The Memory of Trees

Yes, I stole that title from an Enya song. It’s on her album The Best of Enya, which is great, but my favorite CD of hers is still The Celts. Anyway, it makes an appropriate title for this post.

I’ve heard many of my fellow Lutherans claim that Dr. Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree. That would seem a difficult assertion to “prove,” as I suspect the practice of dragging green, branchy things indoors to use as decorations and/or symbols has been around since we had an “indoors.” But what is probably true is that Dr. Luther popularized the custom of bringing in an evergreen tree and tying lit candles to the branches, thus delighting every child and worrying every adult who saw it.

When everybody started doing it, Dr. Luther had to go into hiding in the Wartburg (a big, drafty castle well-stocked with pens, ink, and paper), where he wasn’t allowed to play with hatchets, saws, or matches, and where he settled down at last and translated the Bible into a vernacular that clued the common people in to what those priests were going on about in Latin, and to what those stories encoded in the stained-glass windows were all about.

So all was well that ended well: Germany didn’t burn down in the late Middle Ages, and Luther’s writings survived, and so did the custom of Christmas trees.

Dr. Luther wasn’t really bent on deforesting the countryside. His focus was on how, since evergreen trees maintain their life in a barren, wintry land (until you hew them down, of course), they make good symbols for Christian truth: that in Christ, God sent a Savior into the world; that through faith in Christ, even though we must pass once through the gate of mortality, we can have eternal life. (Hmm . . . I guess hewing down the tree once is part of the symbolism, after all!) At the top of the tree is the Christmas star, which leads the way to Bethlehem.

That star has always been one of my favorite parts of the Christmas accounts. Think of the wonder of it: an event so significant that it was marked by the appearance of a new star in the sky . . . a celestial light that moved ahead of the wise men, and stopped above the house where the child was. I don’t know whether the wise men simply headed in the direction of a distant star to the west of them, or whether it was a close and large enough light source that they physically followed it and saw it stop and hover above a particular house. The point is, it was something that had never happened before; they recognized its significance, and it led them to what they were seeking.

I love the fact that those called to Bethlehem, those afforded a glimpse of the newborn King, were the truly humble and the truly wise. Shepherds — the bluest of blue-collar workers, the simplest of folk who “knew nothing” and “had nothing,” responding to a host of angels . . . and then the far-off scholars with no other agenda — the pure scientists, with their noses in books and their eyes on the sky, earnestly poring over the sum of previous knowledge and watching the world to see what happened.

Isn’t it interesting that the paths of shepherds and scholars converged on the same house, the “House of Bread”? We who know nothing, and simply labor to survive . . . we who know what can be known . . . we are all beggars.

The one who feared and hated the star and what it meant was King Herod, who if he’d been king during the Second Age of Middle-earth, would almost certainly have become one of the ring-wraiths — the nine kings of Men who, “above all else, desire power.”

But anyway, back to the point!

(Sorry, one more quick story first, speaking of Luther: years ago in Taylorville, I knew a very old Pentecostal lady, who for a long time had lived across the street from my Grandma Emma. One day I happened to tell the lady, “We’re doing a play at our church. I’m playing the part of Dr. Martin Luther!” She blinked a few times and said, “You’re going to play a black man?”)

Now to the point! I was intending to talk here about memories of Christmas trees. (This may spark some good discussion — but whatever you do, keep those candles away from the curtains!)

First, one of my earliest memories of a Christmas tree is a memory of fear. (Why are so many of the things I love rooted in abject horror? Hmm. . . . Hallowe’en, Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, books, pens, office supplies — the fear is there, if only one looks for it.) It was in some department store. In my dim recollection, rounded and polished by the sands of time, I was temporarily separated from my mom, but that’s probably an embellishment — maybe she was looking in another direction or something. Anyway, I found myself “alone” with a towering Christmas tree all of white plastic — glaring white plastic branches, white needles — it was more like a thing of dead coral than a tree — or like some huge formation of frost. And smack in the center of the tree was a face: bulging eyes, maybe a nose, and for sure, a red, red mouth. It was like a clown’s mouth [shudder!] — thick-lipped and pliable. The mouth twisted and moved, and the eyes moved, and a voice (probably tape-recorded) emanated from inside the tree. I screamed and ran back to my mom. Even now, I shiver to recall the redness of that mouth in the midst of the pristine white tree . . . the staring eyes . . . the voice, laughing and beckoning me closer. . . . That tree put the fear of Christmas into me, for sure.

