David Bouchier: The Magic Tree
We drove out along the north fork of Long Island last week, passing a steady stream of cars and SUVs heading the other way, loaded with Christmas trees. They were tied on to roofs, hanging perilously out of car trunks, and even protruding from side windows. Pumpkin madness is over, and Christmas tree madness has arrived.
Christmas trees were uncommon in the holy land two thousand years ago, and it’s not quite clear how they came to have anything to do with Christmas at all. It seems that they were a nineteenth century import from Germany. Tradition says that they were introduced to England by Queen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert in 1841. That’s why we have the popular German carol O Tannenbaum, O Christmas Tree, sung to the tune of The Red Flag. Certainly, their popularity dates from that time. When the Queen had a tree in her living room, everybody wanted a tree in their living room, even if it did cover the floor with pine needles.
I remember the family trees of childhood as being huge, although I was very small at the time. From a child’s point of view the tree is probably the most important part of Christmas because it has gifts scattered under it and is covered with sparkling lights and decorations. A well decorated tree is a work of art. In the days when people lit their trees with real candles the anticipation of a major fire must have added considerably to the excitement of the Holidays.
Bringing trees and other greenery inside the house at the festive season is another of those pagan customs, a vestige of the primitive worship of vegetation. The vast forests that covered much of the world in ancient times were places of mystery and magic where many mythical dramas took place: Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, Sherwood Forest that sheltered Robin Hood and his Merrie band of redistributive bandits, Red Riding Hood who met the big bad wolf in the woods, and Epping Forest in England where I used to play and which is said to be haunted by the ghosts of numerous travelers killed by highwaymen. Forests have always been the haunt of ghosts, gods and demons where anything might happen, as well as being useful places to hide.
There is a long, long history of tree worship. Because trees seem to die and then revive every year they are the perfect symbols of growth, death and rebirth. The Tree of life appears in many mythologies. Evergreen trees, which stay green all year, are symbols of immortality or fertility. A tree is never just a tree in the mythological world.
Now we know that trees are important in quite another way. They absorb nasty carbon dioxide and release oxygen, slowing down global warming, which is why deforestation is a big issue. Tens of millions of acres of trees are cleared for agriculture each year, or turned into suburban houses, or paper, or tasteful furniture. But we need all the living trees we can keep, which makes it rather sad that some thirty million more trees are cut in December purely for decorative reasons.(quite apart from the vast amounts of gasoline burned in the search for the ideal tree).
So the familiar Christmas tree brings a hint of pagan superstition into our living rooms, and an ecological puzzle too. An artificial plastic tree may be better for the environment, but it has no mystery. And what is Christmas without a profound and ancient mystery?
Copyright: David Bouchier.