Monday, December 15, 2008

Evergreen in the Parlour

We had a fake tree for upwards of fifteen Christmases. We got it at a Garden Centre of all things, in a year when when the price of a real tree was close to a day's wages and the fake tree was only a bit more. We figured the fake tree, with its ten-year warranty, would work out to about $10 a year, and of course it lasted much longer than that. We got our money's worth. And the tree was reasonably realistic looking. And it collapsed neatly into the original box for easy storage.

But a couple of years ago, with toddler grandchildren learning new ways of wreaking havoc on our non-baby-proofed doodads, we opted to send the good old fake tree to Good Will. And we just didn't have a tree for Christmas. We decorated minimally, put some light on the outside of the house, what with the children being grown, it was a nice break from hectic Christmas preparation.

In the nearly twenty years since we last had a real tree, the tree industry has really brought the price of Christmas trees down to where one can hardly afford not to have one. IKEA sells them for $20 and gives you a $20 coupon for IKEA stuff. So this year we have a seven-foot balsam sitting in our great room, festooned with all the sentimental items we have accumulated over the thirty-three Christmases we have had as a family, like the gold-painted pine-cone two of our children each swear they made in grade three, and the lamb one of them made at age two in Sunday School with a roll of cotton bats and two black pipe-cleaners. There are also some pretty coloured spheres hanging from random branches, and some fake icicles made of lucite.

I had forgotten how nice a fresh evergreen smells. And the new-fangled LED lights look very festive.

The midwinter custom of bringing an evergreen goes back WAY before Martin Luther used it as an allegory for eternal life. The Norse decorated their houses with evergreens for the Solstice, as did the Romans, the Etruscans and, believe it or not, the Philistines, whom we now think of as the Phoenicians. It may be that these intrepid sailor-merchants spread the custom up the coast of the Iberian Peninsula to Denmark and points north. But they definitely observed the mid-winter with a domesticated pine tree.

See, their Goddess Astarte, or Ishtar, or Isis (also Semiramis) , was kind of a fickle lover. She flirted with a human named Attis who was so devastated by her failure to reciprocate his unconditional love that he committed suicide by self-castration, dying under the branches of a perfect pine tree. Ever after, priests of Cybele would, as a symbol of their celibacy, castrate themselves in a more sanitary manner and hang the removed organs on a pine tree. Kind of the prototypical festive nutcracker. In commemoration of this weird tradition, the Phoenicians would , give each other gifts as we do now, and decorate their festive evergreen with coloured round things.

I try not to think of that heart-warming story as I enjoy the tall, stately balsam next to my fire-place. I hope I can remember to water it during its sacrificial stay in my home.

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