Trees, Christmas and Otherwise

Trees have always had a special place in my heart.

My mother loved trees with the unconditional passion she reserved for all things that lie powerless before the adult world: young children, animals (especially cats), Santa Claus, and dandelions. Every fall when the old cottonwood in the corner of our yard loosed its leaves on the next-door-neighbor’s green and pristinely maintained lawn, she would snicker with childish delight. If my father went to prune a tree or shrub in our yard, she argued against it, fearing he’d cut the plant down to the roots and it wouldn’t come up again.

santa_final_smThe books and stories I read reinforced this maternal teaching. Hans Christian Andersen was the first of my favorite authors, and once I stumbled on his works in the school library, I devoured every story, loving them all, no matter how sad or gruesome. Andersen’s “The Little Fir Tree,” like my “Saint Nick,” is told from the tree’s point of view. It strengthened my belief that trees and plants, though mute, have feelings just as humans do.

When I was a child, the most important ritual of Christmas for me was the getting and decorating of the tree. After it was done, I’d turn off the lamps and sit in the dark, taking off my glasses so that the tree lights glowed like big fuzzy balls. In the light of day, I’d stand and contemplate the tree, taking loving measure of every ornament, stroking its spiky branches. Picking out trinkets for our tree to wear is still one of my favorite pre-Christmas activities.

It’s easy for me to understand the tree worship of some ancient cultures. Trees are big, awe-inspiring, and long-lived. There’s more than a whiff of the sacred around them.

But unlike gods, trees are vulnerable.

I was a sophomore in high school when the Tolkien craze hit, and The Lord of the Rings succeeded Hans Christian Andersen in my personal pantheon of mythic tree lore. Tolkien’s Ents, the gigantic “tree shepherds,” are my favorite of all his creations.

Tolkien was no tree-worshipping pagan, but a staunch and in many ways rather conservative Christian Roman Catholic in an England where Catholicism was still somewhat suspect. His reverence for trees is part of the Catholic reverence for the material world as a sacramental witness to the presence of God.

Trees arouse in us powerful feelings because of their size, their beauty, and their longevity: they are a locus for the sacred.

But for all their magnificence and might, trees in Tolkien’s world, as in ours, are tragically vulnerable to the ravages of human self-centeredness and human greed. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil wizard Saruman cuts them down in quantity to fuel the fires that stoke his schemes of domination. Treebeard, the head of the Ents, describes Saruman as incapable of appreciating nature’s beauty: the evil wizard “has a mind made of metal and wheels”.

Treebeard striding through the wood at Tringford Reservoir. Treebeard is the walking tree (Ent) in the 'Lord of the Rings' - and the unromantic will claim that this is merely the wreck of an ancient horse chestnut tree and dismiss the outstretched arms, the eyes, the ivy covered nose and the open mouth as pure imagination. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection (via Wikimedia Commons). See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Chris Reynolds and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Treebeard striding through the wood at Tringford Reservoir. The unromantic will claim that this is merely the wreck of an ancient horse chestnut tree and dismiss the outstretched arms, the eyes, the ivy covered nose and the open mouth as pure imagination. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. The copyright on this image is owned by Chris Reynolds, who presumably also wrote the whimsical description above.

Thus the vengeance of the Ents upon Saruman is a delight. What green tree-hugger hasn’t wished for an army of Ents to add a little muscle to the cause? Unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Lord of the Rings ends with the trees’ victory.

The Fir Tree of my story does not move in such exalted circles. In many ways “Saint Nick” channels my mother’s antic and rebellious spirit. Fir Tree is cheeky and eager for adventure, in personality more akin to the young hobbit Pippin than to the wise and stately Treebeard. Yet the stories of Tolkien and Andersen run somewhere in its sap, deep down in its treeish DNA.

What’s your favorite tree memory?

This post was originally written for Leila Taylor’s blog, Buried Under Books, where it appeared in Dec. of 2011.

