So, it’s that time of the year again – the time when we all start to think about Christmas – actually, here in North America the thinking started some time ago. As a matter of fact, the Christmas ornaments went on sale in the major stores before the end of October in some places. The retailers can’t wait for us to start spending. It seems that with time this holiday has become so commercial, so important to the business world, that even if we proclaimed Santa a dead fake, the local supermart would find a way to make that a cause for purchasing something. I can see it now “Dead Santas. Lifelike Mourning Elves. Memorial Trees. Reindeers Pulling a Hearse. Buy Now, while supplies last!”
Anyway, I guess my cynicism is showing. But I must confess that when I saw the commercial about a nice warm stereotypical (and therefore non-existent) family shopping for a new plastic tree in a hardware store, as a family activity, I was a bit sarcastic. “Oh", the father says, “I like that one. It comes with the lights already on." Delighted, the perfect plastic family dances around the perfect plastic tree. Really, give me a break.
I remember “shopping” for a Christmas tree when we were kids “yes, Virginia, it was over a hundred million years ago. The day would come. Father would announce that it was time to “go get the tree”. So, we would all bundle up in hand-me-down winter snow clothes, pile in to the old Chevie and drive off down the unused logging roads until we found a large stand of trees spread out in fine walk-around fashion. As father dug in the trunk for the axe, we kids would run around looking at the trees, shouting out as each of us, in turn and sometimes together, found the perfect one. “Here Dad," I found the perfect tree. “No. Dad. Over here. This one’s great!" “Look at this one! Mom would love it." We all tried hard to be the one who found this year’s tree. We shouted, we whined, we pleaded, we hoped.
Our father would survey the trees, inspecting in turn each one we pointed out, discussing the merits of each. “Hmm, beautiful. Strong trunk. Looks a little tall for the living room though. Maybe we can find one just as good but a little shorter." “Oh, that’s a nice one, good branches here. Nice top. But it’s a little bare on the other side. You know how your mother likes to see all the sides." And on we would go until, finally, we found the perfect tree. Just the right height, full enough all around. Straight trunk, strong lateral branches. Often the first one we rushed by in our excitement. For some reason, no one ever remembered who spotted it first. It just seemed to appear. Somehow, without knowing how it happened, we were all gathered around this one tree as if it had drawn us to itself.
And when we found it, we would circle it repeatedly, discussing its merits, enjoying it in its natural surroundings, imaging out loud mother’s reaction as we dragged it proudly into the house to her cries of delight. Finally, when the moment was right, when we were all saturated with the joy of our “find”, out came the axe, and with a massive swing father would fell the tree in one chop “well, okay, probably not one chop, but I was a kid and therefore somewhat subject to romantic exaggeration. Maybe he actually ripped it up by the roots with his frozen bare hands.
Once felled, we would drag the tree through the snow “and it really did take all four of us because if you didn’t help to drag the tree it just . . well, it just wasn’t the same if you didn’t participate in the dragging. Then we would hoist the tree up on the car roof, tie it in place, and drive through the town, hooting our horn, rolling down the window and waving at our neighbours, as we held our heads high, behaving like we had just returned from saving the world, or been awarded the finest of medals. We were heroes. We were together. We were family. Even if just for this moment. I guess that the sight of my older brother waving the “victory axe” dripping with sap out the front window while he screamed like a lunatic may have caused a little concern among some of the older or more conservative citizens, but we never thought about it like that.
Once home, we would wedge the tree in its stand and raise it up “and yes, there were numerous times when it had to be trimmed a little to fit. Once raised, we would stand back and admire, commenting on how it was, without a doubt, the best tree yet. Rapidly and repeatedly telling our mother the tales of what a massive job it had been, how the tree was just waiting for us, how father had felled it in one whack, how the neighbours had looked on with envy as we drove it home, how no-one is going to have a tree just this perfect.
Then, just as the excitement started to dwindle, mother would announce that it was time to decorate the tree. While we were out, she had popped the popcorn, got out the needles, thread and dyes. She had placed eggs on the table beside a large bowl of half dry cranberries saved from the summer. Paper of various colors was stacked high, scissors were in place, pinecones from the tree in the backyard were in a basket, glue in the bucket.
Everything was ready.
With the sound of Christmas carols in the background we would colour and thread the popcorn into long strings, poke small holes in the eggs so we could blow out the contents and dress them up like Santa Clause heads with red paper hats and beards of cotton batten, cut out snowflakes and angels and colour them brightly, paint the pinecones and glue the berries to everything because they always looked so festive. I swear, when we were finished making the decorations and covering the tree, it almost looked like you could eat it (and the dog did try on a few occasions).
Then, all done, we would sit around and admire our work until, in a final moment of experiential glory, someone would be chosen to climb up a latter and top the tree with the final ornament carefully unpacked from the layers of padding that carried it safely from year to year.
None of this cost very much: a little money for the gas for an old Chevvie held together with baling wire and hope; the foresight to save a bowl of berries and scoop up the pinecones before the snow fell; the energy and willingness to get the eggs from the henhouse; the saving of bits of cotton batten from various sources throughout the year; and the on-going desire to create tradition in the absence of money.
I know there are a lot of people, especially here in North America, who are glad that we are no longer allowed to cut the trees with such wild abandon. And I know there are those who are glad there aren’t cars like our old Chevvie on the road anymore. One day they will probably even outlaw axes, saving cranberries, and walking through the forest.
But that’s not the point here, is it? So, what is the point? That it doesn’t take a lot of money to create tradition? (As kids, we never realised that we were creating anything.) That it is possible to carve out moments of joy in spite of the poverty and pain? (We didn’t know we were making our decorations because we couldn’t afford to buy them and we forgot, that day, that there was more pain than joy in our lives.)
I’m not sure that I am even trying to make a point. I am just noticing that there was a ritual here, a symbolic event that happened together at a certain time which engaged us all in a feeling of connectedness and activity. That for this short period we were so immersed in the doing together that we were able to forget, even if just for this moment, that life wasn’t as perfect for us as it seemed to be for a lot of other people.
And so, as I watched that commercial the other night about a perfect family shopping in the store for the perfect tree, I was thinking, not about lost opportunities “although it is easy to go there, especially as I get older “but rather about ritual, activity and connectedness. About how tradition can be created with little money if someone just takes the time to make it important.
I have a friend who lives in Australia. When they were young and poor, each Christmas the family would pack up a picnic and go to the beach for the day. Now that he can afford more, he and his family still go to the beach on Christmas. And all it costs is a little money for gas. Then when the day is done, they gather up the shells they have collected and go home and build a “snow castle” from the shells and a bucket of glue.
So, this year, whether you are working with families in the community, or young people in group living, or groups in the school, or wherever it is that you ply your trade, perhaps you could look for opportunities to help people create rituals of tradition. Rituals through activity which don’t have to cost a lot, but draw people together in to a warm, if brief, cocoon of togetherness and joint experiencing. This Christmas, if you celebrate it, remember to make it not about money, but about meaning. Because meaning lasts a lot longer.