Trees, Christmas and Otherwise

Nancy AdamsA freelance editor and theological librarian, Nancy Adams writes mysteries and fantasy. Her short story “The Secret of the Red Mullet” is published in Fish Tales: the Guppy Anthology (Wildside Press, 2011), and her newest short story release is “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree.” When she is not writing or cataloging books for the day job, Nancy reads, sleeps, and whacks the occasional weed in her garden.

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Trees have always had a special place in my heart.

My mother loved trees with the unconditional passion she reserved for all things that lie powerless before the adult world: young children, animals (especially cats), Santa Claus, and dandelions. Every fall when the old cottonwood in the corner of our yard loosed its leaves on the next-door-neighbor’s green and pristinely maintained lawn, she would snicker with childish delight. If my father went to prune a tree or shrub in our yard, she argued against it, fearing he’d cut the plant down to the roots and it wouldn’t come up again.

The books and stories I read reinforced this maternal teaching. Hans Christian Andersen was the first of my favorite authors, and once I stumbled on his works in the school library, I devoured every story, loving them all, no matter how sad or gruesome. Andersen’s “The Little Fir Tree,” like my “Saint Nick,” is told from the tree’s point of view. It strengthened my belief that trees and plants, though mute, have feelings just as humans do.

When I was a child, the most important ritual of Christmas for me was the getting and decorating of the tree. After it was done, I’d turn off the lamps and sit in the dark, taking off my glasses so that the tree lights glowed like big fuzzy balls. In the light of day, I’d stand and contemplate the tree, taking loving measure of every ornament, stroking its spiky branches. Picking out trinkets for our tree to wear is still one of my favorite pre-Christmas activities.

It’s easy for me to understand the tree worship of some ancient cultures. Trees are big, awe-inspiring, and long-lived. There’s more than a whiff of the sacred around them.

But unlike gods, trees are vulnerable.

I was a sophomore in high school when the Tolkien craze hit, and The Lord of the Rings succeeded Hans Christian Andersen in my personal pantheon of mythic tree lore. Tolkien’s Ents, the gigantic “tree shepherds,” are my favorite of all his creations.

St. Nick and the Fir TreeTolkien was no tree-worshipping pagan, but a staunch and in many ways rather conservative Christian Roman Catholic in an England where Catholicism was still somewhat suspect. His reverence for trees is part of the Catholic reverence for the material world as a sacramental witness to the presence of God.

Trees arouse in us powerful feelings because of their size, their beauty, and their longevity: they are a locus for the sacred.

But for all their magnificence and might, trees in Tolkien’s world, as in ours, are tragically vulnerable to the ravages of human self-centeredness and human greed. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil wizard Saruman cuts them down in quantity to fuel the fires that stoke his schemes of domination. Treebeard, the head of the Ents, describes Saruman as incapable of appreciating nature’s beauty: the evil wizard “has a mind made of metal and wheels”.

Thus the vengeance of the Ents upon Saruman is a delight. What green tree-hugger hasn’t wished for an army of Ents to add a little muscle to the cause? Unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Lord of the Rings ends with the trees’ victory.

The Fir Tree of my story does not move in such exalted circles. In many ways “Saint Nick” channels my mother’s antic and rebellious spirit. Fir Tree is cheeky and eager for adventure, in personality more akin to the young hobbit Pippin than to the wise and stately Treebeard. Yet the stories of Tolkien and Andersen run somewhere in its sap, deep down in its treeish DNA.

What’s your favorite tree memory?
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“Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” in your choice of
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11 thoughts on “Trees, Christmas and Otherwise

  1. Tree’s, trees, thats who I am. I love trees, and have always loved the beauty of them. When my husband and I got married, he was transfered to a small indian town in Arizona. We could only locate one big huge tree in the whole town! We would go out to this big tree every Sunday, and just enjoy the hugeness and the beauty of this marvelous tree, and we sat in the shade of this lone tree, just soaking up the security of it. Every Sunday, the old tree seemed to call out to our spirits, and that is where we would go.


  2. My mom stopped getting cut trees for Christmas, getting instead live trees that could be planted in our yard. Loved the smell of pine needles.


  3. Melba, you sound like a kindred spirit! I love the story of your Sunday ritual visit to the big tree.

    Liz, that’s such a lovely tradition, planting live Christmas trees. Your mother’s yard must be tree paradise!


  4. I thought I was the only one who took off her glasses to see the tree lights become magical. For those moments, at least, my Christmas was a Christmas of my dreams.


  5. What a wonderful post (and I am sure a wonderful book)! I too totally adore trees. I am not sure what the BEST tree memory is but playing under my grandparents’ oak trees & picking pecans with them are tied for best with seeing one of the oldest oak trees in the U.S. on a friend’s property & photographing my father underneath it.


  6. My favorite memory is a classic—going out to a family friend’s farm with three generations of my family and cutting down a tree for Christmas. We did that for a number of years and it was always a most wonderful time.

    Thanks for sharing with us, Nancy 😉


  7. My favorite tree memory is when my granddaughter was about in second or third grade and came home with a little twig looking thing that she said was a tree and she went to the back yard and planted it and watered it and checked it every day. She is now 23 and the little twig is now a huge maple outside my bedroom window. I asked her if she wanted me to get Kevin (a neighbor) to help her dig the hole and she said “she didn’t need a man to help her plant her tree”.


  8. I worship Tolkien’s Ents, and also love the passage into Lothlorien. While I think the movie did a wonderful job in many ways, the Lothlorien trees looked too much like concrete. Ah well. I my real world, I’m very fond of Madrona trees. With their skin like bark, it seems they should have a myth to go with them.


  9. Pingback: Trees, Christmas and Otherwise | Saints and Trees

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