On a gray January day we were Christian pagans, standing in a small, tight ring around the dearly departed, singing into the crisp winter air. Our individual breath clouds only lived for an instant, their small but potent warmth never forming into something that would rain, sleet or snow. Instead, they made their way upwards and I wanted to think they joined together somewhere “up there,” fashioning themselves into one small but potent pillow of our essences, floating forever in space.
I was 10, so frequent flights of fancy took off regularly, with me aboard.
Our house was of white clapboard, one of about a half dozen on the street in a small Louisiana town. We liked our house. It was comfortable in its elderliness, sort of like an aged relative whose smell, sound and feel is familiar, beloved and quietly enfolding. We loved its large, high-ceilinged rooms with their creaky wooden floors and big windows.
But back to that January day. We gathered in the front yard at the behest of our dad. He had seen our misery and sought to channel it into something more productive. He was an alchemist, you see. He really could turn the lead dross of sadness into golden good humor. It is a talent few possess and even fewer choose to utilize. But my dad had an innate sense of things. If he was a dad these days, he’d be at home — a caregiver in the best and highest sense of that term. But, in those days he did what he could whenever it was feasible.
He’d heard us bemoaning the death in our living room as we tidied up the Christmas carnage of paper, bows, ribbon, gifts, etc. Our grief had pretty much taken the joy out of our day. So our dad suggested we hold a ceremony in the front yard to say goodbye. We brightened slightly. That sounded fitting and proper to our 10, 7 (my brother) and 4-year old (my sister) sensibilities — especially my sister. She was of such a tender heart I always imagined it to be of spun glass or a delicate lace, too easily broken or torn.
Dad went to the front yard and dug a small circular hole in the mostly dead grass. We watched solemnly as he brought the bedraggled, stiff remains out of the house, parts of it shedding as he walked. We were quiet, respectful, waiting beside the small hole, a mound of earth piled up beside it.
The trunk went down into the earthen cavity with a soft thud; my dad covered all with dirt. We held hands and began to circle our now dried out former Christmas tree, my dad in the lead, singing “O Christmas Tree,” slowly at first and then speeding up until we were breathless, laughing, giddy. It became a celebration of the season, an ending to the time of year in which we’d anticipated the morning when we’d arise to find things we’d dreamed of for a long time under the tree.
That tree symbolized every bit of the magic, wonder and bright shininess of it all. Now we came to a standstill like wound-down toys, and our dad began to speak about the tree. He talked of its life, how it came to live with us for a while, happy to be the giver of such joy and happiness. He talked about it hearing our excited chatter as we decorated it with lights, ornaments, garland and tinsel, and how it watched as my brother secretly unwrapped, examined and rewrapped gifts.
He also spoke of how the tree was now tired and wanted to return to the forest from which it came; how happy it was we’d come to say farewell. We sobered a bit with that last part and, as tears formed in me, I heard my sister softly cry and even saw my brother surreptitiously swipe an eye. We each touched a limb from which a shower of needles fell. My dad said the tree was saying goodbye and thanking us for a most pleasant holiday. We then thanked the tree in return. We went back into our house for hot chocolate and to play with our new toys, our hearts lighter.
The tree stood there in the cold, red Louisiana dirt, alone with the sky, wind and clouds all night.
When we woke up the next day, it was lying on the curb awaiting transport away from us. Unlike the other trees on the curb up and down the street, ours sported no tinsel. I think that was due to the thrifty nature of my parents to remove each silver length and bundle them up for use the following year. I kept that tradition as an adult, but for me it was because I remember how desolate those other trees looked with their glistening threads quivering in the cold wind. I felt pity that those trees had no send-off, wishing them well, as ours had.
In my 10 year-old mind, those trees had been callously cast side without any regard. Now that memory is removed one step further as I have an artificial tree and it returns to the hall closet after the holidays. But when I see a real tree on the curb with its tinsel aflutter, I imagine it saying “goodbye” to me and I mentally wave back. Then I relive the moment in which three small children from a firmly traditional Southern family briefly transformed into druids and participated in a pagan ceremony for one short, winter afternoon.