Tree or No Tree?

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Looking Deeply at Tradition after a Year of Dismantling

by Kimi Eisele

Every December for the last 25 years or so, I spend a few weeks debating: Should I get a Christmas tree?

Of course! say many observers of Christmas, Christians or once-Christians. It’s what we do.

On the one hand, it’s lovely. Twinkly lights. The fresh, minty smell of evergreen. Special ornaments marking years past. But also, it’s kind of strange. Cut down a tree from the forest? In the desert? Why not leave it outside, in the ground?

In this year of tumultuous undoing, I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition. Not only because the pandemic has interrupted or cancelled so many rituals and practices, but also because once things are undone, it’s easier to examine how and why they came together in the first place.

Is “what we do” indispensable or simply habitual? What meaning does a tradition have for me, here, now? And what if my tradition causes harm to you, to a whole community, to another species?

Maybe these considerations take the joy out of practices meant to bring a sense of security and belonging. But for me, looking deeply at the ways humans are connected to one another and to nature is a practice I consider part of my job as a writer, artist, folklorist, and human being.

Detail from one of my past Christmas trees.

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Some years ago, while I was a visiting artist in Southeast Alaska, a 31-year-old “tradition” came into dispute. The event, a fundraiser for the local fire department, involved an auction of goods and services from local businesses. It was called the “Alaska Day Slave Auction.” That year, the state’s NAACP chapter sent a letter asking the organizers to change the name, given its rather obvious and crude historical connotation for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States.

Organizers were at first reluctant, claiming the event—and its name—wasn’t intended to be racist. Alas, introducing the concept of intention didn’t make things any easier. Lots of bad things can happen as a result of “unintended” actions. For the sake of the argument, sure, many “traditions” are not intended to be harmful. But that doesn’t mean they’re not. Alaska Day itself honors the 1867 Russian transfer of the territory to the United States, an act that further erased the Indigenous people who’d been living on the land long before the Russians arrived. In the end, auction organizers changed the event’s name.

Of course, traditions will invariably contradict and confront and overlap in complicated and factious ways. Examples are too many to name, from the relatively banal (tossing tortillas into the air at graduation ceremonies) to the more consequential (hazing rituals in college fraternities). But part of living in a pluralistic society means practicing respect, tending to the whole and not just the self. Are abiding by rules of conviviality and uplifting human dignity for all not also “traditions” worthy of our devotion?

The danger is in the disregard. We get so attached to our own tradition that we don’t realize—or pretend to not see—the ways it might be causing harm to other people, places, and species. Once you learn your celebration causes pain to someone else, does it carry the same joy?

Sometimes dismantling one tradition invites others to change, too. We’ve seen this recently as sports teams in Washington, D.C. and Cleveland dropped names and mascots, long considered insensitive to Indigenous people. Elsewhere monuments and statues honoring Civil War heroes of the Confederate South are being removed or reconsidered, given the legacy of structural racism they might signify.

And throughout the pandemic, we’ve all altered traditions in our families and communities, often more readily than we ever imagined we could. Drive-by birthday parties, Zoom weddings, graduation car cruises. Whether or not we keep these re-inventions once we’re allowed to gather again, we have proved to ourselves and each other we are capable of quick, creative adaptation.

That’s a skill we’ll want to keep. While an end to the pandemic may just be in sight, the climate crisis presses down with no immediate vaccine.  

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The Christmas tree conundrum is one I share with my mother. (My dad’s fine either way.) When I first moved away from home, we’d go back and forth about it over the phone. She reminded me recently that we usually had small trees when I was young and that sometimes we cut them down ourselves in the Pennsylvania woods. I have only one memory of that—trekking through snow and shivering miserably, while my dad did his best with a blunt saw.

For many years, my mom recently told me, she’d end up stringing the lights and decorating the trees mostly by herself, my dad and I either already tucked into bed or only lending a hand here and there. (Oof. Sorry, mom.) But this was not her effort to carry out the tradition she’d grown up with, in which her parents did decorate the whole tree themselves on Christmas Eve so that my mom and her sister would wake up to the magic of it on Christmas morning.

A few years ago, she gave me a box of the ornaments from my childhood years and included a collection from her own early Christmases—glass ornaments that feel almost too fragile to touch. There’s not one for every year, like some people have, but it’s a meaningful, modest assortment that fits in a small corner of my closet and brings me joy to unpack every year.

When I moved to the Southwest, I cut an agave stalk from a dead plant, seeds sprinkled first to the ground, and decorated it as my Christmas tree, borrowing a practice I’d picked up from other desert dwellers. My parents, who now live in Tucson, do this as well. My mom actually leaves the stalk up all year, lit with white lights and decorated with birds and butterflies. (What tradition is this? I don’t know, but it’s lovely.)

My mom’s year-round agave tree.

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In his seminal essay, “Tradition,” published in 1995 in The Journal of American Folklore, folklorist Henry Glassie defines tradition as “the creation of the future out of the past.”

One clear marker of tradition, he writes, is repetition—a custom or practice repeated over time. But even repetition is variable.

In some cases, what gets repeated is content—the exact words of a folk song sung again and again, for instance. Dashing through the snow

In other cases, repetition is about form. I’m reminded of corridos, which tend to follow a definitive form but share different historical events.

In yet other cases, repetition is about preserving a “tone” or “spirit.” Glassie gives the example of potters in Kütahya, western Turkey, where potters teach themselves in a “climate of discipline” established by the master artist. One potter explained it as breathing in “the air of experience” from the master and other potters.

