My brother once described his Christmas tree as “flashing lights on a big pile of plastic and trash,” which got me to thinking…is he getting enough Vitamin D? And then I thought, what is UP with this Christmas tree tradition? We drag around this tree, pre-lit if you’re the type of person who might make a cake from a boxed mix, (me!) or live from the tree farm if you’re the type of person who might make a pie from scratch with those little pie crust leaves on top, (not me!) and then we decorate said tree with a zillion pieces of sparkly things and Styrofoam pre-k memorabilia.
Which reminds me of the loving story where once upon a time, a man watched his woman make dinner. She carefully cut off the ends of the roast, placed it into the pan and then into the oven. He noticed the wasted end pieces of meat and asked, “Why are you wasting perfectly good meat?” And she replied, “It’s just how I make it. It’s how my mother made it.” Then she added, “Don’t question the woman making your meat, Mr. I Hate Salmon.” While he was making himself scarce, the woman gave her mother a call to ask just exactly why did she cut off the ends of the meat? Her mother laughed, and said, “Oh honey, I only had one pan. It was small, and I had to cut the ends off the meat to make it fit.” The moral of this story is: The brilliant woman never told her man because he didn’t need to eat all the red meat anyway.
Seriously, what kind of traditions are we hanging on to? I grew up with some fun Christian Christmas traditions, but now I have these compulsions to research everything I see, and then it all becomes a tootsie roll to me.
Looks like people have been dragging trees, branches of evergreens and various greenery into their homes for centuries, long before Christianity. Many old customs, such as the Germanic midwinter festival of Yule, were absorbed into new religious customs and altered or redefined. Evergreens were decorated with fruit… round, apple sized objects sound familiar? They were lit up by candles…strings of electric lights anyone? The early German tradition didn’t become popular in English homes until 1848, when Queen Victoria, her husband Prince Albert and their children, all standing around a Christmas tree, made the cover of The Illustrated London News. In 1850, the same engraving of the royal family, with some edits to make them appear American, was circulated in Godey’s Lady’s Book, which must have been the Cosmo of the Industrial Revolution because by 1870, Christmas trees were everywhere. P.S., Macy’s opened in 1858. How this works in tandem with Santa Claus I don’t have time to discuss, I’m too busy shouldering guilt from lying to my children.
If I’m going to spend an afternoon resurrecting a ginormous plastic tote of ornaments, I’d like to know why? Because my parents did it? Watching my daughters skip around the tree as they decorate is priceless, but what will I say when they get older and they ask what it means? Sometimes, we have to create new stories for ourselves. We have to re-examine our past and our behaviors to find what doesn’t make sense. Is it fair to hold onto something just because “we’ve always done it this way?”
As a writer and blogger, I try to reach beyond the story of my life. I don’t deny my upbringing, my choices and the experiences I’ve had. I own it all, the good and the bad. But who am I without all of it? While it’s smart to use your past as a series of stepping stones, as a source of strength, it’s equally important to question how it affects you now. Take away your defining characteristics, and liberation awaits.
I’ve recently added a page to my blog called BEyond Strong, featuring short interviews with young survivors of illness or trauma. I was very young when I faced death, but it shaped me nonetheless as I grew into a teenager and a young adult. Maybe that’s why my fictional characters fight so hard to rise above their seemingly inextricable pasts. I want to inspire young people to create new stories for themselves, stories of confidence and of overcoming. BEyond Strong is an idea in progress, a tiny little sapling with three shining lights thus far. If you know a young person with a survivor story, you can nominate them to be featured on BEyond Strong.
Don’t get me wrong, you can’t beat a colorful tree with twinkling lights. Especially on Christmas Eve when you’re about seven years old and you lay your head on the tree skirt to look up through the boughs loaded with candy canes and tinsel. It’s a magically layered universe of expectation, only to be matched by the smell of scotch tape the next morning.
Do you have any traditions with mysterious origins? What does the Christmas tree mean to you?
Jammie Kern is our Blogger of the Month.