Whew! On to happier memories: Grandma Emma had a tree that everyone laughed at, everyone agreed was pretty pathetic, but we all loved it. My Uncle Art said it best: it looked like Charlie Brown’s scraggly little Christmas tree.

First of all, it was kept in an unused front bedroom, the newest part of the house, that was separate from the rest. Grandma kept the registers in that room closed and rugs tucked under the door, so that no heat was wasted on an unoccupied room. That room always scared me — fear again — partly because of the fierce coldness of it, partly because it had a big bed that was always made, with sheets and blankets and covers and pillows, but never used — a room eternally waiting for someone. But mostly it was scary because of the three-paned mirror on the dresser. Boy, did that mirror terrify me! When I’d venture into that room, the icy cold taking hold of me, I could see three images of myself at once, each from a slightly different angle, and I’d hear myself think “Three Freddys,” which phrase somehow scared me even more.

The little tree was kept in a white cardboard box in a big closet at the very extremity of that room. I think it was my Uncle Art who described the annual tree-getting ritual as “going to the Cold Clothes Closet to Get the Creepy Christmas Tree.”

Back in the warmth of the main house, the tree seemed normal-sized to me as a small child, but I think it must have only been about as big as a bush. But Grandma had it up on a little table, so it was tall enough. It was green and shaggy, with needles sort of like green fur. I’m sure whoever designed it was proud of him/herself for the innovation of convenience: you didn’t have to assemble anything. The branches were attached to the trunk and folded up against it. When you took it out of its box, you just had to pull each branch down to the angle you wanted, and twist them a little into the shapes you wanted. I suppose this had been done so many times that they were all bent and crooked and tired. There were certain areas on the tree where there were too few branches, no matter how you rearranged them. You could spend all the time you wanted, but the tree always came out looking like a green, lopsided tumbleweed. And the biggie: it could never, ever stand up by  itself. We always had to tie strings to it like guy wires. One ran from the trunk to the window-latch. One ran to a bookcase. There were at least three strings, so now it was like a green tumbleweed caught in a web. And you didn’t want to get too rambunctious around it, because it was all very precarious.

Then Grandma would open the boxes of decorations and lights. As I look back, I think she probably had lights on there that were designed for all-weather outdoor use. They seriously overburdened that tree — and probably the wiring of the house. Now and then a bulb would explode with a pop and a sizzle, and we’d usually blow a fuse before the day was done. But out of the boxes came ornaments like treasures — delicate bulbs and figurines of glass — angels and wise men, spikes, snowmen, and colorful Father Christmases that were far older than Santa Claus — definitely old-world, with their fur-lined robes of blue and gold and green. The most wondrous of these ornaments were from Germany: I’m not clear on whether Mom brought them back when she was there, or whether my great-grandparents had brought them over on the boat. (I’m guessing Mom.) To set on the piano were straw-basket figurines of Saint Nicholas and his diabolic counterpart, the long-tongued, red-skinned Krampus, who accompanied St. Nick and left lumps of coal in the stockings of children who Hadn’t Been Good.

In all its finery, tinsel and lights and several lifetimes’ accumulation of ornaments — decorated over several hours by Grandma and me — the tree was no longer pathetic. Well, it was, but it wasn’t. It was like us, like the shepherds, like the wise men — beggars from the dark depths of the Cold Clothes Closet, now Clothed in Christ. It became the center of many a loving, joyous Christmas celebration. For my cousins and me, I’m sure that will always be The tree — the one Christmas tree that stands out in our memories as having been the most magical.

