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Frank Godden's Christmas question: 'Why kill all those trees?'

The 98-year-old remembers when the holiday tree was displayed only in public places, symbolizing community and shared responsibility.

November 30, 2009|By Jocelyn Y. Stewart

Frank Godden is baffled by Christmas trees.

The truck that carries stacks of Christmas trees from a farm far away to a city lot near you might as well be a hearse, the way Godden sees it.

"It looks to me like a stack of dead bodies," Godden said. "Why kill all those trees?"

If he had his way, the killing would end.

Before you dismiss Godden as a tree-hugging, tie-dye wearing radical, consider this: Frank Godden is a child of the Depression, a veteran of World War II and a member in good standing of "the greatest generation." He is 98 years old and has seen many Christmases -- which helps explain why he is baffled.

These days it's easy to see the Christmas tree as a crucial element of any proper American celebration of the holiday. What is Christmas without a tree, tinsel, lights, ornaments and that wonderful smell? According to the National Christmas Tree Assn., Christmas trees are a billion-dollar industry in the U.S., which seems to provide further evidence of their utter necessity.

Some have predicted a drop in Christmas tree sales this year due to consumer belt-tightening and an oversupply. The tree now stands to symbolize something else: just how bad things are in the country. Yet, for someone like Godden, who has seen the prominence of the tree grow and change, a home without a tree is hardly an indication of an economic downturn. It is a throwback to a simpler time.

For the first two decades of his life, Godden -- who grew up in Suwannee County, Fla. -- celebrated lovely Christmases in homes where there were no trees. This was not a consequence of his family's religious views or poverty. Godden was simply raised differently. In his youth, the Christmas tree was displayed in public places and enjoyed in the context of community. It was big, beautiful and belonged to everyone.

"You didn't have Christmas trees in the home," Godden said. "The Christmas tree was in the church."

In his community, the elders, including his grandparents, were former slaves. His parents were part of the first generation born free. The children were their hope. Like so much else during those years, the tree was evidence of a community providing for itself in ways it had never been able to do before. The tree -- every shiny ornament -- was evidence that hope was a shared responsibility.

At home, Frank and his eight brothers and sisters still hung their stockings (socks) above the fireplace. Santa still came while the children slept, and every child in the Godden house still woke up happy on Christmas morning. Santa left meager gifts by today's standards: an orange, an apple and, during good years, a silver dollar.

Godden grew up and watched as Santa's gifts became more extravagant and the prominence of the tree grew. After his return from the war in 1946, the Christmas tree had gone home. On his block, Godden organized his neighbors to decorate outdoors. The existing sidewalk trees and those in the yards were perfect for ornaments. The neighbors went along with it, and the whole neighborhood and passersby enjoyed the shared celebration.

There are still trees on display at Los Angeles City Hall, Griffith Park, Leimert Park and public places throughout Southern California. But with each passing year, Godden has observed more and more people purchasing trees for inside.

Christmas tree farmers and merchants say trees support the environment. They are recyclable. And they do far less damage than fake trees. Christmas trees are not the kind of forest giants people rally to save. Devotees don't stage sit-ins at tree farms to prevent them from being cut down. Christmas trees are born to be cut down, recycled and born again.

But they come with a sacrifice: the spirit of togetherness that comes from shared solutions to a shared need. After all these years, it still seems strange to Godden that so much beauty remains behind closed doors. It feels like something lost, not gained.

"Why kill all those trees?" he asks.

Jocelyn Y. Stewart is writing a book about Frank Godden and is a fellow at the Horizon Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank.

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