now that winter is the prevailing reality, the tree stands alongside tractor, mowers, chainsaws and carts as a trustful reminder that the green blades of spring will return, along with saplings reaching for light and compost ready to haul and spread. The tree in the corner of the barn anchors our confidence that the tools will once again have their day.
The day is inexorably approaching – my least favorite day of the year – when the decorations must come down. The ornaments and special candles will be sorted and boxed. The wreaths will be stored along with the baubles and bows. We’ll stretch the use of winter dishes awhile longer, but their day, too, will eventually come.
But the tree’s stately assurance -- a kind of psychological bridge across winter -- will linger, even once its branches have been stripped of shiny things and dangling memories of celebrations past and its sections have been boxed and stored away. There are, I know, more theological symbols associated with its boughs, but just now -- on a morning that began at 4-degrees -- this subtler one is both reassuring and compelling: spring, and the fruitful life it both beckons and occasions, is coming; indeed, is never that far away.