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.
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. My tasks were to mow between the rows, then swing a machete along the edge of a young tree in long, diagonal, downward strokes. News flash: trees are not that symmetrical. 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. Then we would plant the seedlings for Christmases seven years hence. Planting was the worst. It was heavy, boring work. 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. 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 interested in "authenticity" in their holiday rituals...if authenticity involved cutting your own tree.
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. It would go up two stories through the hole made by the winding staircase. 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 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.
That is not how we do it now. As an adult in Maine--and well after the family sold the farm--we would still go out to cut a tree. We tried that once here in the suburbs but the poison ivy that encased the trunk was so bad--even in November--that I was sick for a month. I still looked like a goblin by Pageant Sunday. So now we go to some place nearby and just buy one.
This year--as I have mentioned--we are slow to get organized. This feels a bit strange. Historically the tree has been a huge part of my own experience of the season. Maybe it is because I have been outside so much and experienced so many trees lately, but the edge is off this year.
Also, I have really gotten into plants as a regular thing. As I mentioned a couple days ago, the popularity of all this greenery comes from pre-Christian times. When it is dark and gray and cold, we want something green and living in the house. Maybe it drives the evil spirits away. Maybe it just drives away our own burdens for a moment. I am enough of a pantheist to think it does both. For this reason I have plants around all the time now and in almost every room.
Still, it is good to have a Christmas tree. We now have two. they are both smaller than usual. This has to do with space and time constraints...and our four-legged roommates.
There is something calming about living things that don't actually care about the holidays, or about the problems of people. We have a cat who find great satisfaction in picking up individual pieces of food, washing them in his bowl, eating them, then doing it all again. We have a dog who will gladly fall asleep on the couch in front of a YouTube fire. We have two other cats with their own issues, but you get the idea. The tree and the plants fill that same function. They reach deep into the primal part of ourselves. Maybe they just help us to. Either way, that is where our humanity is.
Yesterday I was talking about mental health during this time. I brought up a few examples of things that might help us care for ourselves and for each other. This is another one. Go out in nature if you can. Bring it inside if you cannot. You can also do both. I hope you are all able to turn off the noise as we get closer to Christmas Day. The holiday is not about what we do. It is about what is. It is a time to just be, not as a modern with modern concerns, but as a deep part of the life around us. We are people who gather plants and animals. We are people who decorate sacrificial evergreens. We aren't nearly as sophisticated as we think...this is right and good.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.