When I was a kid, this machine shed was a big part of my life. I painted it (twice). I helped reshingle it after the world's largest raccoon tore racoon-sized holes in the roof. I learned to sharpen various dangerous farming implements in its back room. I learned to "grease" vintage hay rakes that I would then pull behind a 1948 Ford tractor when I was learning to drive. Perhaps most importantly, it was the base of operations for my grandfather's Christmas tree farm and--therefore--one of the most formative elements in my understanding of how to celebrate the holidays.
You see, even then Christmas and Advent were part of my job. I would spend my summers up on the side of those hills as a teen swinging a machete along the edge of a young tree in long, diagonal, downward strokes. I would try (and fail) to avoid the poison ivy, sunstroke, and angry critters who lived at the base in the underbrush. I did manage to not cut myself, which was an achievement considering how much I enjoyed sharpening things. Planting was the worst. It was heavy, boring work and there was no way to pretend you were fighting trolls. Thankfully my little brother, Dan, started to come down with me after a couple years. Then I had a friend and ally in my misery.
At some point we would head back to school and family in Maine. Other relatives (cousins mostly) would help Grampa look after the trees along with the rest of the farm until we could come back around Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving meant tagging and counting the trees, mowing one last time between them, and decorating the machine shed to attract families from Poughkeepsie and New York looking for "authenticity" in their holiday rituals. It also meant dragging the immensely heavy antique sleigh onto the porch of the house. Everyone helped with that.
The day after Thanksgiving we would cut one of the largest trees and put it in the front hall of my grandparents' house. The day after that we would cut one for ourselves. Usually it was slightly ungainly and unlikely to sell otherwise. Then we would tie it on (or put it in) the car to drive six hours north to our home.
Yes, it was a bit "coals to Newcastle" to bring a tree from Dutchess County, New York to Maine. but we weren't the only ones! It was part of our family tradition. It was something from the ancestral home. Eight generations of our family had lived and farmed there. It was something that made my mother happy, a part of her childhood that we would keep in the house for a couple months until it was just too dangerous to comprehend.
I don't do any of that now. When I became an adult and lived in places like Chicago and Detroit we had a plastic tree. When I served churches in northern Maine we went back to sawing one down at a place where you left a $20 bill in a can by the road. However, when we finally moved to the 'burbs I had a sudden realization. I am still deathly allergic to poison ivy. We persisted cutting our own for a while but after a year or two of me preaching my Advent sermons like a goblin on Benadryl we resigned ourselves to picking one up at the local "mom and pop". They are nice folks. I also get my turkey and pumpkins from them. Still, I do think about what it was like back in the day.
Life moves on and the rituals of the season remind us of that. Climbing into the attic to fish out the lights and the decorations is easy in the years when memories are mostly good or if bad ones feel distant and the future seems bright. Other times it is a rough go. Either way, we hold on to the acts that make this time special. Putting a tree in your house can be a simple thing that you do because you always have. It can also be an act of resistance. It is a strange activity when you really think about it. This is why we often wait until the time feels right.
It took a while for us to get one this year.
Years ago as a blade-wielding teenager in the hot sun I wondered who would end up with the tree I was preparing. What place would it hold in the celebration? What sort of family would it witness? It always seemed worthwhile to give it the attention it deserved both then and now. Be mindful, whether you are handling tools or hanging lights.
I have been both busy and mindful lately, just not with trees. I have been fortunate that my present includes the promise of Christmas Eve services and Advent candles. There is still holiday stuff for me to do. It is still part of my job. These days that job is quite a bit less isolated than raising trees can be. Besides, there are other rituals that help bring meaning and underline the specialness of the season. This year the idea of a small, hot flame in the cold dark has been more compelling than the festive pine with its promise of Christmas morn.
Back on the first Sunday in Advent we held a rally against racism on the town common. After the recent election there has been a rash of racist activity in the area that needed to be addressed by our community. Our interfaith clergy association was among the groups that stepped up. We lit candles. We stood in a group. We held our lights near each other to push back the dark. I said a quick prayer at the mic that I do not remember and as I stood, listening to various colleagues say (and pray) their piece, I felt a different sort of spirit. I was reminded that even as we walk through hard times in our lives we are not alone. There are friends and strangers to hold us up. There are people for us to lift up, too. I value them and am grateful for them all. It was another chance for mindfulness.
Anyway, we got the tree up this evening. We bought it at supper time so it sits in its stand undecorated for now. Tomorrow the house will smell like coffee and evergreen. Eventually we will put up those lights. Then we will go up to attic.
After that we will continue to live in hope and love for another season.