Two years ago, my wife and I had the good fortune of acquiring a small place in the Appalachians, just south of the Virginia border. This was a blessing and one of those rare things in life that was almost entirely unexpected.
This part of the Appalachians is Christmas tree country, and our 1920s home came with a plot of three hundred Fraser firs and the first fertile land we had had in five years (not counting a flowerbed in Connecticut that we had to leave before the spring, though we were told it did very well). We were chomping at the bit, as it were, to plow, plant, weed, tend, and trim every green thing on our humble two acres.
That first summer we cleared part of a hill, pruned a few fruit trees, kept up with the grass and planted some flowerbeds, but with the firs, well, we didn’t know where to start. I asked my sister’s father-in-law (from whom we had bought the house) how to care for the trees, but all I got were a few off-hand remarks about fertilizing, pig’s blood, and a machete. I tried to catch glimpses of other tree farmers at work, but no one ever seemed to set foot in the trees. One afternoon, I took the weed-whacker to knock down the grass between the trees—something that, I later learned, would have made me the laughingstock of my neighbors had they seen me—but that was about it. After all, we were there for just a few weeks and had little enough time already.
The next summer I was determined to sweat and fret over those increasingly sickly firs. We invited my sister’s father-in-law and his wife over for dinner with the proviso that he show me how to take care of the trees, and he did. That is, he showed me three things: how to fertilize the ground, spray weed-killer in mid-summer to knock down the grass, and trim the trees. Fraser firs, in turns out, require very little work.
I found this mildly annoying. Here I was ready to devote my summer to the messy lives of these trees, sanctifying the healthy elect and nursing the weakly “seeker” to some measure of maturity—in short, to bring them all to Jesus. Instead, I was left to pastor a mostly Catholic congregation of obstinate firs—a little sprinkling of fertilizer here, some confessional trimming there, as well as the occasional shaking of pig’s blood to keep the demonic deer away, and the trees would be ready for glory.
Even worse, the most important part of Christmas tree care—the trimming and the shaping of the tree—is the most popish of all. In the spring, most trees sprout new leaders that compete with the central one. These usurpers must be cut down in the fall and cast to the rabbits; otherwise, they might overtake the leader and leave a slanted tree or wreak some other havoc on the beautiful proportions of the Fraser’s hierarchical cone. I am a devoted Presbyterian, but I’ll be the first to admit that a tree ruled by a plurality of elders is a messy thing. (It’s called a shrub.)
So, with a certain clerical resignation, I began to trim my trees, moving around the circumference of each, bringing down the machete with the regularity of a priest praying the rosary. The smell of resin and sap rose slowly in the cool, misty morning. The repetitive cutting movement, which at first felt cumbersome and foreign, quickly became natural to me. I was surprised to observe that the wisp and cut of the machete ordered my mind for fruitful reflection—pushing out the formless chaos of silence—in a way that I had rarely experienced.
I lifted my head and looked at these dark green steeples set against rolling hills of unkempt fields and patches of forest. They were beautiful, these trees, and like arrows pointing to heaven, they were reasoning with me. When Benedict said that beauty could be a path “towards God,” he no doubt had the Church in mind, too. My trees were obstinate Catholics, but they were that particularly winsome sort of obstinate Catholic that makes conversion to Rome so tempting.
If I had had to care for a thousand trees this summer, I may have spent my fall attending Mass. As it happened, I finished trimming the trees by mid-morning, sat outside with a fresh cup of coffee, and remembered the history of evergreens in pagan festivals.
On the use of festival trees in homes, Tertullian once wrote: “Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green.” Yet legend has it (though most likely wrongly) that Martin Luther was the first to cut and decorate a tree for Christmas.
Next year, there’ll be more trimming to do, but the following year, it’ll be harvest time. Who knows, maybe I’ll even whisper the Lord’s Prayer as the trees are cut and sent to some small Christmas market on the coast.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.