Burning the Christmas Greens

Most years on Dec. 21, on winter solstice, we’ve burned the previous year’s Christmas greens.

Some years we get our act together and have a solstice party where I read William Carlos Williams’ poem “Burning the Christmas Greens.” We drink hot cider and mulled wine. We watch the first sun of the new season go down with our friends, and note the descent into the early winter woods like good neo-druids.

Then we toast the turn of the year. Once the poetry and ancient ritual has stopped, we throw last year’s Christmas tree limb-by-limb into the fire pit. After a year it’s dry and brown, and doesn’t look green at all. I’d call it “the Christmas browns,” but that doesn’t sound too poetic.

Betsy says the burning conifer limbs look like fireworks as they sizzle briefly, snap, sparkle, and flame. Each limb goes up in a rush of color, scent, and sound.

Last year we didn’t burn the Christmas greens. The whole family went away for the holidays to Costa Rica on a paddling trip. On Christmas morning we woke up in a tent at a tropical camp deep in the rainforest. We’d paddled 30 miles down a river to get there. Our two guides wore Santa hats. Betsy had Christmas stockings she’d brought from home for the boys, and she left them outside their tents. “Merry Christmas,” we said to each other, far from home.

It was only the second Christmas I’d missed in Spartanburg. It was the first for Betsy and the boys.

We thought we could exit the Christmas frenzy. We thought that Christmas is just something you decide to celebrate at home or not. We thought the massive American-style gift-giving and family celebrations and putting up a tree could simply be put on hold for a year. We didn’t realize that Christmas is something that still goes on whether you are there or not. It’s a ritual much bigger than individual decisions about how or where to celebrate it.

You can see all that in how old the holiday is. It’s got staying power as a human ritual. Solstice goes back tens of thousands of years. Christmas is over two thousand years old, and it piggy-backs on the older, ancient ceremonies.

Christmas is the most place-based holiday. It’s rooted before the hearth. It’s tied to specific spots. It incorporates living things like trees, and sacrifices them to celebration. It launches the coldest time of the year with waves of warmth as gifts are opened before fires.

So we’re back in the Christmas frenzy this year. We have a big tree again, and the gifts are beginning to pile up underneath. We’ve decorated the house, put up the four letters that spell “NOEL” on the mantel, and now the wait is on to see who first turns it into “LEON.”

I’m up early and I’ve turned on the tree. The ornaments don’t seem any worse for wear after sleeping an extra year in storage. Later in the day I’ll start playing the same odd assortment of Christmas songs that I play every year-an English punked-up version of “Snoopy versus the Red Baron,” John Prine’s “It’s Chrismas in Prison,” Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family,” and Brave Combo, a Texas polka band, and their most famous album, “It’s Christmas, Man.”

The week after Christmas I’ll take this tree down and throw it in the side yard, and next year we’ll burn it, adding to the celebration, shaping the holiday once more.

Let the rituals continue.

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