pi·na·ceous (pi-na-´shes), adj. [< pine (a tree) + aceous], of the pine family of trees, including the pine, cedar, fir. Etc.
When I was three years old, I had a violent allergic reaction to our Christmas tree. My cheeks swelled and red raised welts began to pop up all over my body. My mom took me to the doctor. My dad took our tree to the curb. And they both remembered never to get a White Dutch Pine again.
I don’t actually remember that Christmas—ironic, considering that I’m fairly certain I felt miserable. All my memories of Christmas trees—from picking one out, to tying it to the car, to decorating it in our living room—are fond ones. I remember the fresh smell of the needles, like cool air and earth. I didn’t even mind the sticky sap on my fingers. The three of us piled in the car to get the tree a week after Thanksgiving—first at Christmas tree farms and then at Home Depot. We enjoyed the tree in its natural state for a week or so before decorating it.
Then, one Friday evening, Dad would begin handing an indeterminable number of cardboard boxes down from the attic. As we unpacked them, we discovered packages of white and colored lights and shiny, red globes. We found handmade reindeers and soldiers made out of glued and painted clothespins. When I turned ten, we had to start to consider whether we needed to put all the ornaments we had on the tree. We had accumulated so many. One year, I was obsessed with trains and my dad spent all Christmas morning after I opened my new motorized trainset setting it up so it twisted and turned through the pretend village around the bottom of the tree.
Twice I remember us coming home to the tree toppled over on the floor. We set it straight again, swept up the broken shards of ornaments and moved on.
The decorating was always my mom’s domain. She decided when I was in high school that she wanted something more from our tree. No longer would a hodgepodge of ceramic angels and homemade stars do. Our tree would have a theme, would have a design aesthetic. First, the entire tree was covered in crimson and gold. When I was a senior, my class color was blue, and she filled the tree with silver and royal blue ribbon and orbs.
My mother grew up in rural Louisiana, and each winter, her family would visit a local wooded area to cut down their long-needle pine tree. Although lush and nice to look at, the type of tree they always got had slippery needles. The ornaments didn’t hang. One year, she decided to speak up.
“There are other kinds of trees,” she told her parents.
“No, this is the kind we’ve always had and this is the kind we are going to keep having.” There was an attention to detail and a need for consistency in tradition.
That was the end of the discussion.
So instead of a tree covered in sparkly ornaments, they had a tree covered in silver tinsel and popcorn garland and candy canes.
“They saw it as pretty and what you needed to use, and I saw it as limiting,” she told me later.
Pine trees are evergreens. Their literal quality of being green forever, of living for so long, make them ideal symbols for the holiday that celebrates the birth of the God that would eventually rise from the dead. But these trees were used to celebrate winter and the solstice long before Christ or the celebration of his birth. Pagaans, however, didn’t cut down their trees. As the idea was to celebrate the earth, destroying nature as a way to honor and revere it didn’t really work. They picked up fallen branches or cut clippings to hang in their homes. They also adorned living trees with shiny metal in the shapes of their gods.
For Christmas Eve, we always went to my Grandma O’Neill’s house, and when we got there, the tree was bare. I always thought it was such a pity to not have a decorated tree until Christmas Eve, to not be able to enjoy it except for that one day (since Grandma took the tree down the day after Christmas). But Grandma didn’t want the tree to be decorated until her family was there to do it. We each picked the ornaments that we wanted to put on and visited the tree one at a time. There was a sort of precision about the process. There was a sort of prayer in the slow ritual. After the tree was decorated, we enacted a live nativity. A small homemade manger was placed under the tree. The grandchildren, dressed as angels and Mary (because by the time I was old enough to participate, all the boy cousins were too old), stepped soberly down the carpeted living room floor while Grandma read from Luke. Then, whoever had the privilege to play Mary that year, placed the small baby doll Jesus under the tree.
Christmas trees take about eight to ten years to mature before they reach a size large to fit in someone’s living room. The Douglas Fir, from the pinaceae family and one of the most popular kinds of Christmas tree, can live for thousands of years rooted in the ground.
I have mixed feelings about Christmas trees. Trees are steady things. They are constants. Instead of honoring their longevity and their right to grow where they do, we edge them. We cut them down. We clear land to build. I understand that cutting down trees or raising trees merely to harvest them is not ideal. However, I also find comfort in the tradition and solace in the smell of fresh pine in the house during the holiday season. Most cities have begun to institute recycling programs where trees are used to stop erosion or are recycled into mulch. I wonder, does this make up for cutting them down in the first place? I also wonder at the movement of nature indoors. We have houseplants to admire and to make for cleaner air, but we don’t always take the time to walk around outside. We bring trees into our living room without always spending moments wandering amongst them.
In his poem Hoopoe, Mahmood Darwish writes, “We didn’t ask why man is not born of trees so as to be reborn in spring.” I don’t know what he is trying to say with this line, but I love the phrase “born of trees.” Maybe because I feel that way sometime. Our ancestors buried in the ground fertilize the soil for the trees. The trees send oxygen into the air that allow us to breathe. And breath is what gives us life. So maybe we are born of trees.
One year when I lived in San Francisco, my parents were visiting for Thanksgiving. Before they left, they bought me a Christmas tree. We bought it from a place that employed people in recovery for addiction. They carried it up the stairs of my Victorian and put it in the corner of my living room. My roommates and some friends and I decorated it one night, standing on chairs to put the lights up high and to place an angel at the top. The dark green of the tree blended with the ornate gold and sage green wallpaper covering the walls and ceiling. When our gas fake-wood fireplace was on, I felt like I was home instead of in San Francisco amongst a surrogate family.
After Christmas came and went, the tree stayed. It became a New Year’s Tree. Then a Mardi Gras Tree. And before we could entertain the possibility of it becoming an Easter Tree, we hauled it downstairs, leaving a thick trail of needles to vacuum up. And the corner of the room no longer looked like the same corner. There was something missing in the tree’s absence, always. We tried to put a bookshelf there, and then the table with the television. But from then on, the only thing that would ever seem right there was that tall tree.