Oh, there were good ones at our house, too. I remember plenty of three different kinds of tree options. We had an artificial one, too, that came up from the basement in a box. It was also green, and the branches for it had little splashes of different-colored paint at their bases which corresponded to little splashes of paint on the trunk. So, for example, brown-coded branches were the longest, followed by black, etc. There was always a dead, mummified mouse somewhere in the box — invariably. I don’t remember a time when we opened that box that there wasn’t exactly one dead mouse included. (It wasn’t the same mouse; we removed it each time.) I suppose the mice in our house had a council each summer to choose the volunteer from among their sick and elderly.

But then, we also had quite a few real trees, selected from Christmas tree sales lots run by the Boy Scouts.

And then later in my childhood, my parents discovered the best option of all: getting a live, potted tree which could be planted outdoors after the holidays. We did this for enough years that there’s now an evergreen hedgerow along one edge of the yard.

Our trees, too, had lots of colored lights of different sizes that popped and smelled hot and blew fuses; and we also had some of the German ornaments. What I remember most about our trees was that I loved to crawl into the space behind them, hidden between the tree, the wall, and the bookcase, as if I were hidden in a real forest, and I would gaze into the glowing caverns among the branches. Those spaces, viewed up close, became magical worlds, illuminated by the winking lights and the glinting bulbs, angels, and tin soldiers. The worlds were green and aromatic, populated by fairies, saints, living snowmen. . . .

I remember, too, times when we’d turn off all the lights except those on the Christmas tree, and we’d admire it for a long while, that radiant tree in the warm, dark hush of the house.

Finally, there was the great tree in the chapel at Concordia College. As a chapel assistant, I always got in on helping to put it up, on an evening at the start of Advent. I think the call was open to the entire campus — anyone interested could come and help set it up, and it was a major task. The tree was about 20 feet tall in my memory (which probably means it was about 15), and its trunk came in two sections which fit together none too snugly — there was some wobble and play, which again made the operation precarious.

It also had branches which fit into holes. Consider the physics of such a tree: branches at the top of an evergreen are shorter, right? And you can’t assemble such a tree if it’s lying down, because one side would come out squashed. And if you start putting in branches at the bottom, you can’t get a ladder close enough to put in the ones at the top. So the only way to do it is to stand up the entire trunk, get it firmly fixed in the holder, and then start putting in branches from the top down.

I remember one year in particular — probably the first year I helped with it, because Pastor Tom Acton was still there as campus pastor. A dozen or so of us were helping — organizing branches into piles, untangling light strings, etc. Pastor Acton didn’t like heights, and I loved them, so he let me be the ladder man. (In Japan, there’s an old saying: “Monkeys and fools like high places.”) We’d stick in branches as the trunk wobbled dangerously, bending in the middle. People were sent to the back of the chapel to assess the overall shape, to tell us where the holes were. I remember the tree toppling over when we had it about half done, and one side got squashed flat, and we had to take most of the branches out and start over.

And while we could still get the ladder in close, before the bigger branches were in, we also had to start stringing on the tiny white lights. From the very top of the ladder, I still couldn’t reach the top of the tree to hang the lights, until Pastor Acton came up with a solution: “Bring him a taper,” he said. (A taper is that instrument acolytes use for lighting candles. It has a wooden handle, and the brass top of it forks like a capital upsilon: one branch has a cup for extinguishing candles, and the other has a thin candle housed in a tube — the candle can be paid out like a pencil lead as it burns down, and it’s used for lighting other candles. Anyway, it also works well for lifting a string of Christmas lights to tree branches over one’s head.)

The morning after we set up that enormous, hardly-stable tree, the college president was scheduled to give the homily in chapel, and when he wasn’t in the pulpit, he was sitting right at the base of the trunk; every so often he’d brush against one of the branches. All we who’d been there to help erect it kept eyeing the tree nervously, watching the subtle quivering of its needles, wondering if President Krentz were about to be buried under a ton of artificial greenery. (His guardian angels were on duty, and he lived to serve out his entire presidency in good health.)

And those are my memories of Christmas trees. Do you have any good Christmas tree stories to tell? Were there trees that horrified or delighted you? Trees that were particularly problematic or particularly wonderful? What are your memories of trees?

If I don’t get another chance to say it before the 25th: to all of you, a very merry and blessed Christmas!

