The Tree of Life
Manisha Gutman, Times of India, 25 Dec 2006
The modern custom of the decorating of the Christmas tree has been traced back to a more recent tradition in 1570 where a small fir was decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers, by a German guild of craftsmen. Their children collected the dainties on Christmas day. Another Swiss custom of carrying around a tree decorated with apples and cheese may also have been a possible origin.
It is believed that the tradition of the Christmas tree has its origins in an ancient pagan ritual celebrating the renewal of life. The Christmas tree is usually an evergreen coniferous tree– a variety of fir or pine – that retains its leaves all year round with each leaf persisting for more than twelve months. Some species such as the 'Glastonbury thorn' flowered for a second time during Christmas and this flowering was considered 'miraculous' according to some medieval legends.
In modern celebrations, the Christmas tree has become more of an object than a symbol of life! Nowadays trees are seen in shops as early as October. Some trees are sold live with roots, so that they may be planted later and enjoyed for years. However, the process of digging up a tree with its roots is complex and the survival of these trees is low. Most people therefore use a cut tree which comes from a Christmas tree farm. It takes about ten years for a tree to grow to a size where it can be used for Christmas. In 2002, in America alone, there were about 22,000 Christmas tree farms and nearly 450,000 acres of land was used to grow these trees.
Wood or plastic?
Natural trees however, come with a host of problems such as the potential for catching fire and causing allergies, besides being fairly expensive. Predictably, plastic has taken over, and artificial trees made out PVC are now becoming increasingly popular. Artificial trees come in a variety of colours and species and even pre decorated with lights. After Christmas they can be neatly packed away for use again the following year.
In this voyage from a real unsheared tree, originally harvested from the wild, the Christmas tree has come a long way to now being grown like a crop, being pruned to have a perfect conical shape and finally being replaced by a completely unnatural substitute. Environmentalists are still debating whether the move to plastic is better or worse for the environment. Although artificial trees can be reused again for many years, they are non biodegradable and eventually end up in landfills. Natural trees on the other hand, can be only used for a short period but can be recycled into mulch or used as erosion control. While the trees are growing they provide habitat for wildlife and also help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Unfortunately there is a heavy use of pesticide in the cultivation of these trees and there is now an emerging movement to shift to organically grown Christmas trees.
A tool to reconnect
However, what is also loosing value gradually, is the deeper symbolism of the tree. While there are several layers of spiritual meaning attached to it – the act of inviting a tree into one's life could also be seen simply as that – a reconnection to Nature. Although a man made substitute may be practical and durable, what it can never be is – alive. The tradition began at a time when nature was abundant and humans lived with a strong awareness of their dependence on nature. In the present time, as urbanization takes us further and further away from our natural roots, the custom of the Christmas tree could become a reminder that we are indeed still very much a part of the natural universe.
In this approach then, the Christmas tree could represent all trees, and could symbolize the very important role that trees play in the survival of life on Earth. In each country, a species of tree that is indigenous to that context and which plays an important role as a provider of food and livelihood could be taken to be the Christmas tree. Already, in India, where coniferous trees are limited to higher altitudes, the banana or the mango tree play the role of the Christmas tree. In Goa the trunks of palms are decorated with chains of light for Christmas and for New Year.
The gifts of Nature
We could even go a step further and propose that rather than cultivating Christmas trees, which increases monoculture and necessitates the use of pesticides, that naturally growing 'wild' trees be honoured during Christmas. A tree could be planted during Christmas, taking care to choose a tree that is appropriate to the context, and will enhance the natural ecosystem. The 'gifts' that are associated with the Christmas tree, could then be interpreted to be the gifts that all trees offer so unconditionally – fresh air, food, shelter and medicine – in short a healthy environment.
As environmental awareness grows, some efforts are already being seen to make Christmas a more ecosensitive festival. In Louisiana, Project Christmas Tree, recycles used trees to create a natural coastal fence. This project has used more than a million trees over a span of eleven years. The fence they have created helps to break the wave action and prevents loss of the coastline.
In some countries, the most common use for trees after the holidays is in a chipping program. Many communities have a site where trees are delivered on certain days then ground into chips that are used as a mulch material.
The Christmas tree, a symbol of renewal of life, may finally come back to where it began, and help humanity reconnect with the source of all that is living – Nature.