The Star at the Top of the Tree

It’s very northern of us, this tree-in-the-house at Christmas. I know, there are Celtic precedents, something about mistletoe, holly and the Druids, but the Christmas tree itself came from Nordic folk around the Baltic Sea, worshipping what remained green throughout the long, dark, cold winter. Germans, my mother’s family included, set their trees up on Christmas Eve, which in the Roman Catholic tradition, remains Adam and Eve’s feast day. Some of the early German trees were hung with one tantalizing apple.

Ours for years was some kind of fir, usually bought from an outdoor lot beside a hardware store or even from the Boy Scouts. We hoisted it atop the car and drove home with it, our version of the hunter’s prize. Early in this second marriage, we took our young kids out to a tree farm and hacked one down. It was hard work, all done by already worn-out parents. But those self-harvested trees brought into our lives empty birds’ nests, which we took as wonderful symbols of fecundity and joy. They became our first communal ornaments, passed down and still displayed in our now fake tree.

It’s interesting, even challenging, making a union of two quite different traditions–mine and my second husband’s. His two kids, my one, and all the ornaments and associations that we’d already acquired. Now with the kids all grown, and only us aging adults to tend the tradition, I stand rather bemused before our fake tree lighted with bright blue and white LED lights. There hang floppy white plastic catfish with long whiskers and bright beads–holdovers from his parents’ years as missionaries in China. From my parents’ early Depression trees have come balls with much of the color worn off–now faded blue, silver, green. I couldn’t bear to throw them away after my mother died. I also kept funny pipecleaner men in stripped pants and bowler hats–who knows their origin or what they signified.

There among the thick plastic branches hang small red cherries. Last evening driving down Summit Avenue, I asked my daughter if she remembered buying a living Norfolk Island pine covered with these little balls, the first year I moved out of the first marriage house. She has no recollection of those years, she says. But even now I can see the small tree bravely fronting an increasingly desperate living room, its little bright cherries twirling in the furnace heat.

Dotted up and around our current tree are expensive ornaments given by affectionate, well-heeled relatives and friends–a tum-tum-tum drum with guilded ribbon up and down its sides; a fiercely snouted hedgehog dressed in mob-cap and old lace; a tiny mouse in top hat sitting in its own white rocking chair. Oddly enough, I can’t remember their givers, only the yearly sensation that they must reappear as promises of continued beneficence.

Finally up and down perch dozens of birds. Our first birds’ nests fit my fascination with birds so perfectly it seemed preordained. Especially in winter, feeding and providing fresh, warmed water for outdoor birds keeps me from desperation. After all, my earliest remembered Christmases were in Charleston, South Carolina, where winters are dark, but only dampishly cold, not ever frozen, never. And my parents’ last backyard drew wonderful flocks of migrants–waxwings, robins, and resident cardinals, mocking birds and jays, chickadees and nuthatches, plus an occasional hawk, not to mention in the swamp just out of sight a heron or two. For our tree the Audubon Society has kindly provided (for a yearly membership) wonderfully bright, stained-glass bird ornaments, and we have purchased tiny feathered creatures who sit so pertly at the end of twigs, I expect them to cock their heads and sing.

It is all about hope and sustenance in dark times. We’ve never had much of a star atop our tree, though there is one, surrounded by a bevy of wasted angels, retrieved from the dump of my parents’ ornaments. With paper wings and sequined skirts, they have sustained another kind of fluttering hope for over sixty years. I can’t imagine ever “doing over” the tree in decorator colors. What lives on are its associations, and the revival of winter hope from year to year.

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