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16 Responses to “The Memory of Trees”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    I remember my grandfather, when he was alive, had a great train set and matching small houses to go with it. He always set up his town and train around the base of the tree. At night, the houses had lights, too, and so would be lit up under the tree for great effect.

    In the month before Christmas, when we would go to my grandparents for Sunday dinner, I would crouch down on my knees and he would run the train. It made a terrific noise, and there was always the accompanying smell of warm metal accompanying it as the train chugged through its little artificial town. The tree always towered high above it, of course, and its bottom branches made a kind of strange, green bower when I laid my head down next to the tracks.

  2. Jedibabe Says:

    As usual, great post, Fred! I too had a terrifying experience with the “talking” Christmas tree at the mall as a child. It was clown-like and instilled the “fear of Christmas” into me as well.

    My family always had fun hunting down our Christmas trees from the San Diego Christmas tree lots. My Mom was fond of tall, flocked trees “with plenty of space for the decorations”, while my Dad preferred the plump “gumdrop” variety, sans flocking, which meant that we had to start off the season with a good holiday argument as to what sort of tree to buy.

    I remember one year when we had just bought a beautiful new home with a large living room with a high cathedral ceiling and the entire front of the room was glass all the way up. We brought home a green 12-foot tree that was magical once glittering with all the antique glass ornaments plus the homemade felt and sequin variety my grandmother enjoyed gifting us with. It was so much fun, before there was any gifts under the tree to lie on my back and stare up into it’s well lit limbs! While all these memories were great, they aren’t why I remember this tree so well.

    Once Christmas was over my Dad had this idea that the tree would make excellent fire wood. He must have cut it down some to fit it in, but I remember him stuffing the entire tree up the chimney! It did make a roaring good fire, but when the flames began to shoot out of the chimney, the neighbors called the fire department and mostly I remember the scene that tree left behind! No, our house didn’t burn down (we must have a had a guardian angel or five watching over us!) but it sure helped us get to know our new neighbors. I can still remember those flames shooting out of the chimney; what a sight!

  3. I have fond memories Says:

    … of the trees we used to have as a child. I always enjoyed the tree my mother’s parents always had, and, once my parents divorced, we went from a ‘real’ tree (Dad’s insistence) to a 7-ft fake one.

    What made the tree for me was the ornaments. I still have the baby-blue felt snare drum and green-silver-red tin bell that were given to me on my first Christmas and the Christmas Mouse that sat under the tree is also in my possession.

    I don’t care who you are: everyone thinks THEIR childhood tree was the best. I am sure everyone reading this blog had wonderful trees, but compared to mine they sucked. And mine sucked compared to yours — that is just how it is.

    I happened to visit the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago on Fri. Nov, 20 this year, the very day they opened their annual “Christmas Around the World” exhibit. This enormous display fills the main area of the first floor with several dozen 20-25ft trees decorated in the fashion of various countries. It was great to see how differently the trees are decorated around the world. Though my own ancestry is 95 percent English, it was the Danish and Swiss trees I enjoyed the most. If you ever get a chance to visit MSI and see their yearly set up please do so!

    I extend my warmest Christmas wishes to Fred and all the readers of this blog, even that rotten atheist Chris (ha ha ha), whose name, incidentally …

    May we all have the grace to follow Blessed Mary in saying ‘yes’ to God at every opportunity. May we all rejoice in the birth of Our Savior. May we all receive his eternal love and mercy and may the comfort of knowing he awaits us fill our souls with joy …

  4. Eunice Says:

    If you ask Catholics who began the Christmas tree, they might tell you it was St. Boniface (who did like to cut down trees!) Many people today will tell you the Christmas tree is pagan or pre-Christian in origin. And of course we Lutherans like to credit Martin Luther.

    I think the truth is a lot more interesting. The Christmas tree did start in Germany, and its origin was the Paradise Tree of one of the most popular medieval mystery plays of the year–the story of Adam and Eve, performed on December 24th. The tree used in this play was a fir tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was hung with apples. Later the tree apparently did double duty as also the Tree of Life, and was also hung with with communion wafers.

