Sunday, December 19, 2021

Stories Behind Our Traditions & The Life Expectancy of Trees

When I was young, my parents would get my sister and I all bundled up to go pick out our tree for the holidays every year. We’d arrive at the “farm” (which was actually just a parking lot, since all the trees were cut down and transported to the city where we lived) and wander around until we found the perfect tree in our price-range section. We’d circumambulate it, marveling at how magnificent it will look in our living room, the voices of little girls raised to the pitch of excitement. We’d call over my dad, so we could make sure it wasn’t too tall by checking the height against him, because “if it was taller than him, it wouldn’t fit in the trailer.” Then, we’d race over to let the seller know we had found our tree! He’d get up from his stool or turn around and down at our wee faces, saying, “Well, let’s see what you’ve picked.” Racing off ahead of him, we’d jump up and down as we pointed at our prize. My dad would confirm, pay him the fee, and they’d throw the tree through some netting for ease of travel.

When we got home, there was sawing to make sure it was level followed by carefully seating and screwing it into the tree stand. My mom would fill the basin with water, and we would leave the tree to “rest” overnight so the branches would settle and it would warm up after being outside for who knows how long. I remember sitting on the floor in front of the tree, imagining where the bulbs would go the next evening after my dad put the lights on.

After the new year, the tree would come down, and we would cut the wood for the fireplace. I always thought it was a beautiful life with a dignified ending for a tree to serve as the centerpiece for the holidays in the home of a family. Looking back now, it’s funny that I never actually wondered about the other trees, the ones that were not chosen. What happened to the trees that weren’t sold? What did they do with them??

I imagined they would use them much the same way we did and all those trees would become firewood or they would use them to build things. It wasn't until the first time I went with my dad to drop off something large at the dump that I saw my first tree in the garbage. So much for the majestic ending to being cut down to serve as a holiday tree!

My next meditations on the fate of trees led to realize that trees, all trees, have a life expectancy, just like humans and other species of animals. I mean, it's no surprise I assumed they were eternal. We hear about trees with amazingly long lives, such as the Methuselah pine in the White Mountains of California who is over 4,700 years old. And trees, like all living things, are born, grow, breathe, live, and eventually die. Pine trees typically live for 300-500 years when left on their own. Fir trees, like the Noble Fir popular for holiday trees, have a typical lifespan of 600-700 years. Another popular tree, the Douglas Fir, usually lives for about 400 years. Coastal Douglas Firs can live for more than 1,300 years!

Once upon a time, these evergreen trees were used for medicinal purposes like treating colds and flus. The wood was unsuitable for timber, so they were not actually cut down. Early decorating included the use of branches in the home and entire trees, living and breathing, were decorated outside. The first tree to be cut down is rumored to be the result of an altercation between local pagans and a Benedictine Monk in the sixteenth century who was so frustrated with their continual celebration of Saturnalia that he chopped down their decorated tree in anger. So, the pagans brought it inside for the remainder of the season (there is absolutely no evidence whether or not this is true, but that is kinda the point of this post. Keep reading).  

Many of the traditions we now hold dear have full, rich backstories that we may not know. Too often, the origin stories of why we do what we do are lost to time and live only with the Ancestors.  I don't know why we always went to that particular lot for our tree when I was little. I suspect it had to do with the location, cost, and perhaps a little of my dad's desire to "have a guy" for everything--a trait he inherited from his father before him. My father, of blessed memory, may not be able to tell me why, but the story of what lives on in my memory. 

We don't get a live tree at my house, but like most pagans, I have built plenty of my own traditions since my kids were wee. My favorite was getting the kids up before dawn on Solstice morning to ring bells over the sunrise fire and sing Happy Birthday to the Sun, and then go inside and have pancakes or waffles. As they've grown, we don't have room for all of those practices anymore, especially since I they have their own lives, priorities, and homes to manage, but I am looking forward to seeing how my grandchildren receive the gift of these stories from when their parents were young, when I was in charge of creating the magic and memories for them.

During this holiday season, I encourage you to consider the things you do every year and remember why those are part of your own traditions. These are the stories that make the holidays truly come alive and give meaning to everything we do for future generations to come.

May the abundant blessings of the yuletide be plentiful for you and yours.