Christmas as an Ending and a Beginning

Image by Leo and Diane Dillon, via Wikipedia.

Every year, on December 23, in southern New Hampshire where I grew up, my dad and I go to a tree farm to cut down a Christmas tree.

We follow the German tradition, and open our presents on Christmas Eve. Instead of electric lights, my mom puts candleholders on the branches, and we light 12 candles on the tree for our celebration. That’s why we get our tree so late: so the branches aren’t dry and won’t catch fire.

I didn’t know until I went to college that what we were doing was somewhat exotic. My friends from California and Hawaii were blown away when I told them about the live candles: “Isn’t that dangerous?” They liked the image of us sawing down the tree–my dad on his knees in the snow, easing the teeth of the saw into the frozen trunk, until the small tree tilted and snapped free of the ground.

My role for many years was to hold the tree while my dad cut. I’d stand there with my gloved hands wrapped around the needly central column–the tree’s spine. I’d feel the tree shaking as my dad severed it from the earth.

During my pagan phase in my 20s, I loved this process more, and also felt guilty. We were sacrificing a living being–not living like us, but alive. This seemed both beautiful and sadistic. I pictured the tree gasping for oxygen, sucking down the water we gave it like someone breathing through a straw.

I know that the tree we cut each year doesn’t feel pain, and doesn’t have consciousness, at least not like our own. But it is still a sacrifice. And it’s fitting to think about death, and endings, as the old year dies and the new one is born.

Now that my dad and I are older, we’ve traded positions. I’m often the one down on my knees in the snow, forcing the saw’s teeth through the wood, and freeing the tree from its tether to the ground.

I don’t have kids and most likely will not. I’m an only child. When I’m my dad’s age, if I get there, will I be cutting down a tree alone? Will I enlist a buddy to help me?

What if the family tree ends with me?

* * *

This year, my dad and I drove in the freezing rain to our usual tree farm, on December 23. We were greeted by a hand-painted sign: “Closed for the season.”

Knocked for a loop, we cruised the back roads until we found a small family store with pre-cut trees for sale. That family had also retreated indoors, away from the harsh sleet. Payment was on the honor system: put the money in the locked box, the sign said.

We did, and wound up with the most gigantic tree we’ve ever had. It looms in my parents’ living room like a benign giant, frozen to a statue by Narnia’s White Witch.

A close family friend died a few weeks before Christmas. His wife, also a dear friend, joined us on Christmas Eve, where we were sad and joyful together, both at the same time. The tree presided, glowing over us.

This poem by the New Hampshire poet Charlie Pratt (another beloved family friend, who died in 2012) captures what I’m feeling right now:


The land turns round as does a potter’s wheel.
The potter’s fingers press against the clay
To find the form that formless mists conceal,

Marry the imagined and the real.
Hollows rise up, great walls fall away,
The land turns round as does a potter’s wheel.

All we dream of, all we touch and feel
Spill topsy-turvy in the potter’s play
To find the form that formless mists conceal.

You can strip the orange of its peel;
Skin the meaning from the words I say.
The land turns round as does a potter’s wheel.

Scatter the deck, gather the cards, and deal.
What is the game? Bets on the table. Pray
To find the form that formless mists conceal.

The clay is thrown. Now let the clay reveal
How to tell the darkness from the day,
To find the form that formless mists conceal.
The land turns round as does a potter’s wheel.

* * *

On a lighter note, I just found out that local zoos are asking for donations of Christmas trees, because the elephants like to thrown them around, strip off the needles, and use them as back scratchers.

May your New Year be full of nature and friendship, and endings that lead to new beginnings.