I like Christmas trees, I like real, cut Christmas trees. I like their piney smell and their blue waxiness and the way they feel in your hand. I like the way you have to look after them for three or four weeks, and I like the way they make the holiday season seem a little special in a world that is fractious and in the thrall of money.
The whole Christmas thing is a balancing act between joyful celebration and excessive consumption, and I would think if you lived in the ersatz palace we call a McMansion, the need to find a tree tall enough to fill the inner void would be vexing. Or maybe not.
Given the contemporary risk of overindulgence, it is hard to imagine a far-off day when even the most modest of celebrations were once banned.
The puritan grip on England was so strong in the middle of the 17th century that it’s a wonder the Pilgrims here didn’t catch the next Mayflower back.
The Christmas tree is generally viewed as a German invention that caught on in the 1840s when Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, gathered their family around a resplendent tree. The scene was depicted in the Illustrated London News.
Readers saw a six-foot fir tree, decked out in ornaments that would be familiar to us today, as well as the little candles, the wax tapers, that illuminated trees before the age of electricity and string lights.
Even this regal tree was not as splendid as the ones we take for granted today. Our trees, which are farmed in upland fields, develop into handsome, bushy pyramids through summertime trimming. The very finest trees of the Dickensian age were scrawnier, but the more interesting point about Queen Victoria’s festive conifer is that it was shown sitting on a table.
Tabletop trees — both real and artificial — are as popular as ever. They are smaller, more manageable and cheaper than freestanding ones. These attributes make them the go-to tree for singles in apartments, young couples watching their pennies, empty-nesters, people fleeing the city for the holiday and, in general, people who want to tap into the joy of the Christmas tree without going overboard. I am still partial to a seven-foot Fraser fir, reaching for the ceiling, but I see the allure of downsizing.
If you go to a garden center at this time of year, you might see young conifers in red pots that evoke the small Christmas tree. Though festive, they will despise being kept indoors, where it is too warm, too dry and too dark for plants that are yearning for winter dormancy. They would like it on the front stoop, or an entrance terrace.
The other problem is that they might not work as a garden plant, if you want to keep them.
The little rosemary tree will last a couple of weeks in most rooms before the ambient conditions and overwatering will cause it to die — it’s a creature for a bright, 50-degree conservatory. Enjoy it as fleeting aromatherapy.
The tabletop tree seems the most virtuous: festive, demure, fragrant and honestly temporary. You still have to treat them as cut trees, placed in a water-holding tree stand, to prevent them from drying, dropping needles and becoming fire hazards.
If that is too much to ask, artificial tabletops are available.