    When mystery plays were suppressed because abuses had crept in, people brought the beloved Paradise tree into their homes, replacing communion wafers with sweet pastries. German people already had Christmas pyramids (my grandmother revived this custom late in life as a simple alternative to a Christmas tree which she no longer had energy for.) Christmas pyramids were pyramids of candles, tinsel, colored balls, and evergreen twigs with a large, ornate Christ candle at the top. Eventually the Christmas pyramid merged with the Paradise tree, and that became the Christmas tree.

    My mother still remembers German Lutheran churches in rural Minnesota with twin trees for Christmas–one with apples and red bows and the other with white bows and gold balls. It’s easy to see how this harks back to the Paradise tree idea.

    In wintry climes, it was common for both Christians and pagans to bring evergreen trees and branches into their homes in the dead of winter to remind themselves that life continues through winter and that spring would come again. In some parts of rural Europe, even in fairly recent times, an unadorned Yule tree might stand side by side with the Christmas tree, each symbolizing something very different and very beautiful. Christians needn’t apologize for embracing the hope of spring and returning life, along with faith in Christ and in eternal life. This symbolism has often been made part of the Christmas tree. However, the Christmas tree itself is totally Christian in origin and meaning.

  5. I have fond memories Says:

    Eunice, Thanks for your post. As a Catholic, I can recall being told it was St. Boniface who started the tradition, though St. Stanislov is sometimes given credit for the idea of a Christmas wreath/advent candles. And, of course, Nicholas has been considered a saint by the Church since shortly after his death, though he was not immediatley identified with and kind of Christmas celebration.

    Fred: You refer to Herr Luther as “Dr. Martin Luther.” I am 43 years old, and this marked the first time in my life that I have seen or heard the former Augustinian monk and passionate Marian devotee (he wrote more about the Blessed Mother than on any other subject) referred to as “Doctor” Martin Luther. Is that how he is commonly referred to in Lutheran academic circles?

    I attended (and greatly enjoyed) as series of seminars hosted by the Diocese of Des Moines in the fall of 2008 on the major players on the Protestant side of the Reformation and even then he was called “Martin Luther.” Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley and many others were discussed in great detail. The non-catholic readers of this blog will be happy to hear that none of them were trashed, denigrated or otherwise treated negatively, though during question/answer and class comment time some of the conversation by attendees became rather heated.

    I am saddened we are not all one; but, as Jesus prays in John 17, one day we all will be again, and when we are, the things that have separated us will no longer matter.

    So, to all of you: Merry Christmas, and may those of you traveling have a safe journey to and from your destinations!

    • Chris Says:

      Fond Memories,
      One of the coolest sites I’ve ever found on the Intarwebs is the “Catholic Encyclopedia” (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/) which I think is not just the digitization of the 1920’s era Encyclopedia but may have newer info as well. But I still like the parts that are “older”.

      Obviously I’m not a Catholic but it is an invaluable source of religious information and Catholic history! I often thought about seeing if I could find a copy of the original Encyclopedia in actual print. (Right now all I’ve got is Bokenkotter’s “History of the Catholic Church”).

      I have a friend who teaches philosophy at university and he used to tell me he’d consider converting to Catholicism if they only went back to the Latin Mass!

  6. SwordLily Says:

    Ah Christmas trees.

    My family has a fat, old, tree, baring at the branch tips. It’s a dusty job lugging it to the living room in the beginning of December. Ever year, when the prickly job of bending out the branches and stringing the lights and garlands is done I wonder why I’m doing this in the first place.
    Than we bring in the dusty boxes of decorations. Notice the multiple uses of the word dust. To me Christmas smells like dust and candle wax. A smell that always makes me smile.
    The ornaments are the fun part. After a whole year I’m never prepared for the thrill of seeing all the unique and memorable decoration my family has collected. We have everything from intricately done metalwork angels to plastic santas creatively decorated by some apparently color blind child.
    Once the excited turmoil of decorating the tree is over it’s time to put up the star. Sometimes we even wait till the night to put up the star so everyone can be there. We have a small golden star that we attach to the highest branch and underneath it sits an angel, her arms spread in a blessing of goodwill and cheer.
    Even more than singing carols, eating good food, or even opening presents on the big morning my favorite part of the Christmas season is sitting in the dark living room late at night and watching the colored lights of the tree twinkle off the garlands and the decorations. That light makes everything worth it. In it I can imagine the Christmas spirit is contained.

