In 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland OH appears to have been the person responsible for decorating the first Christmas tree in an American church. His parishioners condemned the idea as a Pagan practice; some even threatened the pastor with harm. But objections soon dissipated.
I have a love-hate relationship with the Christmas tree. As a child, many memories of joy and excitement occurred under those trees; when I was a young man I railed against the idea of killing an innocent tree to commemorate the birth of Jesus. The practice is and is not linked to both of the major religious paths that I have followed, and in modern times is more a symbol of Giftmas than it is a sacred object.
Reasons I love Christmas trees:
- The bring a touch of nature into the home at a time of year when the outside is forbidding.
- They are the most sophisticated cat toys man has ever known.
- Much prettier decoration than a Festivus pole.
- The smell that permeates a home so decorated.
- The feeling of old tradition, old magic, old joy.
Reasons I hate Christmas trees:
- The artificial ones. I mean, if you want a tree, get a tree.
- Cleaning up the needles
- The possibility of uncontrolled fire
- Watching a tree die each day
- Christmas tree farms.
It’s a modern development that Pagans are environmentalists, a natural progression of a religion that strives to be in tune with its own environment. Our intellectual ancestors really didn’t need to worry about the impact of cutting down a few trees and dripping them with precious metals. It wasn’t like today, where hundreds of thousands of trees are cut down to feed the need . . . one national forest sold 230,000 trees, all of which were probably five to seven years old. That’s a lot of impact for a couple of weeks of decoration. Neopagans are much more often concerned about environmental impacts, and Christmas trees are a particularly conspicuous impact.
Of course, humans in earlier times had a much darker world to deal with, as well. They weren’t distracted by the glitz and glam, the banner ads and neon signs and all-night Thai restaurants that clamor for our attention, so I imagine they had a little bit more time to respect nature. It may be a romantic notion, but I do hope that it was once common to thank the tree for giving its life.
On being a killjoy
So at this time of year when it’s easier to curse the darkness and complain about the commercialization of the world, I would rant about the evils of Christmas trees. I was happy to add a little more strife to a stressful time of year, and dust off my sustainably-harvested soapbox, which was festooned with carbon-neutral lights for the occasion.
A couple of years ago, however, I made the decision to enjoy Christmas and Yule alike. The purpose of these festivals of light is to remind us, in the darkest times, that light returns. This is not a time to grind an ax, as it were. I needed to allow a tree into my home.
I will not ask a living tree for permission to take it; there will always be trees dying on lots whether or not I buy one. Instead, I find a tree that was destined for that purpose, and already has been killed but likely doesn’t know that it is yet dead. I talk to that tree, and tell it that its death was not entirely pointless. I speak of light and hope and joy, and promise to return the substance of that very tree to the Earth so that it may renew the land.
At the very least, I know that one tree did not die in futility and fear.