Imagine you lived long ago, before Christianity. Winter was long and dark and cold in the northern hemisphere, and scientific explanations for the way things are had not been invented. Imagine that you lived in a little hut, with fire for warmth and light. You might look forward to the winter solstice because you would soon notice the daylight hours growing longer. For now, the only green plants are evergreens like pine and fir. You might bring some boughs into your hut at midwinter to remember the promise of spring and renewing life.
That custom began centuries ago, and has been carried around the world, transformed and adapted. It is said that St. Boniface opposed druids, and chopped down a sacred oak. In its place a fir tree sprang up. The first Christmas trees were thought to have been brought into homes in Germany in the 15th century. It was Germans who brought the custom to America, although Puritans tried to stamp it out as pagan. These days, Christmas trees are ubiquitous.
As a small child, a tree in the house was a wondrous thing to me. The ones I remember were Douglas-firs, no doubt procured from the back forty. Brought inside and placed in a stand, then decorated with lights and shiny balls and tinsel–a magical thing to be gazed at with a reverent hush at bedtime. Christianity did not take root and grow in me, at least not in any conventional form. I am a throwback to northerners who paid attention to the movements of the sun and moon and seasons, and who were devoted to conifers.
So it is the pagan who set out this afternoon to crunch through the icy snow with a tree in mind. I knew the place I wanted to look. There were Doug-firs taller than me, and lodgepole pines. Grand firs too. Some too big, too small, too lopsided or scruffy. Finally I knelt in the snow with my saw in hand. I thanked the subalpine fir indulging my pagan whimsy then murdered it in a few strokes. I released its lower branches from the icy clutches of the snowpack and carried it away. The nearly full moon had risen and Venus was keeping her bright distance. Moonshine sparkled on flakes of hoarfrost as big as my thumbnail, reflecting crazily. I walked with my light off, letting my feet feel the way over the snow and cross through patches of light and shadow. Heard the river, and marvelled at the bigness of white mountains at night.
It is the pagan who will bring the tree into the house and hang shiny balls and glittered pine cones on it. It is the little kid who will remember some of those same ornaments from the 1960s, and sit nearly breathless gazing at the lit tree before bed. It is my animal body that knows the solstice is almost here, and that soon the earth will turn again toward the sun.