It’s become a recent holiday tradition to gather my family and visit a graveyard to search through corpses of all shapes and sizes. We select one, take it home, cut off its feet and rip away its rotting limbs — before placing it in an upright display for close to a month.
The smell fills our home and the corpse sheds continuously, but the effort is all about celebrating this wonderful time of year.
As you may have guessed, I’m talking about a real Christmas tree, not some creepy undertaker horror story. I grew up with a fake tree. But I now bask in the authenticity and feel of a real fir in my home every winter — even more so after learning a bit of history about the ancient practice.
As the center of the cozy, Christmas scene and the real vs. fake tree debate that rages inside homes every December, evergreens, and firs in particular have a storied history dating back before the time of Christ. Like most Christian traditions that occur in all the various seasons, there are pagan beginnings for our treasured Tannenbaums.
According to ChristmasTree.com, Egyptians worshiped evergreens as a source of life’s triumph over death and brought green date palm leaves into their dwellings after the arrival of the winter solstice every year. Romans celebrated a winter festival called Saturnalia and decorated with greenery during the season (starting to sound familiar?). In Great Britain, pagan priests used evergreens during winter rituals and placed the branches over doors to ward off evil — reminiscent of the evergreen wreaths adorning our entrances each Christmas.
Later, after Christmas was established, Germans and Scandinavians used the evergreen tree as a decoration inside and outside their homes to remind themselves of the hope and vitality of the coming spring. The first record of a decorated Christmas tree is in 1510 in Riga, Latvia, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
That first decorated Christmas tree was adorned with roses in the town’s marketplace and then set on fire. We're not condoning that you reenact that last part, by the way.
So Christians do not hold a patent on this winter decorating practice. The symbolism behind it all remains constant whether worshiping tree gods or celebrating a baby savior’s birth — vitality, triumph of life over death and a little reminder that spring is never far away.
To remind yourself of all the vitality, life and triumph you may be missing as you push your way through holiday sales and stress over your dwindling bank account balance, put up a real evergreen this year. (If you don’t have any moral opposition to cutting down ornamental trees or have severe allergies, of course.)
To start your symbolic and fragrant decorating efforts, here are a few places to get started. Houston Garden Centers are offering a $29 deal on fresh cut Noble or Fraser firs, or if you’re feeling a little adventurous, head west of Katy to Brookshire and cut your own tree at the Dewberry Farm.
While it may not be as convenient or as financially logical over time — and it may be much more of a hassle — my plea is that you attempt to have a real tree in your home at some point. If not for the penetrating, crisp scent that adds to the overall ambiance of your decorating efforts, at least for the actual living (at least for a while) object that stands for the ancient idea of hope and life — sitting right in the middle of your living room.