  7. Catherine Says:

    Fred, I always wondered why Luther was locked up in that castle! I wonder why they didn’t mention that in the latest biography. Actually, I think it would have made a great addition to the movie that came out a little while ago . . .

    Well, today we just got our tree up (we always wait until Christmas Eve) and it’s pretty normal. Really small, lots of ornaments, lots of lights . . .

    For two years we were living in a place where there really were no Christmas trees. There were artificial ones, but my parents didn’t think it was worth buying one to be used only twice. So I made one out of green poster board. I taped coins to it to make it glitter and made toilet-paper garlands. It really, REALLY looked like the trees in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I hated it but my family liked it immensely. The second year I demanded a nice professional artificial tree for my December birthday. My parents agreed and I liked that one much better. My father gave me an ornament shopping spree. Most of the ornaments I gave away, but I still have a few and just hung them up today!

    There’s one other anecdote about those Christmases. The second year I gathered a lot of pine branches and my friend asked me what I was doing. I said: “I’m decorating for Christmas. I’ll put these on my TV.” She gave me a look like I was nuts. “It doesn’t work,” I added. And it didn’t. I taped snowflakes to the blank, black screen. It was really beautiful. (If I do say so myself . . .)

    My grandmother always has a huge tree, and every branch is laden with ornaments. There’s always some concern as to whether all the ornaments will stay on the tree, since the cat likes to explore, the tree has to be held up with too many guidewires, and several trees (including this years’) have displayed an odd tendency to “throw” the ornaments back at us. Last year the tree fell and crushed an antique, heirloom apple-core ornament (yes, Mother dear, harking back to the days of the mystery-play trees). My aunt was really upset about that. So a few days before Christmas my mother kept fought someone on E-Bay, for an exact duplicate. She got it. We wrapped it up for my aunt. I had the camera ready on Christmas day to catch her look of joy and incredulity. I took the picture just as she was looking joyous and incredulous, but somehow the picture turned out looking as though she were looking at the new-old apple core in disgust!

    Merry and blessed Christmas, all of you!

    P.S. Despite being a devout Lutheran I’ve always liked the St. Boniface version of the story better than the Martin Luther one myself . . .

    P.P.S. To the best of my knowledge, Luther received a doctorate at some point in his career, before he nailed up the 95 Theses. I know that I’ve often referred to him as Dr. Luther . . .

  8. Lizzie Says:

    Merry Christmas, Fred.

  9. Chris Says:

    Ahhh, Martin Luther. I find him to be absolutely fascinating. I feel, in some small way, akin to Luther as a fellow sufferer of “scrupulosity” (google it). However scrupulosity worked out quite different for Marty and me. While it may have factored into his revolution in Christian faith it only served to help destroy mine.

    I find Luther interesting from a theological point of view as well. To effectively re-work soteriology (hope I got that word right) into an amazing form of justification by faith and a renewed focus on “grace” as opposed to “works” in response, really a neat way of reworking a religion. But I am woefully shy of full knowledge of Luther’s theology.

    But sadly, only a few years ago, I started hearing about the dark side of Luther. His vicious antisemitic writings kind of turn my stomach, make it hard to understand an intellect that could stray to that dark passage.

    It does, however, help me understand that, indeed, there are few if any truly holy men out there. What’s the phrase? “Golden idol with feet of clay”?

    (Sorry to drift there. Merry Christmas!)

    • mileposter Says:

      I, too, am disgusted by Luther’s vicious antisemitic writings. It’s a chilling embodiment of Luther’s own phrase: simul justus et peccator (at the same time justified and a sinner). As Scripture tells us, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23) St. Paul, murderer of early Christians, had to wrestle with this: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Paul’s conclusion? “Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)

      • Chris Says:

        While I am no longer a Christian I actually do appreciate the importance of Grace and that the first step toward that is to realize that none of us are “deserving” of salvation.

        It fits well with my own sense of personal responsibility and my own hopes of bettering myself so I might be a better person. At least more deserving of the kindness of others than I often show.

