I last thought seriously about the meaning of Christmas trees late one December Saturday a quarter-century ago. Dusk was falling, flurries were flying, and it was cold. I was dragging a Fraser fir tree down the breakdown lane of the McGrath and O’Brien Highway in Somerville, Massachusetts, midway through a two-mile trek from a Christmas tree lot to my third-floor apartment. The tree was gigantic. It was about nine feet tall, two feet taller than the room I planned to put it in. Half an hour into my walk it occurred to me that holding the tree by the tip and dragging the base of it along the asphalt might be damaging it, scuffing it up so it wouldn’t sit properly in the Christmas-tree stand. I dropped the tree for a sec and looked. Yikes! Abrasion had beveled the foot of it, so it was shaped like a chisel, and had taken out the bottom tier of branches, too. But I didn’t have to worry about fitting my tree in the Christmas tree stand, I reflected, because I didn’t have a Christmas tree stand.
I had no ornaments or lights for my new tree, either. I was not good at planning in those days.
"Poor planning," if we may euphemize, is how I wound up where I was that evening. My life was like a country-western song. I was young and married, soon to be young and unmarried. I couldn’t even keep track of things that were of desperate importance to me, like the hour the liquor store closed every evening. My quondam wife seemed to be avoiding the apartment I was living in. But it was not out of the question she would drop by. If she did, our young daughter might be with her. So I had resolved that, come what may, there would be a Christmas tree in the apartment. How to arrange this was tricky. I did not own a car. None of my car-owning friends would have understood why my apartment, which never had milk, bread, eggs, or clean clothes in it, now needed a conifer. So I made the long walk from Winter Hill to a swampy parking lot where I knew there was a Christmas tree seller, out where the highway crossed the Mystic River.
My daughter didn’t come back. I never got a tree stand. The tree itself leaned in the corner of my living room for the whole of the holiday season. But I was glad it was there. It felt right, and it brought me a minor kind of joy, which was the kind of joy I specialized in at the time. I had, it seemed, a thing about Christmas trees.
But so do most people. The Christmas tree has escaped every earnest attack on Christmas and every cynical attempt to run the holiday down. Unlike Christmas pageants, Christmas office parties, Christmas TV specials, and virtually everything that happens between Thanksgiving dessert and Midnight Mass, the Christmas tree has no detractors. It is venerated in all its forms (at least all its natural ones), from the big, bright-lit firs on the White House lawn to the dandelion-sized bonsais sitting on tabletops in studio apartments. The ballroom-filling behemoth in the classic children’s book Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree embodies the grandeur of the holiday. But so, too, in its way, does the bare drooping pine, too weak even to support a single Christmas ornament, needleless but far from needless, on the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
How the Christmas tree came to enjoy its almost unanimous prestige has been the subject of much speculation. Pagan and Christian currents both flow into the way we celebrate the winter birth of Jesus, and vegetation is involved in almost all of them. The Druids venerated mistletoe. The Romans put up trees at Kalends, at the beginning of each month. Poinsettias were first brought back by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and later secretary of war, Joel Poinsett, who used them to brighten his South Carolina home in the winter months. In England, Glastonbury Cathedral claimed to have received the rod of St. Joseph of Arimathea, the "good and just" disciple who took Jesus’ body down from the cross "and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulcher that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid." It was said that Joseph stuck this rod into dirt in the Glastonbury churchyard, and that it miraculously turned into a thorn bush that blossomed every Christmas. In 1752, when the British authorities dropped eleven days from the year in order to make the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, thousands of Christians showed up at Glastonbury on Christmas to ensure the bush would blossom. It didn’t. Protestant Britain had held out from adopting the more rational Gregorian arrangement in the first place because it had been favored by Europe’s Catholic powers. So when the bush failed to bloom, many took it as evidence that the new calendar was not just inconvenient but heretical.
