I’ve always put up a Christmas tree. Despite the halfhearted participation (and groaning) of my boyfriends, I’ve faithfully, right after Thanksgiving, headed out and bought (or here on Vashon, cut down) a tree to lug home. It’s a ritual I rarely miss.
After visiting India some years ago I returned home in the winter and the notion of putting a bauble-laden tree on display felt absurd. This is a rite of passage for anyone who ventures to India: Your brain cells are rearranged and you never view your world, or its customs, the same. I know that was true for me as a Westerner. Christmas in America, after the dust and squalor of India, felt gluttonous. So I skipped the holidays that year — though I missed having a tree in the house.
I enjoy the act of arranging the colors, textures and lights on a tree. It’s similar to making a painting, the alchemy of conjuring art. Simpler, but no less magical. I especially love the ricochetting of light amidst the ornaments, as it envelops the tree at nighttime. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that the ritual of displaying a tree is a sacred act — although I’ve never fully understood why.
Most of us are familiar with the historical origins of the Christmas tree. Its association with the pagan rite of celebrating the solstice. When the light of the Sun ‘returns’ in the Northern hemisphere and begins its increase and ascent, the radiance grows stronger and longer through the ensuing months. Trees would be displayed to honor the burgeoning of light and life. And the fruits and trinkets that would decorate the tree honored the bounty, the wish of a successful harvest in the year to come.
And yet the historical perspective never impressed me much. I mean, none of those facts would drift through my mind as I’d lounge on the couch in the evening — no matter my age — and stare at the tree until I fell asleep. Nope, another set of mysterious associations would encircle me and send me into a reverie. And it wasn’t until I came to the conclusion of one of my favorite books this year that I began to make sense of my devotion.
Martha Heyneman‘s book The Breathing Cathedral is a fantastic interweaving of the cosmologies of Gurdjieff, Dante, Aquinas, Stephen Hawking and others, into a new model, a new interpretation of the universe we inhabit. I was drawn to the book because, as a longtime student of Gurdjieff’s teachings, I was intrigued to see how Heyneman, a zoology student turned poet, was bringing Gurdjieff’s teachings forward and marrying them to the world of science.
The last chapter of her book is titled O Christmas Tree, and at first the subject — the family Christmas tree — seemed an odd way to summarize all that she’d explored in the previous chapters. But in the end I understood completely.
She opens the chapter describing her physical discomfort, while sliding on her stomach beneath the family Christmas tree one evening, to doggedly place an ornament on a rear branch that remained bare. All the while complaining to herself how the rest of the family is in another room, disinterested, gathered in front of a blaring television. She finally declares to her husband, who suddenly walks in on his wife lying face down beneath the tree: “Next year I’m not going to have a tree.”
“Why?” he inquires. Because no one cares anymore, she explains. “It doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”
The chapter progresses, as one by one other family members come into the room and begin to help decorate the tree. As she explains, the tree has a sort of magnetic pull, from the past and into the present, throughout the lineage of a family, “as if the conical shape of the fir tree were an inverted vortex, exerting a centripetal force, drawing us at the same time upward and toward the center. It draws us together both in time and in space. It is reuniting us with our parents, who passed the custom on to us, and with one another.” Finally, the tree is complete and radiant with light. And that’s when Heyneman has her revelation.
She hears herself speak to everyone gathered in the living room: “Do you know what it is? It is the whole universe, with stars and planets and plants and fruits and birds and animals.”
“Up there” — she points to the space above the tree — “is the invisible, out of which everything comes.”
“And the point at the top is the big bang, the singularity where everything enters into space and time. And then it expands downward, producing everything that is: stars and planets and fruits and animals and birds.”
She continues to make distinct associations: “…lights for stars and baubles for planets.”
“Someone must have intended that,” she continues. “I never thought about the meaning before but just blindly repeated the ritual, spurred on by the wish that my children should experience what I myself experienced as a small child.”
A Christmas tree is a magical transformation she explains, filling a room with a finer kind of substance — something “vibrating at a higher frequency, many colored, fragrant, softly glowing, exciting…” Making things feel more alive. “A wonderful intelligence was at work behind the appearances.”
It’s easy to forget how enlivening the Christmas season can actually feel. Despite the dulling pall of commercialization and all of the other horrors people bitch about this time of year — it’s truly a season of magic. There is something in the air, if you are sensitive enough to feel it.
“This is the true meaning of esoteric knowledge,” Heyneman tells us. “That the way you have seen things done every day all your life has an inner, psychological and cosmological, meaning that will be revealed to you at the proper time, when you are ready to make use of it to order your inner world into one harmonious whole.”
And the winter solstice does seem to coincide with a quality, an experience of time that is sacred. The darkening of the light is more than just an astronomical happening that is related to the earth’s angular relationship to the Sun. All of that darkness begets a stillness, a settling, a reflection that mirrors awareness of our inner light, our inner life.
I think this is why Christmas touches us despite our knowing or understanding what exactly is transpiring. We’re caught up in the outer events that define the season, whereas in tandem, in secret, there is that gathering of the light, the chance for increased awareness and wakefulness. And the Christmas tree is the perfect living symbol, a holographic condensation you could say, of all of that light, all of that living, and all that is promised in the new year (the new life) to come.