        To that end I do also value “works” since I can think of no other way to prove (to myself) that I am a worthy person than to attempt to overcome my “lesser nature” and strive to be better. Knowing all along I will probably fail and always keeping in mind that my fellow people will be in the same boat.

  10. mileposter Says:

    I’d love to go on about memories of Christmas trees–perhaps I’ll just say that I started putting up my own tree in my room at home when I was in high school. Yes, it was a real tree.

    But the thought that struck me right away when I read Fred’s post was the Lenten cross at St. Matthew, where I taught for 21 years. You see, the cross was made from the trunks of Christmas trees. I don’t know whose idea that was, and neither did anyone else by that time (the cross had been around for many years), but I thought it was especially appropriate.

    • Catherine Says:

      Our family has always taken a bit from our Christmas tree the day it goes down and set it on display. Come Lent, we hang a miniature crown of thorns on it; come Good Friday we veil it in black; come Easter we take off veil and crown and bedeck it in flowers.

      I don’t know where my mother got the idea, but I love it . . .

  11. Eunice Says:

    Now that I got my pretentiously scholarly post out of the way, I really ought to talk about the 88 cent trees we used to buy when I was growing up. They were the scrubs of the lot, sparse and asymmetrical, but by the time we got them decorated, they were so beautiful I wouldn’t have traded them for anything!

    Later, we discovered an even better price–free! Douglas fir grow wild in the Pacific Northwest, and we used to just cut down scrubby “weeds” in the nearby empty lots. It probably wasn’t legal, but we never got into any kind of trouble for it.

    THEN, we started growing our own trees in our large backyard (and that’s still where my mother gets her trees!) On this day when some people traditionally take down their trees (I wait till January 6th–Epiphany) I remember going to the same empty lots with my dad and digging up small Douglas fir “weeds,” bringing them home, and nurturing them to be our future Christmas trees. Again, it probably wasn’t legal. My dad was a respected community college teacher in the area, and once he and I ran into one of his students as we were pilfering Douglas fir shoots. After exchanging pleasantries, the student asked what we were doing. “Oh, just going for a walk.”

    Sure . . . with a large spade and a large garbage bag! We always walk through the empty lots with large spades and garbage bags!

  12. I have fond memories Says:

    I do not understand all the hang up from my non-catholic friends about the Church’s teaching on “works.” Few things about authentic Catholic teaching are more misunderstood by non-catholics …

    The Church emphatically, from her beginnings, has insisted that man is saved by grace alone. Period.
    But she also points to the active work of Christ, and to James (a book Luther wished to kick out of the 1,200-year old canon as having “no little Jewish vice” and which he called “an epistle of straw”). I refer you in particular to James chapter 2 and to the stunning words of Luther himself, who admitted he deliberately added the word ‘alone’ to Romans 3:28 — “If your papist tells you the word ‘alone’ is not in the most ancient manuscripts tell him you are well aware of it. If he asks you why it should now be included, tell him ‘because Doctor Luther will have it so’ and that is enough.”
    Grace impels us to be active in our faith; and, as St. Paul warns us, we CAN lose our salvation.

    And, Chris, as for the Latin Mass: Amen, brother. It is clear I am a ‘church militant’ guy and would love the Latin Mass returned. St. Anthony’s in Des Moines holds a John XXIII mass every other Sunday at 8:30 a.m. and attendance is climbing to the point where they may have to move it to the Basillica of St. John. Hooray!
    In this, and in his other moves many liberal cathlolics decry as ‘stepping backwards’ I am fully behind Benedict XVI. His publicly stated approach is that, if a move to the center of the theological bullseye costs the church a quarter of her membership she will eventually gain even more members as being ‘true’ will, in the long run, attract increased numbers.
    (There is a brewing fight among many in the U.S. church — and my own parish is caught in it — over those who want what is called a ‘lighthouse’ church and those who want a ‘fortress’ church. Guess where I am?) ha ha

    May God bless us all. May the love and mercy of His Son and the consolation of the most Holy Spirit unite us all in the face of the enemy, who delights in our disunion …

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