A variation on the Fir Tree (by Hans Christian Andersen)
Years ago (in the 1840’s), the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen told a story about a Fir-Tree; an evergreen. Whether it was a Fraser fir, a cedar, blue spruce or another variation, I don’t know- nor is it important (to me.) What is important is that this story was re-told and re-enacted by my family over many years of the 20th century. It is a story that, frankly, given the losses that my family has taken this year, I need to retell. And it is also a story that, with an added dash of metaphor and imagination can speak to all of us of the enduring love God has built into creation, that we see- as the Apostle Paul says, ‘as through a mirror, dimly’, but still- somehow, gives us hope, encouragement & promise, enough at least for today and the next day to come.
Once there was a little Fir Tree. It stood among a host of others, in Jackson Township, Pennsylvania. (Real tales are not set in fairly lands.) It grew in the rocky soil of western Monroe County, in the tightly packed woods, behind the sturdy stone walls that bordered the corn fields and cow pastures. The patch of land where this tree was rooted opened to the west, with ample sun and plentiful wind, with the looming ridge of Camelback Mountain in view. The sun shone on him and nearby grew many large-sized colleagues, white pines, blue spruce as well as Fraser firs. And this little Fir wanted so very much to be a grown-up tree.
As he absorbed the warm sun, the fresh air, and soaked up the rain that seeped down to his roots, he grew, both in size and in his expectation of what he was to become. From time to time he took special note of the sounds of the children who ran through the woods looking for wild blueberries. Sometimes the children would gather up a kitchen strainer full of berries, or fashion a long row of them threaded on a string, and then sit near the young tree, commenting admiringly: “What a nicely shaped tree he is! What a nice little fir!” This spurred the little tree’s growth all the more.
At the end of the year he had shot up a good deal, and after another year he was another stretch taller; for with fir trees one can tell by the shoots how old they are.
In winter, when the snow lay glittering on the ground, a rabbit would sometimes come leaping along. A few years ago it would jump right over the little Tree, and oh, that made him angry! But some winters were past and now the Tree was large enough that the rabbit was obliged to go around it. “To grow and grow, to get older and be tall,” thought the Tree — “that, of all things, is the best thing in the world!”
In the fall, some men entered the small woods with axes to chop down a few of the largest trees, not so much his fellow firs, but an oak or a maple here and there. This happened every year; and the young Fir Tree that had now grown to a very healthy size trembled at the sight; for the magnificent, tall trees fell to the ground with loud, cracking noises. Their branches were quickly lopped off and the trees looked long and bare; hardly recognizable as a tree. Then they were laid in carts and dragged out of the wood.
Where did they go? What became of them? Who knew?
In early Spring, when the robins and the swallows returned, the Tree asked them, “Don’t you know where the others have been taken? Have you seen them anywhere?”
All they could say was “that would be very hard to explain to you…” And the Fir tree was left, pondering. And the Wind blew from the west, and the rain wept tears over him; but the Fir did not understood.
As time rolled along and Christmas came again, the men entered the forest with their axes. Three young trees were cut down: trees not nearly as large or the same age as the Fir Tree. These young trees, very fine looking, retained their branches; they were laid on carts and drawn carefully out of the wood.
“Where are they going?” asked the Fir. “They are not taller than I; there was one indeed that was much shorter than I, and why do all their branches remain? Where are they taken?”
“We know! We know!” chirped the Sparrows. “We peeked in windows in homes nearby! We know where they are taken! The greatest magnificence awaits them. We saw them planted in the middle of the large room, ornamented with splendid, shining balls and more shining lights than we could number.”
“And then?” asked the Fir Tree, trembling with excitement in every branch. “And then? What happens then?”
“We did not see anything more: but it was wonderfully beautiful.”
“So, how will I know myself if I am destined for so glorious a career?” asked the Tree, yearning. “If only Christmas came more than once a year. I do not know why I am here or what I am to do!”
“Simply rejoice in your living!” said the Wind and the Rain. “Rejoice in the life you are given,” beamed down the message of Sunlight.
But the Tree did not rejoice, and determined himself to grow and grow, frustrated by the uncertainty of his future. Green both in winter and summer, he grew tall, strong and proud. Children playing in the woods looked up at him and said, “What a fine tree!” Farmers took special notice of him. He would be just right for their needs.
The next year, two weeks before Christmas, he was the first to be cut down. The axe struck deep into his very pith. The Tree fell to the earth with a sigh; he felt a pang – a deep swoon, as some needles dropped. He could not draw on the happiness he had hoped for, so sad he was at being separated from his home, from where he had sprung up. He knew that he would never see his dear old comrades, the little bushes and flowers around him anymore; perhaps not even the birds! The departure was not all agreeable.
The Tree only came to himself when he was unloaded from a cart with a few other trees, set upright once again. He heard a man’s voice, “That one is splendid! Just right for us.”
