If you were to visit my house this holiday season you would politely compliment us on the Christmas tree in our kitchen. All the Midwesterners do ... though they are lying. Even though you'd probably not mention it, you also would notice the smell of greasy barbecue clinging to the scrawny tree branches. This diminutive, fake pine tree leans, as one of its four legs is broken. Sometime the tree looks like it has bed-head as its branches get smushed. The great thing about this tree, though, is that if you don't like the way a branch is angled you just reach up and tweak it, like a pipe cleaner!
I've made this our Jesse Tree, a traditional advent practice of remembering Bible stories leading to the birth of Christ and hanging corresponding ornaments on the tree. My neighbor was discarding this pathetic little tree, and I am sentimental for artificial Christmas trees. Because our family likes real trees, and I have some emotional attachment to artificial trees, I took in the orphan fake tree and now we can all be happy without any extra cost.
So much of this season has to do with frame of mind and perspective. I grew up with a fake Christmas tree. By the time I was old enough to invest in the Christmas spirit, my three older brothers were teenagers and busy. My Dad and I would haul the Christmas tree box into the living room and spend a lovely half-hour putting up the tree. My Dad is a gentle, considerate man with whom time spent is very pleasant. He would call out "red branch" or "orange branch" and I would flit across the rows of organized branches and then return the branch he called for. I looked forward to our quiet tree tradition every year. I thought everybody did it that way.
As a newlywed I was taken aback when my new husband didn't want to invest in an artificial tree. "No, we've got to have a real tree," he said. In his tradition his dad would head out into the woods of the family farm all alone to choose the annual tree. Ernie's dad is not a people pleaser, so his solitary quest had more to do with the fact that he didn't want other people's opinion getting in the way. He would proudly set it up and the family would merrily point out gaps in the tree's physique, noting its deficiencies. Then someone would proclaim it a "Charlie Brown" tree and all would quickly adapt to its charming character.
Of course, the tree in my family's living room was perfect because it wasn't real. It was perfectly proportioned, perfectly green, perfectly the right size. Because I loved this new family of mine, I embraced their imperfect tree idea. I loved that it had quirks and I loved that it smelled like pine and dropped needles on the floor.
What I learned, though, is that it doesn't actually matter, right? We can be happy with real or artificial. Traditions can be filled with joy, but they also can be a form of bondage. It's not about the tradition; it's about the people you are practicing the tradition with.
With our own family we have adopted the fresh Christmas tree idea and the pathetic artificial tree. Every year our family heads to Pine Knob Tree Farm, a local Christmas tree farm where the Sundquist family spoils us with attention, hot chocolate or cider, cookies and a warm and sweet Christmas tradition. They remember the trees we buy every year. They remember whether we choose short or long needles. They remember the year after our house fire when, so enthusiastic to celebrate Christmas in our newly fixed home, we bought the largest tree we could find and consequently couldn't get it up the stairs into the family room. The annual visit to their tree farm has become a more important tradition than the actual tree because of them.
One of the great things about the real tree is that we can have a bonfire with it the next summer. Our fake tree is a different matter. At the end of the season we pop the icon into a large contractor bag and store it in the shed where my husband smokes and grills meats. For 11 months of the year that fake Christmas tree sits above Ernie's smoker and absorbs the smells from grilling ribs, chicken, jerky and hamburger. The tree permanently emanates Famous Dave's. Some might call it incense. Some might call it stench.
That smell though has become a tradition, too. As we hang Jesse Tree ornaments we sniff out barbecue ... reminding us of summer days to come eating grilled ribs on the back porch.