My grandparents were a bit like those Glastonbury vigil keepers. They would buy their Christmas tree late on the afternoon of December 24 and spend the rest of the evening trimming it. This is in line with the old Anglo-Saxon tradition of getting a Yule log to burn in the hearth the night before Christmas, a tradition that died out sometime in the nineteenth century. My grandparents never said why they bought the tree so late. Procrastination is as likely an explanation as tradition. They would keep it up for the whole twelve days of Christmas (appropriately enough, since the Twelfth Day, or Epiphany, is an older celebration than Christmas itself). Then they would throw the tree onto the snowbound porch and vacuum all the dried-up needles off the living room carpet, so that, for the rest of the year, whenever my grandmother vacuumed, even to prepare for a Fourth of July cocktail party, the hot Electrolux would fill the house with a powerful, piney, Christmassy aroma.
My father loved his parents’ Christmas traditions, and, really, decorating the tree on Christmas Eve makes a great deal of romantic, atmospheric, sensation-heightening sense. It means that on Christmas morning, you wake up to the sight of your tree for the first time. But getting a tree late in the season cuts against the modern American acquisitive spirit. It reduces the quantity of Christmas-tree-enjoyment hours. My sisters and I had been whipped into a frenzy of "Christmas spirit" by various gimme-gimme-gimme television product ads, and our pleading to get the season underway began with the first session of Saturday morning cartoons after Thanksgiving. My father could not stand up to it. The result was a compromise under which we got the tree a week or two before Christmas
What everyone most loves about Christmas trees—the sense of bringing a forest into one’s house, the standing it up, the gaudy garlanding of it—is the contribution of America’s largest ethnic group, the Germans. "That childish, open-hearted simplicity," wrote one of the correspondents of the English folklorist Clement Miles in his 1912 history of Christmas ritual and tradition, "makes Christmas essentially German. The German is himself simple, warm-hearted, unpretentious with something at the bottom of him which is childlike in the best sense." (One assumes the opinion was revised in Miles’ 1914 edition.) This German tradition passed to the United States before the mid-nineteenth-century wave of German immigration, but only just before, around the time of the coronation of Britain’s first German queen, Victoria.
Much aided by the enthusiastic decorating of Princess Helena of Mecklenburg, the tree craze proliferated among upper-crust households in France and England and, after that, in America. Christmas trees were signals of one’s cosmopolitanism, on the one hand, and a lot of fun on the other. So they spread in rather the way the American Halloween tradition of trick-or-treat has spread in continental Europe since the turn of this century. The roots of our style of Christmas decoration lie in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg and date from the seventeenth century. The American folklorist George William Douglas had described the original tradition as one in which, on New Year’s Eve, Alsatian women would set up a fir tree next to a fountain, bedecking it "with ribbons, eggshells, and little figures," representing shepherds and various butts of humor.
Even in the 1970s, certain German tree-trimming traditions lived on, and live on still. Germans are said to favor draping the boughs of their firs with shiny, foot-long metallic threads of Engelshaar, or angel hair. This is what we now call "tinsel." My childhood coincided with the golden age of tinsel, because American manufacturers, in the wake of World War II, had learned that you could mass-produce it cheaply, out of thin little strips of lead. There was nothing gossamer, angelic, or fairylike about this stuff. The Ornament Industrial Complex renamed it "icicles." Did it hang plumb, as icicles do? Did it ever! It took only a few strands of this leaden tinsel to make a bough, once upward-pointed, sag under the weight. Once we’d applied a few boxes’ worth to our tree, it looked like something made of chrome, or maybe one of the Apollo lunar modules, with the baubles poking out of it like headlights. Alas, around 1970, a federal ban on certain uses of lead put an end to "icicles," so we had to substitute the child-safe polyurethane version of tinsel, which didn’t taste nearly as good as the lead kind.
Already in my childhood, there was a class war ongoing over whether one ought to light one’s tree with big bulbs in many colors or little sparkly white ones. The former were more festive, the latter more sophisticated. We were a festive family. In the years before Arab oil embargoes, my parents would drive us through the French Canadian neighborhoods in nearby mill towns, where those primary-colored cone-shaped bulbs were strung along every porch railing, and foodlit Santas, homemade crèches, and glow-in-the-dark plastic snowmen crowded the front lawns—stuff that was visible, but not in quite such profusion, in the slightly tonier neighborhood they had moved the family into.
