The Shocking Origins of the Christmas Tree

Christmas Eve is almost upon us…and traditionally, this is when folks get their Christmas tree.  If you do it right, you’ll get it the night before, decorate it, and break it down before New Year’s.  But this is no longer how we do it; we make the moment stretch—stretch to accommodate the long season of buying, of capitalism, of movies—rolling out like red carpets; we buy the Christmas tree at the beginning of December and festoon it with imitation German ornaments hand-crafted in China.  And then we worry as our little slice of Yule becomes old and brittle and ready to set the house on fire.

christmas tree

My neighbors do it right, though.  They’re the Volvo couple–classy in every way.  He’s a photographer who just had a show in Paris.  She’s a food stylist who always has parties where people take instagrams of the charcuterie.  They make all their food in Le Creuset Dutch Ovens.  Sometimes I see them in their picture window—her quilting, him lighting dinner candles—and I think dark thoughts about the inadequacies of my frozen lasagna.

This is how classy they are:  they only just bought their tree yesterday, they have yet to decorate it, they will promptly drop it in the bin the day after.  They are purists in every way and follow American traditions to the L*E*T*T*E*R.  It is incredibly stressful to live next to them.

They have two of these in matching colors!

They have two of these in matching colors!

But I console myself with smug thoughts:  one of the paradoxes about Christmas is that it is and isn’t about purity.  It’s a pagan holiday; its traditions, grafted onto an invasive species—the colonizing force propelling a religion that, like a barnacle underneath the great ship of conquest, hitched a ride from distant waters and plopped down in a new place, promptly eliminating all the flora and fauna that it touched.

The Christmas tree is a great example of that.  Not a lot of people know that the most typical—the most popular—Christmas tree comes from a little subtropical island that belongs to South Korea.  Cheju Island is a far flung outpost of Korea—an outlier of the peninsula, mainly because it sits in the Pacific Ocean closer to the equator.  Cheju enjoys a climate that makes it something like Hawaii.  And people go there for honeymoons or senior class school trips or the pleasures of legalized gambling.

Cheju Do

During the Korea war, American GI’s would go to Cheju Island for R&R—to get over the shell shock.  And the popular story goes that it is on that volcanic island that the commercial potential of the Korean Fir was realized by an enterprising young American.  I hardly have to describe it to you because if you are an American, you already know: the tree is a perfectly shaped cone and bushy and resistant to disease and fast-growing: in short, it is a sure profit with little loss during production.  It has the additional merit of being pure eye candy.


The American GI story is how I heard it first from my wife who is of Korean origin and first gave me the account of the Gusang Namu, as it is called.  And this is how the story goes when it travels among her people—the popular story told by Koreans who relish giving this little fact of their hand in the great Western institution that they have taken to heart.  But it’s most likely a bastardized story with some truth-elements:  there’s just too much Romanticism in it all.

For me, the more important story is not a romantic one but a courtroom drama.  You see, Abies Koreana may have traveled to the US for commercial purposes after the Korean War, but it was first brought to the US of A by scientists in 1904 who housed the specimen in the Smithsonian.  Why is this significant?

Well, the fact that the Korean Fir Tree was collected by the Smithsonian means that it is “owned” by them, not by the country of origin.  And so this tree, like so many other natural resources, can be licensed…just as Monsanto licenses its seeds.  If you want to know more about the technical dimension of this legal issue, follow this link.


1904 is a particularly significant period in Korean history—a time of great vulnerability.  You see, Korea was previously a Hermit Kingdom—a country cut off from Western contact until the last great imperial dynasty fell in 1895.  From 1895-1910, Korea experienced a time of flux—a “period between empires,” as historians term it–a time of great vulnerability that ended when Japan took over and turn it into a colony.

So, the entry of the United States in 1904 to take “specimens” falls at an opportune moment—a moment when nobody was on guard, when the virgin nation wandered its garden in the dark of the night without protection.  Korea is quite aware of this.  It pressed for “recovery of rights” at the International Convention of Biological Diversity in 2010.  I’m not sure if this action was successful but, if so, it would entitle the country to get a slice of the royalties not only for a tree that has become the symbol of an American celebration but also 20,000 specimens, 280 of which are being used commercially.

