Climbing (not Cutting) a Christmas Tree

Climbing (not Cutting) a Christmas Tree December 8, 2014

Editor’s Note: Tis the season to enjoy the cheery holiday decorations that are all around town. They brighten up the darkest days of the year. Here is a unique perspective on Christmas trees by a former Presbyterian Chaplain. He has an unusual personal connection to the day on which Christians celebrate the birth of their savior.


biophoto-150x150For quite a few years now, instead of cutting a tree to “celebrate life” (truly a bizarre act), I have climbed up a fir, pine, oak or alder on the day of my birth—December 25.

Growing up in the Puget Sound region and living the latter half of my life in the Bay Area, I am addicted to trees. It’s all Treeland to me. I spent hours up in trees as a boy and felt the exhilaration of sitting high to spy—to see farther than most ground-bound folks. I still can’t name every evergreen or conifer, towering giant or tiny growth, but I can name the gifts they give me: living breath, a place to think and not think, a reminder to look higher, and a need to keep going up. My walks in the woods have fully replaced everything faith once gave.

At some point over the last 25 years it hit me like a brick knocked off the chimney by reindeer: Why on earth do we kill anything we can (including our bank accounts) in this season of green and snow and peaceful silence in the woods? Why on earth do we slaughter countless animals and trees commemorating the season of “Peace on Earth”? I have always known the answer: Why on earth? Because we’d rather think of heaven. Earth is dirty and dusty, dangerous and full of death— it’s just so earthy! The angels are calling us higher to heaven, are they not? No, but the birds, the mountains, the rooted trees are—the true heralds of this beautiful season when nature is fully unwrapped, naked and seductive. The natural presents are free, not gold or glittery, but endlessly enticing to the wonders of winter, here in the only home and heaven we have.

I chose to cut down the tree of faith rather than a living tree. Now, December means so much more to me. It means avoiding the black Fridays, blue light specials and red stoplights of traffic jams as much as possible. It means staying away from the crowds herding in to store sales and sanctuary tales. I love some of the lights and songs. I suppose I’ll never let go of a few old tunes. Those Christmas Eve candlelight services I led with a pastor friend for years held some beautiful moments. But the old rituals and ancient words read in darkened chapels seem dull and fairly depressing now. None of that can hold a candle to the wild smells and sights and full sensual enjoyment of this time of year when the pageantry goes right by our windows and doors. The choirs have real wings, the secular scriptures are written in the rain and rivers, the snows and blows. The sermons are the best kind of all: silent.

My Christmas Baby blog is one place I can express an abiding appreciation for the natural gifts of the season and explore better ways to “do Christmas” than the artificial (and deadly) options we’ve been handed. As a child who shares the traditional day of nativity, I would say that the fairy tale of the Christ child has us hoodwinked. If it were about a poor, homeless child born of rebellious teens in an oppressive society, a minority kid whose cradle was a damp and dirty cow trough in a barn—gawd, one might almost believe there was something quite amazing about to happen. But we’ve been bamboozled into purity, piety and a baby God wrapped in ribbon and tinsel and stuffed under a fast-dying tree with a starry mess on top. Kinda pretty, but actually quite ugly. I once re-wrote the story as a local news item and read it to prisoners on Christmas. When I finished, one man asked me, with wide-eyes and serious face, if my non-supernaturalized story was true! I smiled.

To climb and not cut a tree in this darker, wetter time of year, is risky. If I slip and fall, chances are the slick and sticky arms would not catch me; I would hit the roots and end my life on the same day it began. I have no fear with that. What shakes me more is the thought that I once gave up this exhilarating participation in nature, this wonderful annual experience of life and living, these virescent living trees, for dead trees and a December dream.


biophoto-150x150Bio: Chris Highland served as an Interfaith Chaplain for 25 years. In 2001 he left his Christian ordination and “came out” as a non-theist freethinker.  He is a teacher, writer, housing manager and a member of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Secular Student Alliance. Chris is the author of ten books and host of Secular Chaplain.  Originally from Seattle, he lives in the SF Bay Area with hiswife Carol, director of the Marin Interfaith Council.

