Friday, December 28, 2012

O Christmas Tree

I'm not sure where the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree got its start. I've read the biblical Christmas account numerous times, and I know every line of A Christmas Story, but nowhere in either of those seminal works of holiday lore do I see an explanation for why perfectly warm human beings would leave the comfort of their homes in November or December and travel to a remote tree farm (or busy, annoyingly lit department store) and choose a small pine tree to grace their living rooms.

At my house, I've come to realize that the tree provides a measure of protection for the presents. Being forced to negotiate a tangle of Christmas lights and synthetic branches forces my kids to think twice about sneaking off with the gifts.

What the tree does not protect is the ornaments. There was a time when the tree was covered with the many ornaments of my childhood. They had been preserved by my parents for the day when I would have my own home (and pay my own electric bill, grocery bill, etc). There was a miniature metal bike, representing the year I learned to ride a bike (and symbolizing a time when things were actually made of metal.) There was a small rubber dinosaur, representing my early affection for prehistoric beasts.

When my kids were very young, we held off their curiosity by moving the ornaments higher up the tree. Yes, it looked silly to have half the tree bare, but it was better than finding an 18-month old with a mouth full of stuffing from a plush snowman ornament.

But my kids' ascent to full upward mobility happened with startling rapidity, and this year we realized it was futile to place the ornaments at the top of the tree, as that would only encourage adventurous attempts to reach the ornaments by balancing on the edge of a chair. So we chose only the sturdiest of our ornaments to adorn the tree, leaving the more fragile mementos safely packaged.

Not that it mattered. The tree was still a museum of oddities by the end of its first week. My dinosaur ornament found itself attempting to devour a bird ornament. The fake candy canes all ended up scattered among the presents under the tree--presumably after being tested for flavor and found wanting. Baby Jesus, who as I mentioned before has no business being near the tree, found himself sitting in a fire truck ornament I'd received when I turned six.

So as we end another Christmas season, I find myself staring at the Christmas tree and wondering. What does it really stand for? Who started this tradition? Would it really matter if it didn't get taken down until April? And why is there a pair of underwear on that angel's head?