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. Read more
“Midsummer is the sexiest time of year. The word itself conjures images of luscious fruit, eternal twilight, warm nights dotted with the firefly’s peridot lights and feverish days punctuated by bursts of thunder and warm rain. It is a time when romance wanders freely in the mind, and when the bounties of earth are so plentiful, they are intoxicating. Life seems to spring eternal.”
“The green of the trees begins to take on a darker, more exhausted verdancy, animals go about the business of rearing their growing young, instead of birthing them and the nights and hottest days are filled with the gnawing presence of insects. Lammas, or Lughnasadh (pronounced: loo-NAH-sah), the sabbath which celebrates the beginning of the harvest year, is a time of maturity and of age. It is also a surreal moment in the year when death and life coexist in physical manifestation.”