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The Christmas tree custom: Secular? Maybe not

November 22, 2011
By Paul Willcott , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

As a Christian, I strongly disapprove of the secular and commercial way of celebrating Christmas that is the norm.

I'm not an absolutist, though. I love putting up the Christmas tree, and I love taking it down, and that's a custom with no basis whatever in Christian theology. It grows out of sentimental songs and art. It's fundamentally pagan. Never mind that. Done well, the Christmas tree ritual can be an event that shines as brightly as the star over Bethlehem.

At its redemptive best, the liturgy of the Christmas tree is performed by a loving couple with a happy history. The participation of grandchildren, or other relatives or friends adds a dollop of a special kind of pleasure, but it dilutes the heartfelt intimacy that grows and sings as mates alone dig out the dusty storage boxes and unwrap ornaments one by one. As each bauble is wakened from its year-long sleep, it calls up places and times and experiences from the ever more remote past. After a few hours, the tree is enveloped in a cloud of defining narrative.

For years, my Ann and I, held onto the construction-paper chains that, along with strings of popcorn, were the main feature of our first Christmas together when we had little money. Until they finally disintegrated, they went with us on every move - from Texas to New York to England to Hong Kong - each year evoking the memory of a joyous start to a blessed marriage.

For our second Christmas, Ann made needlepoint squares depicting iconic images of the season, and in a Nuevo Laredo mercado we bought little stylized animals made of yarn.

A year or two later, we added handmade paper ornaments from a street vendor in Brooklyn when we lived in that little apartment in a Prospect Heights brownstone, where Ann was mugged on the stoop one Saturday at noon, and that same year we put on black tie and a long dress and went out into falling snow to a Christmas dinner-dance, giddy with the delight of having escaped the air-conditioned Christmases of our Texas past, and ...

There are a couple of decorated eggs we bought on that fascinating trip to Russia. Figures made of lace we picked up in Belgium. Straw angels from Switzerland.

Over time we've prospered and added, one each year, a silver angel or snowflake from the Metropolitan Museum collection.

We like to put the tree up early, and as a result we're usually not yet overdosed on Christmas music. A great favorite is the Peter, Paul and Mary album that includes music that is as far outside Christian observance as the tree itself. We like it in part because it's a recording of a performance we attended one special evening years ago.

Taking the tree down is a kind of coda to the joy of putting it up. We get out the containers again and remove the ornaments and try to put them away in some sort of order.

By then we're tired of Christmas music, so we listen to Ann's Christmas gift, a CD of love songs that I made for her: "You Were Meant For Me," "I'm So Lucky To Be Me," "September Song."

We sing along. We dance a little. We go a little weepy in the mystery of the moment. Then we tuck away the memory-bearing ornaments for another year.

Finally, we drag the tree out to the curb, sweep up the needles, bid Christmas angels good-bye until next year and go to bed - thankful, renewed and at peace.


Paul Willcott lives in Saranac Lake.



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