Life and death in a Christmas tree

“Little full,” says Clark Griswold (pictured) as the untethered branches of the family Christmas tree smash the windows of his living room; “lot of sap.” Soon the tree is ignited by a rogue cigar—though not before a cat has been electrocuted by its lights. A squirrel jumps out of the replacement tree, running amok and making a grandmother faint.

There is a lot of wisdom in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, not least about Christmas trees. Bringing the country into the home, they are a topsy-turvy symbol of the carnivalesque holiday—when work is suspended, adults act like children, and everyone eats and drinks too much while pretending to get along. At the same time the Christmas tree suggests the reverse: not chaos but order, the taming of the outside world, the safety of domesticity. Think of the providential Christmas-tree bauble in which Macaulay Culkin spies the reflection of the burglars in “Home Alone”.

The Christmas tree is at once rudimentary and magical. Its genius lies in a simple trick of out-of-placeness—a tree in the house!—combined with an inviting blankness. To find meaning in a tree, you must suspend disbelief; and once you do, it can, like many popular rituals, mean whatever you want it to. The spruce donated every year by Oslo to London, and displayed in Trafalgar Square, conveys gratitude for wartime solidarity. America’s first “National Christmas Tree”, illuminated by Calvin Coolidge in Washington in 1923, was a token of progress and advertisement for electric power. This flexibility has helped the Christmas tree conquer even non-Christian parts of the world—making it, in turn, an emblem of globalisation.

Its branches are hung with myths: that in the eighth century St Boniface felled an oak to disrupt a human sacrifice, a Christmas fir rising in its place; or that, awed by the stars, Martin Luther first adorned a Christmas tree with candles. As Judith Flanders explains in “Christmas: A History”, the concept probably derived from the “paradise tree” that appeared in medieval plays, springing into life of its own in 15th-century Germany, adopted first by guilds, then toffs and finally the masses. German immigrants transplanted the tree to America, albeit probably not the Hessian mercenaries who fought for the crown in the revolutionary war. Legend has it that they were too busy decorating their trees to stop George Washington crossing the Delaware in 1776.

Private myths encircle individual trees like the rings inside a trunk. Each is a tribute to past, sometimes forgotten times (where did that toucan ornament come from?) and a bridge between now and then. Observing one in “The Christmas Tree”, Charles Dickens reflected on “the branches of the Christmas Tree of our own young Christmas days, by which we climbed to real life”. Amid the foliage “Christmas associations cluster thick”, Dickens wrote, including “the softened music in the night, ever unalterable”.

Amid all the subjectivity, though, some meanings are inescapable. Like the evergreen boughs used in Druid, Roman and Egyptian rites, the Christmas tree connotes rebirth and fertility. When, in “Christmas Tree”, Lady Gaga sang “Light me up, put me on top” and “My Christmas tree’s delicious”, she was only making this link explicit. But often the regeneration is less literal. First erected in the early 1930s, the tree at Rockefeller Centre in New York became a sign of hope amid the Depression. Jimmy Stewart and his family stand beside their Christmas tree at the rapturous climax of “It’s A Wonderful Life”. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”, says his daughter as an ornament on the tree tinkles.

Yet a tension runs through stories and songs about the Christmas tree—over whether or not it wants to be one. Stevie Wonder’s “One Little Christmas Tree” is “standing alone/waiting for someone to come by” and take it home. But other, illusionless bards know what happens after a tree is uprooted. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Fir-Tree” winds up broken and burned. In season three of “Friends”, Phoebe bemoans “innocent trees being cut down in their prime and their corpses grotesquely dressed in, like, tinsel and twinkly lights”.

Even as they symbolise eternal life, Christmas trees are ornaments at their own funerals. The shedding of their needles is a countdown to the end of the holiday, the expiry of the magic that turned a tree into something more, and—especially in a time of climate emergency—the end of other things besides. “Time is always the boss,” crooned Bulat Okudzhava, a Soviet chanteur, in his song about a yolka, the New Year tree that supplanted the Christmas kind in the Soviet Union. “In haste you’re taken down from the cross/And there will be no resurrection.” Happy Christmas!

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