The other day walking around the Hollywood Reservoir, I discovered a tree covered in Christmas decorations. Two trees actually. “Festooned” with decorations might be pushing it, since this is January and as glittery it appeared, a tinge of belatedness vibrated at the edges. Large silver bells, flat stencil-style presents and glittery disco-style bulbs that are either silver or green and garland gold and ribsy. Everything shone in that I-don’t-recognize-the-meaning-of-January Los Angeles sun.
As I paused at the tree, some weird cocktail of juvenile delinquency and middle-aged nostalgia intoxicated me and I thought about stealing one of the silver disco balls. After all, it was Christmas and surely this tree had been decorated for a lark anyway and stealing was probably built into the design of a publicly decorated Christmas tree. But almost as soon as this impulse surfaced, like a good ex-Catholic, I immediately drown it in a tidal wave of shame and self-loathing.
Then I noticed the sign spinning and breathing among the ornaments. Handwritten and cardboard it said something like:
PLEASE DO NOT STEAL OUR ORNAMENTS. EACH ONE REPRESENTS SOMEONE WHO CAN NO LONGER WALK WITH US.
I’ve been trying to develop a more sophisticated version of God than “hypercritical eyeball that reads your every thought,” but this sign wasn’t helping.
As a kid, I read our Christmas tree like some annual, familiar, but always slightly altered text. The ornaments had specific histories, and their placement in the branches varied, and so the story they retold each year created slightly altered tones and new narrative possibilities. Only the nativity scene with its jagged broken donkey ear assumed the same position—perched on two barely developed branches near the trunk in the dark center of the tree. I always knew where it was, and yet my eye always came upon it as the surprised or lost child in a fable encounters a house in a primeval clearing. The story I usually concocted had something to do with the proximity and juxtaposition of the holy and the kitschy–the baby Jesus bathed in the red and green light of the lights. On that outskirts of that sacred hollow, a Snoopy with antlers instead of beagle ears skated on an invisible pond.
We had had a tarnished silver disco ball on our Christmas trees in the 1970s, but my favorite ornament was the glass red Silent Night bulb with its white church steeple and its simple wave of snow. It reminded me of the words of another hymn—“The First Noel” and its cold winter’s night “that was so deep.” The line stuck with me long after midnight mass because I could sense eternity in it. That a night could be deep made me reconsider darkness itself as it settled over our house and across our fields. That sort of deep rolled like a storm cloud. It unfurled like a passage, wide and silent.
I suppose light has its own depth. The cardboard sign, somewhere between a plea and a warning framed itself in needles of light that jumped off the haphazard garland. It reflected me back at myself like the disco ball ornament I’d considered stealing. If I was living a myth (and who says I’m not?), my theft of the ornament would end in a haunting, my guilt fractured into a thousand spirit fragments in the miniature mirrors of the disco ball that I’d hung it blithely on my rearview mirror. Distracted by its mocking, spinning death whirl, I might drive my car into a ditch and no one would know I’d died of a heart attack brought on my ghosts before internal injuries.
This is the season of the naked and the abandoned. The fallen. Christmas trees haunt the alleys. I find the sight of these briefly coveted messengers of joy quite depressing. A tree if it is to be sacrificed, surely deserves to be an object of contemplation longer than the Christmas season or at least recycled to return in some fertilizing capacity to the earth. Passing these desolate trees on sidewalks, I feel their silent reproach. It’s as if I’m in church all over again: I died for you. There is something that sees hidden deep in those branches, something stolen from the pagan forest dragged inside and draped with new religion, then stripped again and forgotten.
I like to imagine the tree on the edge of the Hollywood Reservoir still decorated in May or June, surprising those running or walking along the sandy shoulder of the road, the silver bells in the silent dry light of summer, the ragged breath of garland, the words lodged in its living branches.