Korean Bride

So this is one angle in the story of the Christmas tree—one playing out in diplomatic circles–that is behind the tree that we all festoon with tinsel and twinkling lights.  I have half a mind to walk over to my classy Volvo neighbors and tell them this story of cultural imperialism and rape and legal shenanigans.  “Your Christmas tree is sheer hokum,” I’d tell them.  But I know that they’d just invite me into a candle light dinner of Le Creuset pot roast.  The man of the house would offer me a steaming glass of Christmas cheer.  And I’d feel just plain awful because I would prove to myself, once again, exactly how small and begrudging I always knew I was.

Merry Christmas!!!!

Happy Christmas and A Merry New Year: A Writing Exercise Done Backward

My wife is a foreigner—an immigrant from Korea who came to the United States for her master’s degree, married a local, and decided to stay.  And so, like Gulliver, who travels to distant lands where people are freaky–too short or too tall–she often finds the habits of our Great Country a little bit eccentric.

South Korea

This makes me, by default, her cultural interpreter—her tour guide:  the one chosen to explain the strange ways of the North American hominoid.  Far from being a hassle, it actually is an education.  You see, cultural insiders often take a million things for granted—things like a liberal exchange policy at any store you shop at (never in Korea where you will be screamed at), or unlimited napkins at the fast food joint (you only get one), or walking in the house with your shoes on (the most sinful defilement).

Topping the list is the fact that she doesn’t get my taste for campy Christmas movies:  those movies like A Christmas Story or Trading Places that I watch every year.  “Those people are so ugly,” she tells me.  “I don’t like to look at them.”


“Baby, that’s exactly what is so appealing about the anti-Christmas story—the thing that cuts against expectation.”  But how do you explain that to a cultural outsider?  Well, you actually have to dig deep into yourself and ask some hard questions and first explain it to yourself.

You see, Christmas—the commercial Christmas–was an invention of the Victorian period.  It is that period of mass-production, of industrialism when all sorts of nice stuff from cheap gifts to cheap furniture, became the norm.  It is the period of capitalism reaching full stride.

But it was also a period of severe fragmentation—of disruption, of unrest—the time when folks were swept from the countryside into the cities; a time when things fall apart and the center does not hold; so the memory of an idealized ritual—a readymade thing called CHRISTMAS–was necessary to make a nation always on the verge of crisis, come together like a quivering pudding fresh out of the oven.

Before the modern CHRISTMAS, people wrote actual letters.  After CHRISTMAS, they bought mass-produced prints by Currier and Ives–beautiful prints of the Christmas life that they could never really have.  And these became the template for poor people to entertain upper-middle class fantasies of domestic perfectness that everybody could attain for a dime.  Remember that line from that old Christmas sleighbell song:

“It’ll be nearly like a picture print by Currier and Ives

These wonderful things are the things we’ll remember all through our lives.”

Notice the word “nearly”?  The approximation of an approximation of an approximation? This kind of imagery formed the template for the avalanche of crap that would follow…the Norman-Rockwell-Miracle-on-49th-Street atrocities.

Reproduction of a Currier and Ives Stamp

Reproduction of a Currier and Ives Stamp

The anti-Christmas movies are about our failings to match up to that vision—our entrapment within a world dedicated to making us good workers.  Yes, there is A Christmas Story and Trading Places but they are only off-shoots of a mightier branch:  You have darker masterpieces like David Sedaris’s amazing Holidays on Ice (where he plays an elf at a mall) or Augusten Burroughs’s even darker You Better Not Cry (where the autobiographical author has a one night stand with Santa).

Trading Places

Trading Places

So here is the task:  take a holiday—any holiday—and turn its expectations on its head.  Import a gothic element—a note of ugliness that befuddles the arrangement of tinsel.  Get nasty and imagine how you could really shock and perplex and befuddle your relatives on this sacred cow holiday.  I swear:  the writing will take care of itself, because if there’s one thing we love that makes us all True Blue Americans:  we love to hate holidays.

Writing Exercise: Fucking with Sentimentality

Be forewarned:  this is a tough exercise–one of my toughest–mainly because it is based on mastering some high-level conceptual material.  But if you often fantasize about getting into an MFA program, you will quickly learn that those famous writers in their turtlenecks will force you to master this concept and get rid of this sin:  the sin of SENTIMENTALITY.