Writing a century ago, Miles, the Germanophile English folklorist mentioned above, noted that "in Germany the Christmas tree is not a luxury for well-to-do people as in England, but a necessity." Outside of its German place of origin, celebrating Christmas properly meant considerable effort and expenditure. In America as in England, Christmas festivities early on became a badge of status. University of Massachusetts historian Stephen Nissenbaum noted in his 1996 study The Battle for Christmas that the first American Christmas tree fad found its most ardent promoters in a wealthy and sophisticated vanguard—people you might describe as the "limousine liberals" or the "cultural elite" of their time. Many who put up the first Christmas trees were adherents of Unitarianism, a liberal wing of New England Congregationalism that was then emerging, under the leadership of such preachers as William Ellery Channing and (briefly) Ralph Waldo Emerson, as a faith in its own right. These people were skeptical of older traditions, not excluding Christianity itself.
Nissenbaum shows that Unitarians, a century before anyone had ever heard of shopping malls or Saturday morning television ads, were troubled by American materialism. They were also among the most enthusiastic fans of the child-rearing philosophy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a sort of Swiss Dr. Spock, who had gained a worldwide following. In the 1820s, Pestalozzi was assailing what he saw as the traditional Christian moral teaching that "willfulness" was a danger to children’s souls. Since a child’s will could only impede the working of divine grace, the old theory held, the best thing a parent could do was break it. Pestalozzi thought this was wrong. The will needed not to be broken, but to be trained. In fact, uncorrupted children probably had more reliable wills than adults, and could serve as role models; adults might do well to imitate their innocent joy. Pestalozzi’s disciples saw modern Christmases as a way to use various emotional triggers to fill the house with the joy of childhood. Surprise was important (as joy’s occasion and inducement). So was the mystery of the gift-giver Santa Claus (to keep children from trying to manipulate the real gift-givers, the parents, thereby tainting the innocence of that joy). So were Christmas trees (as joy’s magical backdrop).
The typical American Christmas, then, was the invention of secularizing cultural elites. But the yeoman culture of the country was too strong to let it remain exclusive. The snob appeal of Christmas was undermined by the pious people who cared most fervently about it. "Much of the emphasis on profound worship that now shows itself in the American Christmas owes its vigor not to the mainstream English stock but to later immigrants," wrote University of Pennsylvania professor Tristram P. Coffin in his Book of Christmas Folklore in 1973. "With their pyramids of candles, their crèches, poinsettias, and tannenbaums, they have brought back into the commemoration a wonder that had almost disappeared." Today’s Christmas is the result. It has elements of both a high-class holiday (from the Nutcracker Suite to the Dickensian craft fair) and a low-class holiday (from "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" to the Black Friday "Door-Buster" sales at shopping malls).
A Christmas tree, in particular, combines two seemingly irreconcilable things. It is one of the last repositories of nineteenth-century high culture in common use, but it is also democratic, approachable, and subsumed in love of one’s fellow man. This makes a Christmas tree a thing of joy to everyone. It is worth going out on a snowy day to get one, even if you are not sure you will have anyone to share it with.
I remember arriving with my nine-foot tree at the front door of the triple-decker I lived in twenty-five years ago. My shoulders were knotted with pain. I was so exhausted it didn’t occur to me that in order to get that thing up the stairway to the third floor, I ought to pick it up. Instead I dragged it, with the branches catching on the railings and the trunk hammering on the stairs. Open swung the door of the second-floor apartment, the apartment occupied by my Albanian landlady, with whom I had never exchanged a friendly word. I spoke to her only on the first day of every month, when she would hammer on my door at seven in the morning yelling, "Renty! Renty!" and late on certain nights—it was impossible to predict which ones— when she would respond to my clattering progress up the stairs by opening her door and saying, "What is it now?"
That evening she lurched, muttering, into the hallway, glared at me for a moment the way she always did, and then looked past me to the big fir I was struggling with. "Oh," she said coldly. "Merry Christmas." Then she shut the door and went back inside.