Leave a comment below for a chance of winning “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” in your choice of paperback or ebook. Contest closes midnight EST Sunday Dec. 8th.

14 Comments

  1. December 6, 2013 at 8:00 am

    So wonderful to gift us in December with moments to consider trees.
    Of the many thoughts I have about these most giant of plants, I have two I hold close to my heart the memory of my Mom’s frequent reciting, in my childhood of The Village Blacksmith (Longfellow) & the way she would spread her arms which became limbs for “Under the spreading chestnut tree…: Equally I can recall her delight Kilmer’s poem that tellls us, I’m sure anyone reading this can recite, “I think that I shall never see…”
    The second memory is my corner seat nailed into a limb joning the main trunk at the middle height of one of our many large, backyard dogwood trees in rural New Jersey. It became my favorite outdoors reading spot in good weather where I pored over Nancy Drew’s escapades, my latest comic book, my diary & where I practiced stillness, so that birds would land in the tree while i was there.

    Thanks for reposting this lovely message about trees.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      December 6, 2013 at 10:13 am

      Thanks so much, Jan, for sharing these lovely memories. If you don’t know Wendell Berry’s poetry, I think you would love that, too. He has written many poems about the wonders of trees, some of which have been set to music by Malcolm Dalglish in “A Hymnody of Earth.”

      I love your description of your tree seat!

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • December 8, 2013 at 9:16 pm

        His is a often recommended name & I’m overdue to become educated in depth about his themes & ideas. Thank you Nancy.

  2. December 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    I like trees for the shade. I grew up in the Midwest where groves of trees were common. In the fall I loved the changing colors of the leaves and the mounds of leaves (didn’t like raking them up though).I can’t appreciate places like deserts or the Grand Canyon because the ground isn’t complete without trees! Thanks for the post.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      December 6, 2013 at 12:47 pm

      Hi Sally,

      I, too, have a problem appreciating desert landscapes because I miss the trees.

      Shade and fall color are definite benefits.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • ambfoxx said,

        December 12, 2013 at 4:21 pm

        I enjoyed the treebeard picture and the thoughts on Ents. I love deserts above all other places. (Nancy, I should have called my blog Shamans and Stones, as a play on your Saints and Trees.) The lone tree in a desert, the natural bonsai clinging to bare stone, speaks to me.

  3. Uncle Tree said,

    December 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    A wonderful tribute! 🙂 Thank you! Happy Holidays!
    Peace, Uncle Tree

  4. December 7, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Thoroughly immersed and enraptured by your sharing of memories and linking to wisdoms and literature. Thankyou

    • Nancy Adams said,

      December 8, 2013 at 12:01 pm

      Thank you so much, Christina. It seems we have a mutual admiration society!

  5. Claire said,

    December 8, 2013 at 8:48 am

    I’m about to begin new Christmas tree memories – we haven’t had one in at least 15 years and we’re going to put one this year in our new place.

    Fondest tree memory is the tulip tree in our front yard when I was very young. It split into two about 4 or 5 feet out of the ground and was very old and large. On the driveway side there was a white boulder, speckled with bluish blobs and lines. I believe it was white granite and was large enough for me to struggle to climb up. We had a bench beneath the tree on another side.

    I remember one day we had all eight of us hold hands (siblings and parents) while my uncle took a picture. We barely made it around the base while still holding hands. A magnificent tree.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      December 8, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      That sounds like such a special memory, Claire! What an ideal tree for a young child to climb, and how wonderful that you have a photo to preserve the memory.

      Best wishes for your new home and your new tree.

  6. Nancy Adams said,

    December 9, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    The winners are Jan Annino and Fruitsofheart. Thanks to everyone who left a comment.

  7. Nancy Adams said,

    December 12, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Thanks, Amber. Love the title “Shamans and Stones”! I can see the appeal of a sparser landscape, and your descriptions of New Mexico in “Shaman’s Blues” certainly make it sound intriguing. Thanks for stopping by!


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