Life and death in the Christmas tree

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“Lfull,” says Clark Griswold (pictured) when loose branches from the family Christmas tree break his living room windows; “lots of luxury.” A fake cigar soon lights up the tree – though not before a cat is lit by its lights. A squirrel jumps out of the new tree, runs suddenly and makes grandma faint.

There is a lot of wisdom in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, especially about Christmas trees. Bringing the country into the home, they are a topsy-turvy symbol of the carnival holiday – when work is suspended, adults act like children, and everyone eats and drinking too much while pretending to get along. At the same time the Christmas tree suggests the reverse: not chaos but order, the taming of the outside world, domestic safety. Think of the cozy Christmas tree where Macaulay Culkin watches the shadows of the burglars in “Home Alone”.

The Christmas tree is at once basic and magical. His wisdom lies in a simple trick of agriculture—a tree in the house!—along with an inviting emptiness. To find meaning in a tree, you must suspend disbelief; and once you do, it, like many popular rituals, can mean anything you want. The spruce that Oslo gives to London every year, and that is displayed in Trafalgar Square, gives thanks for loyalty during the war. The first “National Christmas Tree” in America, lit by Calvin Coolidge in Washington in 1923, was a sign of progress and an advertisement for electric power. This versatility has helped the Christmas tree conquer even non-Christian parts of the world – making it, in turn, a symbol of globalization.

Its branches are hung with legends: that St. Boniface felled an oak in the eighth century to destroy a human sacrifice, a Christmas pine rose in its place; or that, fascinated by the stars, Martin Luther first decorated the Christmas tree with candles. As Judith Flanders explains in “Christmas: A History”, the concept probably comes from the “paradise tree” that appeared in medieval plays, coming into life itself in 15th century Germany, first undertaken by guilds, then toffs and finally the masses. German immigrants brought the tree to America, although perhaps not the Hessian mercenaries who fought for the crown in the revolutionary war. According to legend they were too busy decorating their trees to stop George Washington from crossing the Delaware in 1776.

Private legends surround individual trees like the rings inside a trunk. Each is a tribute to past times, sometimes forgotten (where did that toucan ornament come from?) and a bridge between now and then. Looking at one in “The Christmas Tree”, Charles Dickens thought of “the branches of the Christmas tree in our own young Christmas days, by which we climbed into real life”. Among the page “Gather thick Christmas associations”, wrote Dickens, including “the soft music of the night, never changing”.

Among all themes, however, there are some inescapable meanings. Like the evergreen boughs used in Druid, Roman and Egyptian rituals, the Christmas tree symbolizes rebirth and fertility. When, in “Christmas Tree”, Lady Gaga sang “Light me up, put me up” and “My Christmas Tree’s delicious”, she was only making this connection clearly. But the restoration is often not so literal. First erected in the early 1930s, the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York became a symbol of hope in the midst of the Depression. Jimmy Stewart and his family stand by their Christmas tree during the climax of “It’s A Wonderful Life”. “Every time a bell is rung, an angel gets its wings,” his daughter says as a decoration on the tree.

But a tension runs through stories and songs about the Christmas tree – about whether she wants to be one. Stevie Wonder’s “One Little Christmas Tree” is “standing alone / waiting for someone to come by” and take it home. But other poets know what happens after a tree is uprooted. “The Fir-Tree” by Hans Christian Andersen ends broken and burned. In season three of “Friends”, Phoebe mourns “innocent trees cut down at their roots and their bodies decorated with, like, tinsel and twinkly lights”.

Even as they symbolize eternal life, Christmas trees are decorations at their own funerals. The shedding of their needles is a countdown to the end of the holidays, the end of the magic that turned a tree into something else, and – especially in a time of climate crisis – the end of other things besides. “Time is always the boss,” said Bulat Okudzhava, a Soviet chanter, in his song about yolk, to replace the Soviet-style Christmas tree with a New Year’s tree. “With haste you are brought down from the cross / And there will be no resurrection.” Merry christmas!

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