Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Art of Change - The Christmas Tree

In 1980, my grandmother – the original Maryjane – gave me a few boxes filled with some of her favorite Christmas tree ornaments that she had collected over the years. It was my first Christmas away from home. Most of the decorations were metallic, colored balls with frosty glitter – some with scenes, others with traditional holiday greetings and my favorite ones had musical notations.

At the time that she gave me these ornaments, she was obviously deeply involved in felt craft. She included an assortment of little Santa and Elf mice with jiggly button-like eyes. I think that she may have made them for a church function where she and other older women sat around in the frigid church multi-function room beneath the sanctuary, toting glue guns and scraps of material, making things for their fairs while eating cookies and drinking strong coffee from an oversized urn.

I never really liked the felt mice, but felt obligated to take care of them, place them on the tree and carefully pack them away every year. At first I bothered to re-glue the eyes when they fell off, but after nine or ten years I just hung the one eyed rodents on random branches to fill in the gaps, paying tribute to my grandmother who passed away in 1989.

The decoration collection grew enormously when I became a mother. Not only did I honor my grandmother’s ornaments, I maintained a collection for each of my three children. Decorating the tree was a joyous yet serious event; we always enjoyed homemade sweets, eggnog and music, which was the pulse of our family during this activity. Each child had his or her own box of decorations and with careful deliberation they hung them on the tree. My grandmother’s ornaments were a part of the tradition. Even when a mouse did not make it onto a heavy bough, they were acknowledged in some way – through conversation or finding a lost eye in the bottom of the box. I still have them or at least most of their parts.

One by one, my children grew up and one by one they left our cozy nest. I tried to keep our traditions alive while they were out in the world so that when they returned home for the holidays, they would be able to celebrate with everything as it should be.

The transition from motherhood to crone is one that requires patience, love and acceptance. At first I worked tirelessly at trying to keep everything the same, or at least recognizable. I am relieved to report that after a few years of a somewhat difficult, white knuckled approach, I acknowledge the fact that change is inevitable; I embrace it.

Something as basic as a Christmas tree provides a fine example of transition and positive growth. It takes a great deal of effort to decorate and un-decorate a Christmas tree alone – especially using mementos that represent my entire life including the raising of my family. After my children went away, I began to dread lugging heavy boxes and feeling overwhelmed when I unpacked each ornament that came with an abundance of touching memories.

When my kids returned home from different corners of the world, they loved seeing the familiar twinkling tree. We sat down and enjoyed all of our customary home baked sweets, played music and celebrated our family love. After the holidays… when they left... it was just the tree and me. I dreaded the task of dissembling the mass of memories. Whether or not you have help, it is a chore. It is especially haunting when you are doing it alone. In the past I did not mind packing away holiday stuff because we were in the midst of our busy lives. That was then; this is now.

Last Christmas, when I was taking down the tree, I faced the reality that it had become a burden. I was going to great lengths to maintain tradition, even when its face had become quite different. Until this year, I was unable to look into that face.

Last week it just happened; I did not plan it. When I stood before the plain balsam fir tree, I decided to try something different. The previous week, I crafted many arrangements out of berries, twigs and bark. I try to walk in the woods every day; I tend to revert to my ancient ‘gatherer’ roots. Our house is adorned with natural décor and it was time to extend this art to the Christmas tree.

With pruning shears in hand and a cloth sack draped over my arm, I set out on my usual path in the woods and began harvesting. Before I came into the house, I stopped by the remnants of my herb garden and cut mugwort and grapevines. I did not take anything that showed promise of thriving.

After stringing small white lights on the tree, I embarked upon a new creative adventure. First I tied bunches of grapevine, mugwort and an assortment of small twigs to the entire length of the trunk of the tree so that they looked as if they were a part of it. From there I added milk weed pods that had released their feathery seeds, along with freshly fallen, pitch coated, pine cones. I even stuck clumps of burdock on the ends of tree limbs. I threaded hemp through oyster mushrooms that look like angels and made trees out of lichen covered bark, topped with a birch bark star.

Nothing was wasted. I crafted snowmen out of birch bark and constructed nests from various mosses and grapevine. I dried apples and oranges and made stacks and garland with cinnamon sticks. I also used dried apples as a base for moss covered wreaths. I strung fresh cranberries with hemp for garland. I created angels in flight using pine cones for the body, birch bark for the wings and head, twigs, hemp and moss hair, and bark for facial features and a partial berry for the mouth.

This project took several days to complete. I rifled through bags and piles of natural offerings and continued to create. The only tradition on the tree is the angel on top that my daughter Anna made when she was four-years-old.

At first I was in conflict; I thought that my family would be expecting the customary Christmas tree laced with a lifetime of memories. I don’t want to disappoint them. I decided that they are welcome to get the boxes and add whatever they wish to the tree.

In the future, if we have an opportunity to be together before Christmas, I will enjoy going through the boxes and decorating the tree with my family. In that case, it will not be a burden. I will probably save a few of the decorations that I made this year, but for the most part, the tree is organic and I will place it outdoors with ease. The birds can pick at the cranberries, apples and oranges and I will hang suet from the boughs. After they strip the goodies, it can go into the fire pit for a raging bonfire later in the season.

Life changes. Everything that is important cannot be tucked into boxes and then unpacked to bring back the past. It is important to preserve memories, but it is more important to accept change and be in the moment.

The tree is a symbol of how I live my life every day, here and now. I honor the tree and I honor life, which is well worth celebrating.

Journal - Periwinkle

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