A massive pine towered over us, its crown dark green against a winter-white sky. This venerable conifer belonged to some obscure variety, which explained why it was here in the arboretum and its endless acres of trees. Standing beneath its shaggy boughs, I sheltered from the biting wind. Suddenly, I felt an impulse to open my arms and wrap them around the trunk, resting my face against its reddish bark.
In a world of disruptive change, this solid presence soothed me. Its evergreen needles—the very symbol of certainty and constancy—served to remind me of what stayed the same on this, the 24th of December in a Christmastime unlike any other we’ve experienced.
The ancients would have understood my spontaneous embrace. Thousands of years ago, before pines became synonymous with Christmas trees and wreaths symbolized greetings of the season, our ancestors believed evergreens contained magical powers to keep away illness and evil. They were correct. Today, herbalists hail the medicinal properties of conifers, and the anti-cancer drug Taxol comes from the bark of the Pacific yew tree.
All I know was that hugging that tree grounded me, if only for a moment. As the necessity of social distancing kept us away from loved ones — and I missed my son, who I could not see this holiday season — getting close and personal with a pine was, perhaps, the next best thing.
When I was a child, our mother sent my two sisters and me out into the woods on Christmas Eve Day to carol to the animals. We’d set out in the early afternoon, making our way over the stonewall that divided our property from the neighbor’s, and then crossed into our grandparents’ acres of pine trees. We knew our way around that forest as well as any place, including a special spot we called the rabbit run. Underneath the pine boughs we found the tracks and tracings of scampering animals. And there, we would sing.
Only much later did I figure out that the Christmas Eve walk in the woods had less to do with singing “Silent Night” for woodland creatures and much more to do with real silence in the house for our mother. As the youngest, I could hit a full-on Santa crescendo by about noon on the 24th. The walk burned some of my excess energy. I would return feeling “all is calm, all is bright.” Over the years, though, it became a beloved tradition.
This year, I wanted to recreate that long-ago experience. Without our annual Christmas Day party, in-person church services with a full choir, and mixing and mingling with friends, taking a walk in the woods on the 24th swelled to oversized importance. I absolutely had to do it.
The 18-degee temperature when my husband and I left for the arboretum tested our resolve. At least the 40-mile-per-hour winds that howled all night had subsided. Bundled and layered, we set off along frozen paths.
When we reached the conifers, I felt we were among kindred spirits. From there, we continued down the path, through beeches, oaks, and maples—mighty ones standing bare, their trunks and branches like a charcoal drawing. Stripped to their essence of bark and wood, they radiated a stark beauty at their core.
Up ahead, a red dot punctuated the monochromatic landscape. As we approached, we saw it was a Christmas ornament hung from a slender branch along the path. Fifty feet ahead there was another. But only these two.
Someone who had walked this path, whether hours or days before we did, left these small red balls behind. Why did not matter. On this, the Christmas of small things, what might have gone unnoticed or unappreciated at any other time, suddenly made us smile.