There is a white fence installed at the front of my house. I put it in the ground perhaps 18 years ago. It needs paint this spring but other than that it is not rotted or likely to fall down anytime soon.
Over the years, a small pine tree began growing by the far post of that fence. Its origins are unknown. It is not a white pine like the two tall trees on the north side of my driveway. It might be the species of tree that we typically have bought for Christmas all these years. But that would mean the seed from a pine cone somehow fell out of one of those trees and got germinated in the soil.
Its history concerns me more than its origins. I’ve let the tree grow over the years because I liked it there. Like most pines, it had very humble beginnings, barely growing at all. That is why I left it in its humble spot beside the drain spout for many years. It wasn’t hurting anything.
When it finally did begin to grow, there was still no reason to cut it down. A few years ago I considered digging it up and transplanting it. But by then it was probably too late. The tree was a couple feet tall and who knows what its root system might be like?
I once tried to transplant a precocious young oak that popped up by our shed out back. It had a tap root that went down several feet. I know pines and oaks have differing root systems, but that oak tree excavation was a sad scene. So like many problems in life, I simply let the little pine exist as a necessary part of the scenery for a while. It stood next to the tulips with pride. It wrapped arms with the clematis each year as it pointed toward its fall bloom. The small pine tree was a good companion to everyone.
I’d notice and even say hello to the tree when I walked out the front door on my way out to go for a run. Or I’d sometimes pump up my bike tires next to its friendly little branches. I’ve always loved the way pine trees look in the same way I like bass as a fish. They both seem like a “good” species to have around. Their shapes are nice, and they generally are not pests.
But this year I realized the pine was on its way to becoming a real problem. It had reached a height of nearly four feet and was jutting through the fence on both sides. The rose bush was crowded out and the pine tree was getting a bit branchy, so time to take it down had come.
On the same day that I hung the pine garland and Christmas lights on the front fence, I pulled out the bow saw and in short 10 seconds the small trunk was cut and the pine was carried it into the house. Then I pulled out a silver trash can and filled it with water. Stuck some bricks inside to hold the tree in place. Decorated it with a string of lights.
It’s a bit of a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, for sure. But it’s mine.
It has a Home Depot sister tree across the room. That one is seven feet tall. Like most sisters it seems to hold an attitude at once grudging and loving toward its shorter, scrubbier sister. The scrappy little one is roughly beautiful, and will be sure to grab plenty of attention with its saucy glass icicles and ornaments hung carefully to reflect light. The bigger sister will just have to deal with that. Such is the life of sisters.
Behind the smaller tree hangs a circular pine cone wreath. I’ve wrapped it in red lights like a crown of thorns around the head of Jesus. It really doesn’t do to think of Christmas and the birth of Christ without recognizing the meaning of death as well. In that respect my Christmas setting depicts life in its all its reality. There is birth and there is death for all of us. In between our existence, we hang out and do our thing much like the life of that small tree. We find our place in the world the best we can. We thrive in the light and shiver through darkness. That is what the Christmas season symbolizes, too.
Fortunately for most of us, we can get up and move around. I wrote a long form poem a few years back titled March of the Christmas Trees. It was a bit melodramatic, and I’ll spare you the publication here. But it chronicled a magical moment when all the trees left over at the Christmas tree lot made a run for it on the actual night of Christmas. They travel through town observing all the decorations and celebrations going on inside the houses. Then they gather and replant themselves on a distant hilltop in a sort of mystical protest against the waste of it all. Cathartic? Perhaps.
Not that different from life itself, actually. Because what else are Christmas trees other than measures of our own mortality? The ornaments remind us of Christmas celebrations past. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we’re reminded to appreciate life as a result of the sadness. We’re celebrating light and family and friends. We’re celebrating being together in this life even as we miss those gone before us. Mortality is not a bad thing. It is the only thing.
That’s why we need these sorts of celebrations, and also why we stand on the starting lines events like a charity 5k, or enter a triathlon or marathon to test ourselves against the mortal stream. We exist eternally in the present, part of a giant river flowing toward our end. Why not live it up for the moment? It means we’re alive. Because in the end, it is all fire and dust. And we become one with the carbon of the universe. Some people might call that hell, as if eternal fires were a damnation. That’s simply not the history of the universe, which began with a bang so fiery and fierce it formed time itself. We’ve been measuring ourselves against it ever since.
As for eternal life, and the promise held in the birth of Jesus and the death that saves us all, it is the narrative that burns within us that matters. God wants to see that flame of love emanate from the inside out. The real kingdom of God is within us, and we create it through grace appreciated. It’s in how we treat others that eternal life is achieved. The purity of the moment is made from the absence of time. Never forget that.
So I’ll enjoy the company of my little tree this year. She and I have already seen many years together. When we’re all through with Christmas, she and her big sister will go out back with the bird feeders. They’ll provide welcome cover for the juncos, sparrow, finches, rabbits and squirrels over the winter. The kingdom of God is not judgmental. It is practical and true. It shares and shares alike. It blooms and it absorbs.
And come spring we’ll have a merry old bonfire with dry needles turning into flame and smoke. It’s a ritual worth maintaining. The month of March is only sixty or so days away. Real training begins all over again. Along the way, we can wear our saucy, slutty icicle earrings like my little Christmas tree and dance in the firelight together.
Because God Damn, isn’t life great?