Monday, November 27, 2006

A Christmas tree, by any other name ...

So we bought a Christmas tree this weekend. We just had to. One of the many advantages of the Adirondacks is that you can buy the freshest, most beautiful nine-foot tree you've every seen for only $25. In New York, things are rather different. The day after Thanksgiving, legions of Christmas tree farmers from all over the country bring their wares into Manhattan and set up shop on street corners everywhere. Typically, they stay with their trees 24 hours a day, staking out their territory and protecting their merchandise from theft. Of course, there are rewards for such vigilance. A nice Christmas tree in New York can run you about $200. If you're more interested in the Charlie Brown variety of Christmas tree, it will cost you around $50. In Manhattan, everything gets marked up.

Before we built our house, we used to go for a middle-of-the-road tree: three feet tall, full and perfect. A cool $100. Exactly the size of tree you'd want in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Over the years, we collected ornaments to suit it. Miniature glass balls, tiny figurines in wood, porcelain or glass. And, of course, a diminutive angel for the top. Our trees were always charming, if a bit Lilliputian. When we bought our first Adirondack tree, our ornaments, collected so carefully over the years, barely made a dent in it. Our tree had grown three-fold to a perfect nine-foot specimen, complete with lovely, delicate pine cones; but our ornaments couldn't keep up with it. So we scrambled to acquire enough large ornaments just to get us past the point of the ridiculous. Even now, our tree seems slightly disjunctive - an uneasy truce between our New York ornaments and their newer, larger Adirondack cousins.

Still, I love decorating the tree. As I pull out lights and ornaments left unseen for eleven months, all the little stories of their purchase come flooding back. Past trees, past holidays, even those from my earliest memory, reassert themselves in a way that seems appropriate only this time of year. I remember ornaments fashioned from construction paper in nursery school, or a nest I made of twigs, leaves and Elmer's glue in Kindergarten. For me, Christmas retains a constancy unlike any other holiday.

And yet, the tree means something different to me now. I am older, which is perhaps part of it. But also, our household is an interfaith one, combining the traditions of Judaism and Catholicism. So now, the tree acts as a convergence of two faiths. It is as much Hanukkah Bush as it is Christmas Tree. Today, as we were decorating the tree, we were talking about how the Tree of Life is such an important symbol in so many cultures and religions. We discussed the Tree of Knowledge and its significance in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And so our tree, whatever we call it, has become a Tree of Knowledge of sorts: knowledge of each other, of what we've been through together, of what we hope for the future. In the end, the tree is what we make of it.

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