“Artists in Kütahya are not obliged to memorize or preserve. They can do whatever they want to do … because, being suspended in the alembic of collective experience, when they act authentically, their creations will necessarily, nonchalantly radiate the aura of tradition,” he writes.

In this way, tradition is a process, not just a thing. And if it’s a process, then it must be in flux.

As Glassie writes elsewhere, “… tradition can be static, and it can be fluid; it can whirl in place, revolving through kaleidoscopic transformations, or it can strike helical, progressive, or retrograde tracks through time.”

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Earlier this year I began investigating how climate change was impacting traditional artforms and heritage practices in the Southwest, particularly in indigenous and folk communities. While my fieldwork was largely interrupted by the pandemic, the online conversations I began revealed the fluidity and “kaleidoscopic transformation” Glassie suggests.   

Alice Manuel and Terrol Johnson both learned the O’odham art of basket weaving from elders in their respective communities. Manuel’s baskets, in the Akimel O’odham tradition, are woven with devil’s claw and willow. Johnson began in the Tohono O’odham tradition, using yucca and bear grass, an early substitution for the willow, which was less available in the drier areas of the desert where his predecessors lived.

In the last 10 to 20 years, both weavers have seen changes in the availability and quality of the plant materials they use. And if current conditions related to heat and drought continue—as climate models forecast—both may have to find new materials to weave in the future. That is a significant loss, both of them told me, as it represents a disconnect with the landscape they’ve known for so long.

But Johnson, who has long introduced new materials to his more contemporary baskets sometimes out of necessity and sometimes for artistic reasons, says an O’odham basket will always be an O’odham basket if it is made by an O’odham. Perhaps this is akin to the Turks’ “alembic of collective experience.”

As Glassie writes, and as the O’odham basket weavers illustrate, people enact tradition by using their own resources to create their own future. To me, this indicates that tradition is part ingenuity. How we invent a future for ourselves with the tools, sentiments, and “aura of tradition,” or at least some of them.

Knot #3. Aluminum, creosote, yucca, cedar bark. From “Meeting the Clouds Halfway,” Terrol Dew Johnson and Aranda/Lasch. 2016. Photo courtesy Aranda/Lasch

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The Christmas tree can be traced back to 16th century Germany, when people brought trees inside and decorated them with candles. In 1848, Britain’s Queen Victoria, whose mother was German, and Prince Albert helped popularize the tradition after a drawing of the royal family with their decorated tree was published in the Illustrated London News

But the custom also is connected to the pagan ritual of Saturnalia, which Romans celebrated in winter at the solstice. Celtic and other pagan traditions had a “yule” tree, in which the evergreen tree, representing the eternal, is decorated with fruits, charms, nuts, and coins, to bring in a good harvest, love, fertility, and wealth. Egyptians decorated the halls with date palm branches, symbols of renewal, at the time of Winter Solstice.

The tree became synonymous with hope and light around the time the Catholic Church linked the time of Jesus’s birth to the Winter Solstice. Although, because of its Lutheran association, no Christmas tree stood in the Vatican until 1982.

My parents cast off their Catholicism before I was born, and my cultural heritage is a mishmash of European traditions, most of which were lost or diluted over generations of life in America. My dad’s father came from the Black Forest region of Germany. And my mom’s mother was a first-generation American—her family came from Poland, where one tradition involves hanging an evergreen branch from the ceiling adorned with fruits, nuts, straw stars during the pagan winter festival, Koliada.

Lithograph in The Illustrated London News in the winter of 1848. In 1840, Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert, of Germany. Albert brought with him the tradition of decorating a tree as a symbol of life during the long, cold winter.

So, the Christmas tree is truly part of my cultural heritage.

But now I live in the Sonoran Desert, where evergreens occur only in “sky island” ecosystems. Those ecosystems are increasingly threatened by intense and severe fire regimes, now exacerbated by climate change. Fire ecologists I’ve interviewed have told me matter-of-factly that forests here and throughout the American West won’t exist in the future. They’ll be replaced by grasslands.

I know, I know. Christmas trees today are “bred for captivity,” so to speak. Raised on farms, they’re meant to be cut down and brought inside, and tree farmers plant new ones every year. It’s a “sustainable” product. So maybe it’s just fine to cut one down and bring inside for Christmas.

If you put up an evergreen in your house, I have no judgment. In non-Covid times, I might joyfully come sit with you next to it, enjoying kinship—with you and the tree.

But this strange year, with all of its disassembling, I went with the agave stalk, and lit it with pretty white lights. It keeps me grounded in the desert and doesn’t cause me the headache of complicated analysis. I’m letting it be a reminder to look deeply at “how I do it” and why, where I live and what the desert teaches me, what I have and what I have to give. 

We know now from the science of fungi and root systems in the soil, that trees interact and care for one another—even across species. They send warning signals and nutrients to one another; they protect each other from wind and cold. And because of these networks, trees do better in community than on their own. Not unlike us.

Perhaps this year, the Christmas tree or the yule branch or the agave stalk in your own living room or out in the world or on your screen can stand as a reminder that our own unique traditions are not the only ones. That before them came others and from them, new ones will emerge. That sometimes the traditions we love the most might, in truth, erase or cause harm to another, and that it is our job as human beings sharing this planet at this time to re-imagine and re-invent those practices in their most benevolent and generous forms.

Then again, it may be that the greatest lesson of tradition is endurance. This year, taking in the glow of twinkly lights on a bough—whether alive, artificial, endemic to the region, or grown expressly for the season—seems more important than ever.

Kimi Eisele is the managing editor of BorderLore. She writes and makes art about the desert borderlands from her home in Tucson, Arizona.