It's Christmas, and time for my annual crisis of conscience: to have or not have a Christmas tree in the home.
For all of my adulthood I've had an uneasy relationship with this ritual. I don't like the idea of cutting a live tree for a silly, short-lived tradition. The reasoning behind that is two-fold: needless killing of an organism for frivolous use, and one less carbon dioxide-fixing arbour in an age of perilously accelerating deforestation. I furthermore detest the idea of tree farms — all that land and biomass wasted, all those chemicals and fertilizers required for quick growth languishing in the environment, and the ridiculous price of trees ($200 is not unusual on the streets of New York). And yet the whole holiday tree notion is part of our culture. What to do?
Over the years, solutions to this socio-cultural quandary (and the feelings they've engendered) have included: no tree (hollowness); substitute decorative objects (unsatisfying); decorating of a live, outdoor tree (not bad but impractical for anyone without a small conifer in their yard; plus, hard on decorations and useless for presents), use of some of the abundant pre-downed trees found around Whistler (not bad, but if they're already dead they more quickly become fire hazards), and cutting small trees under hydro lines and along roadsides where they'll be removed anyway (back to square one on the unease scale). I've never resorted to an artificial tree because, well, practical in addressing my concerns as it is, it just doesn't seem right and comes with all the environmental costs of manufacturing synthetic garbage.
For the past few years my partner and I have journeyed north in B.C. at Christmas to her childhood home in Quesnel, a town set in and surrounded by literally billions of trees. Finding a largish tree out on their rural property and bringing it into the family cabin is de rigeur on these visits. Like many modern families, they uphold only the occasional tradition, but one consistent yearly ritual is the cutting and hoisting of a tree on Christmas Eve day. Stories are told of past years (like the time they needed a tractor to drag one home because it was too heavy even for all of them to lift together) and the Griswold Effect of branches exploding outwards when the tree is finally pulled through the patio doors. They generally have trees over four metres high and her mother's La-Z-boy fits easily under the outspread lower branches. As my partner often notes, it's a mess, a distress for everyone involved and yet somehow... the magic of Christmas embodied.
Although happy to help in the process, my inner feelings forced me to put the tree question on the table. It was a good discussion.
One of Asta's sisters makes the point that she doesn't have her own tree, but likes to come and enjoy this one, raising the notion of a shared tree being not only more environmentally judicious but also important in bringing people together.
Another sister tells of having a tube of fir-scented lip balm and remarking to some young girls she was with that it smelled like a Christmas tree. They didn't understand what she meant since they'd only ever had an artificial tree. And there is, in fact, an argument to be made about the medicinal properties of real Christmas trees vs. plastic or metal ones. As any fan of air fresheners knows, conifers give off substances (phenols, actually) that we are hard-wired to enjoy. We're genetically programmed for these substances to have a measurable calming effect on our brains. Spending time in forests is good for us; getting a little hit of that tonic at home for a couple weeks is not only fortuitous during the sharing season, but also a healthy reminder of the need to spend more time outdoors.
Finally, her mother notes that they actually make post-Christmas use of the tree, cutting it into sections for the wood-fired furnace that heats their log cabin.
So out we went into the snowy forest, trying to follow moose tracks but then wading up to our belly-buttons in the metre-and-a-half snowpack. Soon enough we found a requisite, somewhat symmetrical fir of proper height and bushiness. We made sure it was part of a small copse of the same species, surrounded closely by young 'uns that would grow to take its place. I apologized and we all offered thanks. We cut it down and wrestled it to the road, then dragged it back to the house, conquest complete.
It was pulled up into position that night, held upright by taut wires stretching to a balcony banister, the whole family taking part in decorating it in hand-cut snowflakes, ornaments, large beads and a string of small Finnish flags. It looks awesome.
I still don't know what I think about cutting Christmas trees, but it sure smells good. Good enough to make me feel OK about it.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.