The Christmas tree as community property
By JOCELYN Y. STEWART
Frank Godden is baffled by Christmas trees.
The truck that carries stacks of Christmas trees from a farm far away to a city lot near you might as well be a hearse, the way Godden sees it.
“It looks to me like a stack of dead bodies,” Godden said. “Why kill all those trees?”
If he had his way, the killing would end.
Before you dismiss Godden as a tree-hugging, tie-dye wearing radical, consider this: Frank Godden is a child of the Depression, a veteran of World War II and a member in good standing of “the greatest generation.” He is 98 years old and has seen many Christmases — which helps explain why he is baffled.
These days it’s easy to see the Christmas tree as a crucial element of any proper American celebration of the holiday. What is Christmas without a tree, tinsel, lights, ornaments and that wonderful smell? According to the National Christmas Tree Association, Christmas trees are a billion-dollar industry in the U.S., which seems to provide further evidence of their utter necessity.
Yet, for someone like Godden, who has seen the prominence of the tree grow and change, a home without a tree is a throwback to a simpler time.
For the first two decades of his life, Godden — who grew up in Suwannee County, Fla. — celebrated lovely Christmases in homes where there were no trees. This was not a consequence of his family’s religious views or poverty. Godden was simply raised differently. In his youth, the Christmas tree was displayed in public places and enjoyed in the context of community. It was big, beautiful and belonged to everyone.
“You didn’t have Christmas trees in the home,” Godden said. “The Christmas tree was in the church.”
In his community, the elders, including his grandparents, were former slaves. His parents were part of the first generation born free. The children were their hope. Like so much else during those years, the tree was evidence of a community providing for itself in ways it had never been able to do before. The tree — every shiny ornament — was evidence that hope was a shared responsibility.
At home, Frank and his eight brothers and sisters still hung their stockings (socks) above the fireplace. Santa still came while the children slept, and every child in the Godden house still woke up happy on Christmas morning. Santa left meager gifts by today’s standards: an orange, an apple and, during good years, a silver dollar.
Godden grew up and watched as Santa’s gifts became more extravagant and the prominence of the tree grew.
Christmas tree farmers and merchants say trees support the environment. They are recyclable. And they do far less damage than fake trees. Still, after all these years, it seems strange to Godden that so much beauty remains behind closed doors. It feels like something lost, not gained.
“Why kill all those trees?” he asks.
X Stewart is writing a book about Godden and is a fellow at the Horizon Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank.
The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.