When I was a kid in the city (of course, I never was a kid in the city, but 24 looks sufficiently childlike at this remove, when I thought I was an adult but I was living instead in that netherworld between youth and adulthood, walking a swaying bridge between the two), I always celebrated my birthday the same way. I gave myself a tree.
Out I would venture in the dark to some otherwise barren quarter of Hoboken, where a December tree seller had set up shop on a street corner. The trees had appeared in the nighttime bringing with them the scent of elsewhere, the perfume of a place I called nature. Breathe deep; close the eyes. The animals of the woodland creep closer. Inhale the piney freedom. Then open the eyes. Hoboken's wildlife--rats, chihuahuas on leash, and teenage boys bearing boomboxes as big as steamer trunks on their shoulders--reappears. Oh well.
Inside my railroad flat the tree would unleash its smell, and I would get busy decorating. Some of the ornaments had been made by friends, and delivered to a tree-trimming party that was probably the smallest gathering the world has ever known, as my apartment was something like two hundred square feet. The tree--even the smallest one I could find, from the $15 rack--now occupied one-fourth of the available real estate.
No matter. I proudly, happily, placed dead center my favorite friend-made ornament: the logo from a Ritz cracker box, a bit of red yarn glued to it, and to that a small caption: "Robert Venturi is God!" Can you guess the profession of its maker? Three and two don't count. Yes, architect.
Oh, and the other tree-trimming tradition: "Messiah" pouring from the stereo. Good thing I was alone, because I sang along. Always. Loudly.
Christmas trees date back some five hundred years, to eastern Europe. At first, people would sing around a tree in the public square, then light it on fire. Later, this would sometimes happen in people's living rooms, as evergreens were decorated with live candles. But that almost seemed worth the danger to me; although I only ever got as far as white mini-bulbs, I envied the few friends who braved the risk for an incomparable, transporting vision of a green tree alight with dancing flames.
My tree this year, as ever since I moved here, comes from the advancing woods retaking the open fields. A giveback, then. And even more of one to me, since all this land is now owned by New York City. I'm sure they wouldn't mind, right? The tree is always lopsided, having grown toward the sun on its own terms, with two crowns.
We just finished reading a book on the Christmas truce of 1914, my boy and me. What a cheering, and depressing, story. The former, because it proves that when we come to know one another as men, as friends, we no longer wish to kill. The "enemy" is destroyed, when he is no longer the vilified unknown, when he is just like you--sick and tired of senseless slaughter. And it is the latter, because in the true story, the officers outlawed friendship. Finally, after months of pressure later, the men were convinced to kill again. The enemy was restored.
But for a brief while, lighted trees stood on the ground of No Man's Land, bringing peace.