Sentimentality is the gratuitous exploitation of emotions—the kind of stuff that pulls at your heartstrings, the kind of stuff that prompts you to cry or beat your chest:  the image of a mother holding a child in a run-down shack–that is textbook Sentimentality.


The great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung despised Sentimentality.  And his indictment of it rested on the idea that it was hypocritical:  masking a disturbing violence that sits like a bloody imp feeding upon the soul of humanity.

Confused?  It’s best to illustrate Sentimentality with an example:

Recently, I’ve been getting these memes—short narratives distributed through Facebook—that are incredibly Sentimental.  One recounted the story of a teacher who mistreated a student because he was a misfit–poor, dirty, withdrawn.  The misfit gives her a gift—some perfume and a bracelet with missing rhinestones—and the teacher laughs.  It is only later that the teacher realizes the kid is  giving her his very best present. The punchline is this:  both perfume and jewelry belonged to his recently deceased mother and we suddenly realize that the teacher is a total bitch who should be slapped in the face and frog-walked before the tribunal of the world so that she can be mocked and hooted at.

Teddy Stallard

Of course, nobody in this story is real—not the student, nor the teacher.  What is real is the story’s enduring popularity.  The story was first published in 1974 in a religious magazine and has been edited, redacted, reworked, adapted, rearranged–all so many times that we know it has hit a nerve. What is real is the incredible violence that sits baring its teeth at the center of the story.  In fact, Carl Jung might say that it testifies to a certain kind of blood lust in all of us.

Why?  Ultimately, the story is about making an example out of people.  And the hypocrisy is that one powerless member of society (the kid) is exchanged for another (the teacher) who becomes a whipping post for moral outrage– the dog we kick for shits and giggles.

Sentimentality appears everywhere in our lives because it is mass-manufactured.  It is “kitsch”–cheaply produced and ready for mass-consumption.  If you’ve ever purchased a picture of a soldier kissing a girl as he returns from war, you have invested in a piece of Sentimentality based on a brew of patriotism, heroism, romanticism.  Such images are simply excuses to hide our true intentions—the glee that we feel in the violence enacted upon people in foreign lands and the violence we will enact on these “heroic” young men who are simply pawns of international diplomacy.

Aren't We Glad We Dropped the Bomb on All Those Fuckers?

Aren’t We Glad We Dropped the Bomb on All Those Fuckers?

In Misery, we see how that master of horror turns sentimentality into a commentary of the crippled writer.  If you recall, a famous writer, not unlike Stephen King, is captured by his adoring fan, Annie Wilkes,  who holds him prisoner.  This fan has a fantastic collection of little ceramic figurines–sentimental displays–arranged in perfect order.  And when the author-figure tries to escape her clutches, he accidentally disarranges her little assemblage and she goes buck wild.  She literally cripples him.


For the MFA workshop, Sentimentality is bad.  But this is not to say that Sentimentality is bad in general—or even something absolutely to be avoided.  If you are a copywriter in an advertising agency or a preacher at a pulpit or a politician on the campaign trail, Sentimentality is incredibly useful. In fact, if you are writing genre fiction—detective, romance, true crime—Sentimentality is a useful tool if you know how to manipulate it.  Sentimentality is the bazooka that we carry in the knapsack of our hearts to pillage and maim and destroy while still looking human.


Poster advertising an International Philosophy Conference on Kitsch & Sentimentality. Yes, this is a field of study!

So here is the task:

  1.  First, meditate on your favorite image of Sentimentality.  If you don’t think you have one, you are wrong:  they are the images that cause tears to come to your eyes.
  2. Then, Google that image.  Why?  Because it’s easier to study–to dissect–a concrete image that stands immediately before you.  Try to figure out how the sentimentality plays you like a piano–how it turns on the waterworks and manipulates you.
  3. Finally, use that image as a launching point for a vignette that utilizes sentimentality to manipulate emotions.

This is a tough exercise.  It may take some work.  But I guarantee you that it is worthwhile: you will learn something about Sentimentality from the inside out. You will know what the bazooka is like when you hold it in your hands.   And if you leave with nothing else from this exercise, you will at the very least learn about the kind of fiction that those turtleneck artsy-fartsy types don’t like in MFA programs.