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.

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