When I was a child we always had Christmas trees with roots, which were (fairly) regularly watered and then planted in the garden after Twelfth Night. The result was a copse of motley trees, one or two with stray decorations still attached. The only tree which really thrived was one Dad planted crookedly after too good a lunch. It grew into a giant Leaning Tower of Fir, ever a reminder not to garden when too merry.
When I came to London I hated the fact that the first part of every year was marked with dead and dying trees lying sadly on the pavements, waiting to be taken away. It is not so bad now there are proper recycling systems but, even so, being shredded seems a sorry end for the trees after all the joy they have given us. Thanks to Helen Macdonald’s book H is for Hawk I have now learnt that there is a better way. I’m giving the whole passage here, which will make this post rather long and is probably an infringement of copyright law but it is too good to cut. And, with any luck, it will make you want to read the whole book.
(Helen and her mother have spent Christmas with her friend Erin and his parents, on the coast of southern Maine. This is their last morning there.)
‘I sense a plan is brewing. And a minute later I’m helping him drag their huge Christmas tree out of the room and onto the snowy lawn, tip snaking through the rough trail it makes, branches skittering over and cutting through the crust that glitters in the sparse light. We prop it up in the deep snow as if it had grown there. I have no idea what is going on.
‘OK, Macca, let’s burn this!’ he says.
‘It’s traditional. It’s what we do here. In ‘America.’
I don’t believe him for a second.
‘In England we dump them on the street, traditionally,’ I say. ‘Absolutely let’s burn it.’
‘I’ll get the firelighter!’ he yells. I can feel the madness to this, its contagious pagan glee. He runs back from the house with a squeezy bottle of firelighting gel and in the snowy hush, fog collecting around us as the thaw turns ice to water that hangs in the warming air, he decorates the tree with gloopy green strings that drip and stick like glutinous tinsel.
‘Stand back!’ he commands. He strikes a match. A branch catches with a tearing scratch of flame. For a few moments this is pretty: a soft yellow light in the monochromatic gloom. But then there is an explosive, tearing waterfall of rearing flame that bursts into appalling brightness. Erin’s eyebrows go up. He steps back a good few paces. And now I’m laughing so much I can hardly stand. ‘Jesus Erin,’ I shout. It’s as if he’s set light to the whole of the world: a twenty-foot pyramid of flame lighting the lawn, the house, the river, the far side of the river, sending black shadows out from the trees that a moment ago were lost in darkness, and our faces are gilded with fierce orange fire. What the hell have we done? The smoke mixes with the fog so that everything, everywhere is on fire. The incandescent tree, black twigs sintering, clicking, crumbling, and smoke, and Erin and I wearing faces of people who are going to be in serious trouble. ‘I think we might be seeing the fire truck any moment now,’ Erin shouts, and we’re both of us children again, delighted at what we have made and fearful of disaster.
And then the fire is out. The skeleton stands in the snow, all its complexity gone. Just a thin trunk with a few charcoal branches, already damp in the steaming air. And I stare at the remains of the tree and breathe the smoke and the fog from the air and Erin makes a face at me and I make one back.
‘That,’ he says, ‘was excellent.’
It was. A ritual burn, a ceremony of strange, protective magic. Bad things had fled from that burning tree. We laugh all the way back to the house, leaving the skeleton upright in the snow.’
This is what I would like to do to my tree; give it a spectacular send-off in return for all the pleasure it has given over the previous weeks. However, I have a small garden in London so it is not going to happen. One day, perhaps. Merry Christmas.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is a brilliant read and is available in paperback (£8.99), from ‘all good bookshops’, not Amazon, please.