""For now, all I see is a Jesus who is worthy of derision, mockery and ..."

Why I Hate Jesus
"I've heard of some people experiencing pain after some quack treatment and being told, "That's ..."

How to Quack-Proof Yourself Against Pseudoscience
""Toxins" is signal for bad. I saw a billboard the other day advertising cosmetics that ..."

How to Quack-Proof Yourself Against Pseudoscience
"Second to the ongoing Trump Origination scams are likely Natural & the Organic labeling food ..."

How to Quack-Proof Yourself Against Pseudoscience

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mark Rutledge

    Thanks for this beautiful perspective.

  • Annerdr

    I love the idea of climbing a tree instead of cutting one.

  • mason

    Enjoyed your article Chris. “It means avoiding the black Fridays, blue light specials and red stoplights of traffic jams as much as possible. It means staying away from the crowds herding in to store sales and sanctuary tales.” I too share the joy of doing Crismas “lite”.

    As a kid when I wasn’t Roy Rogers I was Tarzan and spent quite a bit of time in my favorite trees so I can relate to your love of climbing trees. My mother would often say “go outside and climb a tree!”, and she meant it. One tree in particular was where I’d often take a packed lunch and climb high up to my special roost, dine, and survey my earthly kingdom.

    When I was in the 6th grade I learned about the annual fatalities and burn victims from Xmas tree fires from Mrs. Conboy who taught our science and first aid class. I convinced my parents to quit putting lights on the tree. As an adult I never bought or decorated a tree; we now have a lovely 18″ high glass one, with miniature presents, on the dining table. In one of my first places of employment our wonderful competent and charming secretary Mrs. Bonner, who looked a lot like Greta Garbo (same eyebrows too) died in an Xmas tree fire with her husband. (circa 1962)

    Each season an average 6 people burn to death in the US from Xmas tree fires (many more burn victims), and aprox 18 million in property fire damage will occur. (that’s a lot of homes)

    Have you considered wearing a safety strap on your climb? Knowing you were safer would help me have a more worry free Stressmas. 🙂

    • No, Mason, I go strapless. . .(in my birthday suit?), but thanks for the concern. I would hope kids still find climbing trees an adventurous natural high.
      Thanks for the childhood story. Those fires may be one way the trees take revenge for the yearly slaughter!

      I like “stressmas”. . .just what much of it has become.
      The best of the solstice season to you!

      • Linda_LaScola

        I was a tree climber too, as a kid. I don’t remember anyone teaching me how to do it. Unlike riding a bike or tying my shoes, no instruction was needed – it came naturally. Now I’m wondering why I ever stopped!

        It may become a new Christmas tradition, along with my ongoing practice of putting lights and decorations on my houseplants. (no tree chopping for me, either)

        • Lights on the houseplants! Great, Linda.
          Lots of candles work too, in this darker season.
          I’ll share one other little “tradition” my (minister) wife and I are trying: for several years we’ve put some greens and gifts on a wooden chair near the fireplace and christened it the Solstice Chair. Sort of like the chair for santa or elijah’s seat or something. . .but not. For the gifts of Nature including thoughtful and loving presents.
          Anything to find “natural celebration” in this greening season!
          Ho ho.

  • Sandra Craft

    Even as a young kid, trying very hard to be religious like everyone told me I should be and go along with all the conventions, I was depressed by Xmas trees. Yes, they looked very pretty with all the ornaments and tinsel on them, but I could never get past the fact that it was a living thing dying slowly in a corner of the living room.
    As an adult, I’ve never had one. I’ve put ornaments on many a potted plant, used metal ornament trees and folded unwanted books into tree shapes and decorated those. I’ve seen some people use garlands to create large tree shapes on the wall and put presents under them. Not only avoids the dying tree/tree fire problem, but I think fits better with small city apartments and city living in general.

    • What you say here, Sandra, is the common sense our culture needs to hear. All it takes is a little. . .reflection, thought, creative thinking. Probably ancient religious traditions will not be leading the way with that (smile). Letting things live. . .wouldn’t THAT be a nice way to mark this season?! Thanks for commenting. Have a peaceful season.