O Christmas Tree

By Beaulieu, Don | U.S. Catholic, December 1995 | Go to article overview

O Christmas Tree


Beaulieu, Don, U.S. Catholic


Let me start by saying that I have never been much of a homemaker. I'm young, I'm male, I'm single, and I share an apartment with two other young, male, single guys. So decorating and household chores are not a priority. After two years in the same apartment, I recently hung my second piece of artwork in the living room. (Okay, it's a poster of a rock band, but at least it's framed.) Our freezer, way past the point of needing defrosting, currently has enough space for one ice-cube tray and two pot pies. (Though I'm looking forward to seeing what I find when I defrost it: "Let's see, a Popsicle, some frozen corn, and - hey, a mastodon! How did that get in there?")

But let me also say that I always decorate for Christmas. On the first week in December the lights go up, the creche goes on top of the TV (too many newspapers on the coffee table), and, of course, I buy and decorate a tree. I love the smell of a Christmas tree, and I love the warmth and familiarity when I walk into the apartment at night and I'm greeted by hundreds of lights softly illuminating the tree in an ethereal glow - a sort of benign sylvan specter. It's soothing and awe inspiring, like the Milky Way on a clear summer night.

Most of all, however, I put up a tree because I'm a sucker for tradition. Like any tradition that Christians have participated in for centuries, trimming a tree makes me feel like I am part of a larger community, present and past, celebrating the birth of Jesus. In fact, the tradition goes back even further than Christ's birth.

Well before Christians began wassailing and firing up the yule log, before medieval Europeans used fir trees with apples hung on their boughs to stage morality plays on December 24, ancient people celebrated the winter solstice the rebirth of the sun at its lowest ebb - by decorating trees. Thousands of year ago, Druid priests adorned oak trees with gilded apples (to honor the god Odin) and candles (for the sun god Balder) at the solstice. From December 17 to 24, ancient Romans celebrated the Saturnalia - the annual, temporary return of Saturn, the god of the sun, from exile imposed by Zeus by hanging candles on trees. Believing they had magical properties because they stayed green all year, Teutonic people brought evergreens into their homes at the winter solstice to ward off bad weather and evil spirits and encourage the return of vegetation in the spring.

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