Two young men carried the Fir Tree away again. Tied on the roof a sedan, the road was winding, bumpy and rough. They came to a stop in front of a large home in the countryside with a view of the mountain ridge. In the home a few portraits hung on the walls, with a large, open fireplace along the far wall. There were two large easy-chairs, a settee sofa, and two shining lamps in view. And in the room’s corner the Fir Tree was planted, upright in a wooden barrel cut in half and filled with sand; but no one could see that it was a barrel, for green cloth was hung all round it. It looked like it was on a small hillside made just for the Tree.
Now this was exciting. The Tree quivered! What was to happen? Children, three boys and three girls, began to decorate. On one branch there hung little ceramic birds, tightly clipped on. On another branch hung stars made out of colored paper, and on other branches different decorations were suspended, silver tinsel, tiny figures of all sorts, small baubles, glittering shapes and sizes, all reflecting the light that shone on them. And what a light it was! The Fir Tree had never before beheld such a thing.
At the very top of his branches, on the lone branch spiking straight up, stood a broad star of gold. It shined with a brilliance the Tree had never seen before. And a single strand of tiny glass lights was wrapped all around him, colors of the rainbow that somehow mysteriously each shone with the brightness of the sun. The magnificence that adorned him was truly overwhelming.
“Oh!” thought the Tree. “Perhaps other trees from the forest will know of what I now look like! Maybe the sparrows will come to the windowpanes to have a look and share the news. I wonder if I will take root here, and through winter and into summer stand covered with ornaments!”
He was nearly bursting with pride; this is what he was waiting for all these years – he never imagined the beauty he radiated!
Before he knew it, though, the lights upon his branches went dim, and so did the room in which he was placed. Night fell more suddenly than he had ever experienced. The Tree felt a moment of tremble, uneasy lest he should lose something of his splendor, quite bewildered at the immediate, unexpected change from day to night. Taking it all in, the sudden darkness was a relief.
And then, after a night shorter than he knew could happen, daylight shone again, just as immediately as it had gone dark. Brightness filled the room, and with it a pack of children rushed in as if they would climb right up the Tree. Older people followed in quietly; each with a steaming cup in their hands. The little ones stood quite still. But that was only for a moment; soon they shouted that it was time for the boxes, wrapped in bright shiny paper on the floor, to be distributed and opened in some kind of ceremony.
“What will happen next?” thought the Tree, excitedly. But the Tree was not the center of attention anymore. The children played with their beautiful playthings; pretty dolls, metal trucks and bright new books. No one looked at the Tree but to see if there was a candy cane that had been forgotten.
Glowing through this most eventful day, the Tree could only expect this to be the pattern for his new life. ”The splendor is almost too wonderful to bear,” thought the Fir. But the very next day, things changed.
With little ceremony his shining lights were removed, as well as the baubles, birds, stars, and golden star on top. Something was dreadfully wrong. Up! He was abruptly yanked out of his sandy moorings, dragged out of the room, and taken out the back door, down the steps, and left leaning against the wall of the house. What could this mean? What was happening?
He had time enough to ponder all this, though, for days and nights passed on, and no one came near. The winter’s cold was refreshing, but he was getting thirstier and drier day by day. What would happen next?
“The earth is hard and covered with snow; I will need to wait for Spring to be planted again,” thought the Tree. And just now, outside once again, a rabbit stopped by for a visit. “Odd to see you here,” said the rabbit.
“It is not where I ever expected to be,” said the tree.
“It is dreadfully cold,” said the rabbit. “But you don’t look uncomfortable, old Fir.”
“I am by no means old,” said the Fir Tree. “There’s many a Tree considerably older than I am.”
“You indeed look well, worn, though,” said the rabbit, ”for I see some of your branches are bent and you have few pine cones remaining.”
For the first time in days, it came to mind of the Tree’s small cones, some still stubbornly hanging on. A fatigue that he had never felt before began to settle in.
“What was it like inside the large house?,” the rabbit inquired.
Slightly startled, the Fir Tree quickly recalled what he had for so long sought. “Yes, that was a happy time.” And then he told all about Christmas-eve, when he was decked out with baubles and lights.
The rabbit was fascinated by all of this, but then asked “What is next for you, fine Tree?”
“That I do not know”, said the Tree. Yet as he felt the fresh air and a sunbeam upon his boughs, a fresh encouragement filled him from trunk to the top of his now bent but sturdy branches. Suddenly a man emerged from the back door, with a heavy, dark jacket and a dark gray fedora. He swept up the Tree, dutifully tossing him into the truck of the sedan parked behind the house. Once again the Tree was rumbling along the bumpy, bouncy, hilly roadway. The mountain ridge was once again in view, as was the familiar view of his small, square woodlands.
With a sudden stop his branches shook and shuddered, and as the trunk of the sedan was opened, he found himself tossed on a small hill of freshly fallen snow. He lay on his side, not fully upright, but with a view angled to look back into the small woods where he once grew strong. He felt his remaining tiny cones fall from his inner branches, so at home he was that he involuntarily relaxed and let go of all concern.
He was home, and this after all, is what he had longed for, more than anything.
And even as he became brittle, yellow and withered, even as he lay among nettles and weeds, he felt assured of his being in the right place, and belonging.