For many of us in America, “the holidays” means erecting a tree. Usually from life from some woods or its simulation from a box that we assemble. But in any event, almost always, the icon we erect in our living rooms is “really most sincerely dead.”

But that tree is evanescently sparkling and alive for this brief season — set up after Thanksgiving and, for some, brought down last week after Twelfth Night. It is the bizarrely Teutonic mid-19th-century English appropriation of a pagan symbol of god-in-tree worship, spawned by the extreme Victorian love of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that took America by storm in the second half of that century.

The Puritans were not down with any mindless mimicry of godless symbolism (or self-indulgence) to the point that celebrating Christmas at all was illegal in Massachusetts into the first part of the 18th century. But today, we Americans like our dead trees. I like my dead tree.

Here in the Land of Puritans, New England, most people find any mention of God, let alone belief, well, pretty uncomfortable. The reality of professed, organized faith is becoming irrelevant to more and more people. But our culture’s deep devotion to the aesthetics of Christmas is as deep as if the entire culture were going to church every week. Aesthetics have triumphed over meaning to create a holiday culture devoid of why it was ever created. Just go to Starbucks and hold The Cup.

The secular flood of “the holidays” overwhelms our homes. We can see that now that the season has, finally, abated. Huge dinners, endless parties, decorations that completely control many of us for two months, or more. Detached from its Christian rationale, all of this points to the “the holidays’” initial reason for being — a celebratory link to the pagan recognition of the increasing light post-winter-solstice.

What is the reason we remake our homes to celebrate the sacred moments that New England’s culture is otherwise running away from? Do new cars with huge ribbons set upon them replace our instincts of Hope in the New Year? Are we simply worn out by nine months’ grind, as the farmer was, and simply Explode in Joy upon the temporary end of drudgery?

I think we find a sense of control in wholly remaking our lives for “the holidays.” That projection of our ability to control has nothing to do with anything much greater than ourselves. I think the buzzkill of ever-darkening days not only gives us the sugar high of Daylight Saving Time, but it also declares that whether we have faith or not, we do not control much. We do not want it to get darker every day — but it does not matter what we want.

So we control the darkest time of the year with the most ritualistic fervor we can muster: that tree, the wreaths, the presents, the parties in deeply secular and correct office places, the endless binges of treacly holiday films, the unrelenting holiday Muzak and mistletoe.

I know it was all imposed, because now it has been removed.

Everything we humans make, including ourselves, has a shelf life. We are as temporary as those trees, even the fake ones. We obsessively deny that extreme fact by making enough distracting noise (especially during the holidays) that we can focus away from the the truth of the reality of faith. Here in the northeast more of us prefer to posture that the entire sea of rituals “is for the children!”

In the absence of control, our lives are lived in hope for the faithless and mystery for the faithful. Science crushingly reveals more inscrutable complexity every day. We can save the world if we reduce our carbon footprint. Or lose 20 pounds. Or our kid goes to Harvard. But it is not our world to save.

After about 60 years, I have come to think our world is revealed to us in those magical places of beauty and love and faith that we see and receive every day, not in the rituals we design, build, and attend. Whether a baby’s eyes, or the dawn, or the smell of the ocean, this joy is ours, given to us, in every season. And I do think humans run with our love of beauty to generate it among ourselves. The beauty of human connection is at the essence of sports, music, A Christmas Carol, those amazing Christmas services, and yes, our trees. But beauty is not season-dependent.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “beauty is God’s handwriting.” Here in New England, at Christmas, most believe that they, the creators of their home-focused holidays, make beauty and revel in that power. Those trees, once hugely dominant in their power of provenance and iconic sentimentality, are now diminished carcasses lying somewhere. They were always dead; now, maybe, we can see that. The truth is, beauty was given to us, no matter when and how.

We are now confronting death in our street curbs. Those husks of Christmas past are now being quickly eliminated from view. But those deaths, are, in truth, the one lesson almost no one wants to learn from all our rituals — that they end, because everything, and everything we are, ends.

Except the love of God.

(All pictures are from the Dickinsons’ 2018 Christmas.)