Christmas Without a Big Christmas Tree?

This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

ChicagoNow Dirt on Green blogger Mark Boyer asked today whether environmental consequences matter when choosing a Christmas tree. We may kill the environment by choosing PVC-laden artificial trees instead of real ones. But my primary Christmas concern has always been whether my annual tree is so tall that it might kill me.

Boyer says he chooses a real tree every year, since Christmas-tree farming is a sustainable practice. I’ve had real trees before. The Blue Spruce that smelled like cat pee in 2005. The droopy balsam that sat sad and tired in my first Logan Square apartment in 2003. The pricey Fraser fir in Brooklyn that shriveled up the moment I watered it in 1998. Green concerns are fine, but the record shows a green thumb I don’t have.

Last week, freelance writer/blogger Dawn Reiss (@dawnreiss) posted about her recent Christmas tree experience. As the photo atop this entry shows, like me, Reiss loves her a big Christmas tree. Her roommate is Muslim, and the tree did not go up without cross-faith consultation and agreement between the two. That’s the way to do it. Back in NYC, very little squabbling goes on among adherents of different faiths about holiday traditions. Speaking as an albeit-ex New Yorker, this time of year Gothamites just respect and learn from each other, and then we get on with the festivities.

I’ve never understood the season-long eggshells that the rest of the country walks on during December. Remember the 2005 nadir, when retailers refused to even use the word “Christmas,” marketing pre-lit “holiday trees” instead? I’m glad at least people aren’t afraid to say the word anymore.

Rumor has it that the country is experiencing a Christmas light shortage this year. I don’t doubt it. We were all so full of fear last December and it showed. My annual trip to the far northwest Sauganash neighborhood turned up few illuminated houses. I guess this year people are hoping for a better-remunerative 2010. Lucky I bought my tree lights new last Christmas or I might be out of luck. My tree this year is decidedly not trial-sized.

This week I came across an article from the Oregonian claiming that “bigger is not always better” when it comes to Christmas trees. Those hopelessly progessive northwestern do-gooders are telling people to buy little trees to save the environment and plant in your backyard. To each his or her own, I guess. If you celebrate Christmas, as an adult you gravitate towards the trees that remind you of childhood. When I was a kid, our always-artificial tree was always taller than I was. Whenever I’d visit a friend whose family liked diminutive Christmas trees, I’d wonder where the real one was. Were they deprived? Did I need to bring an emergency food basket over on my next visit?

IMG_0042This is my tree. I bought it online from Tree Classics in Lake Barrington when I lived in New York and left it there. After the odiferous Blue Spruce experience, I bought the same tree again here in Chicago. It’s old school. Seven-and-a-half feet. Eighty-five individual branches to install. Twenty-four-hundred branch tips to fluff. At least 1,350 lights to string. Manually. Whites deep inside, colors threading from base to tips and back.

That much alone consumes 10 hours of effort. The layers of Victorian ornaments add another eight. Especially those 300 pesky rigid pieces of metal tinsel and 120 glass icicles.

Friends know to avoid me when the tree’s going up. I’d never dream of asking anyone to help. (One false move and the tightly controlled aesthetic plan could be ruined, you know.) But those who know me fear the maniacal “Martha-Stewart-crossed-with-Patton” that I’ve been told I become when I’m prepping for the holidays.

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I was a Christian. I was raised in a Roman Catholic family, but I’ve identified as a Buddhist for several years. But I keep my family’s big-tree tradition. For me, Christmas is about wonder, and joy, and the ineffable mystery and basic goodness of the universe and all that is greater than we are.

As I see it, the freedom of practicing a non-creedal religion should nullify the irony of spending so much time each year on what is for many others a symbol of a different faith. But do you know how hard it is to try and explain “non-creedal” to devout, smirking friends every December?

Sure, I could save lots of stress and time by getting a pre-lit tree, but where’s the obsession in that? This week I’ll send out my Christmas cards, too. Time Magazine suggests we’re all shifting to e-cards this holiday. The Chicago Tribune‘s Mary Schmich (@maryschmich) noticed she got fewer real cards this year, too.

As you might imagine, I am not part of that trend.

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