Last Sunday morning, while driving down to a friend’s house to do some 12 Step work, I passed a Christmas tree on the side of the road. It was lying half on and half off that space of grass between the sidewalk and the street. It was waiting, waiting to be collected by one benevolent organization or another – in our neighborhood it’s the boy scouts – or possibly a for profit group. Someone who will come around in one truck or another and haul it away. To where no-longer-needed
Christmas trees go. When I was growing up in Massachusetts, hard by Cape Cod, they would haul old Christmas trees onto beaches to help prevent so much winter storm erosion. The other day someone told me, out here in the always forward-thinking west, they are dumping the trees whole in rivers and streams, in the process creating some higher value eco-culture.
Whoever picks them up or wherever they go, the fact remains that I drove by a tree laying on its side out by the street on a rainy Sunday morning, the first Sunday in the New Year. My wife Susan had prepared ours the night before, removing the ornaments and carefully placing them in their storage boxes for their annual eleven-month sleep. Then Susan and I had dragged the now bare tree out to our street, to wait for the boy scouts, an envelope tied on by Susan in the rain, containing six dollars in an annual act of fundraising tradition.
For me, the Christmas season personally comes to an end when the tree is undressed and out the door. It is always a sad day. I hear people, I have heard people for nearly all the years of my life, moan about Christmas and complain about commercialism and worry about all the stress associated with the holidays, and when I hear that I am glad I have never felt that way. Not for one moment. From some of my earliest recollections of being an active participant in the Christmas holiday – first as a present unwrapper, later as a kid with 75 cents walking down to the 5 & 10 on Main Street and buying my mother and father a few glasses and cups, at a quarter a piece – I have held a sense that there is a goodness to the day, at least to the spirit of the day. The goodness of giving. The goodness of thinking about others – loved ones, friends, family members – first, at least for a while. And it doesn’t have much to do with money. A little. But not much. I’ll tell you, I had very little money to spend for presents this Christmas, and it was still a fine time.
I make it a point, and I have for many years now, to watch Christmas movies. My definites are A Christmas Carol (the 1938 version with Reginald Owen), Miracle On 34th Street with Natalie Wood, and It’s A Wonderful Life. They all have something strong to say about people and joy and hope. I also make it a point to listen for Christmas songs. And to notice the lights people take the time to put up. The best is the Christmas tree. It doesn’t have to be expensive and the lights and decorations don’t have to be fancy. We had green, red, white, and blue lights this year. There is something about sitting and looking at them that brings me to an easier, better place. Even after the actual Christmas Day has come and gone. Which is why the tree out by the side of the road is a sad day.
There is something universal that makes the effort to stop and think about others special. I get that this is a birthday for one religion – the one I’ve always had – but beyond that is the idea of genuine thoughfulness. You don’t catch that on any other holiday, not in this country anyway. My favorite Christmas song is “Let There Be Peace On Earth, and Let It Begin With Me”. I sang that in a chorus back in high school. The music and the words spoke to me then and they always have – they still do. And that song could be sung on any day of the year. Peace on Earth. Here, listen here for a moment: www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-_Qw48KqT0\
The folk singer Melanie Safka – she of Woodstock “Lay Down Candles” fame – sang a Christmas song that she rearranged from other songs, and in it she asked twice – “Why Can’t It be Christmas The Whole Year Through?” It’s a good question. I wonder about it from time to time. No, I haven’t lost my mind, yet, and I’m not a complete ignoramous, not complete. People go on hurting and killing other people with ever-frightening frequency and efficiency. But I think, every so often, that if we could just find those best parts of Christmas, the spirit that sails past countries and religions, we might just surpsise ourselves. It could happen.
So I am always sad when I see a Christmas tree, a tree lovingly grown and cut and shipped and bought and brought home and decorated with important things and strung with lights and looked at with just a little more wonder and bliss than we usually look at things, and at each other, I’m always sad when I see a tree by the side of the street. Off on its next journey. Because it means another Christmas season has come and gone.
And we haven’t figured the peace thing out yet.