When we moved into our house twelve years ago this month, we noticed a knee-high balsam in the middle of the small cleared field that was our back yard.
When that little tree had grown to four feet high or so, I decorated its branches at Christmastime with bright red balls and a velvety red bow on top.
But within a couple of years, the tree had grown too tall for me to reach the top. An up-and-coming young balsam at the corner of the yard took its place as an outdoor Christmas tree.
Trees keep growing. The second tree was replaced by a third.
This year’s tree, our fourth, is a young hemlock, in another corner of the field. The sun reflects its shiny red balls and they seem to be lighted from within.
This is the only little tree left in the field, except for a tiny Colorado blue spruce that we planted several years ago. It is knee-high. One day, if it continues to thrive, it will enjoy its own chance to shine.
The trees grow and change every year, but they never lose their treeness. The balsam keeps its piney fragrance that we so often associate with Christmas. The hemlock retains the laciness of its tiny needles.
And so it is with Christmas itself, always changing but always the same.
We sing Christmas songs that people have sung for several hundred years, but we add new ones. Along with “Greensleeves” (“What child is this…”), the lullaby whose text was written in the 17th century and set to an even earlier tune, we sing “White Christmas” (1940s). Christmas still inspires song.
We light candles. Maybe some of them are powered by electricity, but they glow just the same.
Mince pies have contributed to Christmas feasts for seven or eight centuries. But families add their own food traditions. Our tradition is for Christmas breakfast: dinner roles baked in the shape of a Christmas tree, decorated with green frosting, nuts, and dried fruits. Christmas still inspires feasting.
We bring a tree and other greens into the house. Most of us don’t have a forest where we can cut our own, so we buy them. Some might be plastic. But Christmas greens still remind us of the cyclicality of the seasons, and that a time will return when all the trees are green again.
For the first Christmas of our married life, Dick and I bought a crèche at our local discount department store for $3, which wasn’t much money even then. The figures looked like wood, but were made of a cardboard filler. I thought that once we became more prosperous we would buy a nicer crèche.
But that crèche gathered Christmas memories and I could never replace it. When our son Chris was two, he went through a grab-and-throw phase, and one of the wise men shattered into dust. Its replacement doesn’t match the other figures. When my mother wrote a poem speculating that there might have been a cat in the manger on the night the special child was born, I added a ceramic kitten to our crèche.
The crèche has changed, but its story remains.
A wide ribbon of Christmas meaning runs through the centuries, connecting us to those who have celebrated before. Each generation expresses that meaning in its own way while also honoring the old ways.
Every year, people decry the commercialization of Christmas. It’s traditional to complain that all the frenzied buying diminishes the holiday.
But you can always hold onto that ribbon of Christmas meaning. Once you’ve grasped it, nobody can take it away.