Christmas trees

christmas tree.jpg

Sarah Milroy (Globe and Mail) asked me for thoughts on the Christmas tree. A few preliminary notions:

The Christmas tree is first and foremost an invitation to disaster. No tree serves its ceremonial role unless it tips over a couple of times. This happens once while the family is away. They return to chaos and a badly startled cat. It happens again with all the family present, when the tree just keels over, as if from seasonal exhaustion, in a slow motion slide that draws everyone out of their seats, ornaments flying, children hollering, pets scattering. Rueful hilarity ensues. Christmas trees are never not tippy. That’s the way we like them.

Trees come from the countryside, the way a lot of commerce used to do, making their way to the city in open trucks, driven by people who set up opportunistically and engage in a brisk exchange that favors cash, bargaining, contingent pricing (dress modestly, buy early or very late), and the utter absence of TQM. Each tree has its own virtues, drawbacks and individuality.

No brands, loyalty programs, or greeters, here. The seller is often a rum looking customer, not our first choice as the first bearer of this glad tiding. The consumer is captive of a state of uncertainly, struggling to remember how high the living room ceiling is. And the “product” is rough cut, oozing sap, richly aromatic, already shedding, and almost certainly the least processed thing in the home. .

Trees undergo a transformation cycle (Munn, as below). First we place them in a stand that guarantees their tippiness. Sure enough, the tree is too tall. We forgot to leave room for the star on top. Dad must find his saw, and emergency surgery is performed. There! The tree stands in the corner of the living room. Someone says, “It will fill out. Give it a little time.” Someone else says, “It’ll be fine. Really.” And then the tree begins its first slow tilt, and everyone tilts as well, as if to keep the thing level in their gaze.

Mom must now find the ornaments. This is one of the mysteries of household management: that she can store them, that she can find them, that they have survived all the fort building and roughhousing in the basement, that they emerge finally from makeshift containers more or less in tact. And when they emerge, behold, another mystery.

Things bought for not much money years ago have taken on a depth and value that they did not have when they issued from a Chinese factor, did not have when purchased at Wal-Greens, did not seem capable of when first “put up.”. Cheap pieces of junk now have something like the status of heirlooms. Christmas is often seen as a war between commerce and culture (Nissenbaum, below) but it is often something more collaborative (Schmidt).

The Christmas tree is sometimes a family tree. Some of the ornaments come from the homes and childhoods of Mom and Dad. Some came as gifts from distant aunts. All of them reference former homes. “We bought this one when you were just three. Just after we moved into Quesnel Drive.” And together they are evocations of Christmases past and opportunities to tell the stories Mom never tires of telling. After all, it’s Mom’s job to make these relatives relative, to create a narrative to make this heterogeneous crew feel and act like a family. Christmas is a story telling, story making opportunity. These ornaments are voluble.

The star is never perfect. It is too near the ceiling, despite the surgery, and must sometimes be “squished in.” Milroy asked me to talk about power and identity. And we could begin here. Dad remains the putative head of the household in this disputed hierarchy. He and the star have place of pride, but this is cramped and insecure, the tippiest thing on this tippy tree.

The lights go on, special effects by Noma surprisingly effective in a George Lucas age. The tinsel goes up, bunching here, looking a little thread bare there. And eventually the presents begin to pile up. In a jaundiced age, it is fashionable to think of these as an acquisitive intrusion in the “wonderful life” for which the season stands. But if we look more carefully, we see that these gifts reflect how much the family cares, how hard they tried to find the “perfect thing,” and, when things go well, how profoundly they know one another. Good families give good presents, good presents give good families.

Trees are tippy, I think, because the holiday season is so compressed. Feelings run high, tensions and contradictions surface, stuff goes wrong. Trees supply moments of glory, and, like inebriated but good hearted uncles, they also supply moments of very useful comedic relief.


Barnett, James H. 1954. The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture. New York: Macmillan.

Belk, Russell. 1987. A Child’s Christmas in America: Santa Claus as Deity, Consumption as Religion. Journal of American Culture 10, no. 1: 87-1000.

Belk, Russell W. 1989. Materialism and the Modern U.S. Christmas. in Interpretive Consumer Research. editor Elizabeth C. Hirschman, 115-35. Provo: Association for Consumer Research.

Caplow, Theodore. 1982. Christmas Gifts and Kin Networks. American Sociological Review 47: 383-92.

Geertz, Clifford. 1972/1973. Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight. In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Miller, Daniel, editor. 1993. Unwrapping Christmas. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Munn, Nancy D. 1986. The fame of Gawa : a symbolic study of value transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. 1996. The battle for Christmas. 1st ed. ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 1995. Consumer rites : The buying and selling of American holidays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Last note: my apologies to those who referenced this post on their blogs when it was first posted, two Saturdays ago. Sarah Milroy, the Globe reporter who solicited my comment, asked me to take the post down till she had filed her story. I obliged her and in the process left several of you with URLs that pointed to a phantom post. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Tomorrow, some thoughts on Milroy’s behavior.

2 thoughts on “Christmas trees

  1. Ennis

    You wondered how Mom keeps the ornaments safe? Well:

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