Christmas Trees and What it Means to Be a Good Citizen

Every year we buy a live Christmas tree, although this past year, due to the pandemic, we did not. We’ve always patted ourselves on the back for taking our trees to be mulched after the holidays, but this year I read a blog post about holding on to your tree. The writer suggested propping it somewhere in the backyard to serve as a winter home for birds and small critters. They noted that the falling needles would be good for the soil and the branches could be used to protect perennials from snow and frost.

Part of me loved this idea. Another part struggled with messages I received as a child about well-kept yards and removing “waste” and creating a neat and tidy environment that even the neighbors would appreciate. When I was a kid, the responsible action was to drag your tree to the curb for the garbage collectors to haul away. Later, my husband and I accepted the inconvenience and cost of driving it across town to the recycling center. Now we’re being asked to put the needs of Mother Nature before our own longstanding beliefs about what makes us “good citizens” with a pristine lawn. Next, no doubt, our society will move away from the harvesting of live trees altogether.

Why am I writing about Christmas trees when our nation is living through a time of unsettling unrest? Because this week’s alarming occurrence at our nation’s Capitol Building on January 6 is the latest in a startling series of events that is causing us all to rethink what it means to be just and responsible, and to question how tied we should be to appearances or to once widely accepted social norms, and whether we need to throw out entire systems and old ways of thinking in order to serve the common good.

We are at a turning point in this country. We have a chance to surrender our attachments to the past and ask what America needs right now to heal and improve. Yes, we need to lay plans and work toward a better future, remembering that what defined a “better future” fifty years ago is very different from what defines it now, and will change again in fifty years. We will never “arrive” at that better future, but by focusing on a better now, we can move toward it.

When I first read that blog post, there was something so sad about the image of a dried-up Christmas tree “discarded” in my yard. I wasn’t sure I wanted to look at that for months on end. But then a tumbleweed blew on to my back deck. My husband went to throw it away. I told him no. Though it was dried up and fragile, it was somehow beautiful. Yesterday, I saw five swallows land on top of and hop below the tumbleweed. I watched them peck at or shelter beneath its branches, and my heart lifted.

It’s true many of the needed changes that are coming to this country will cause us to be inconvenienced or uncomfortable for a while, but it helps to remember we can change the way we see and do things. We do it all the time. We are far more creative and resilient than we often think.

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