As a child, I spent part of each summer at my grandparents’ house, where my younger sister and I shared a little attic room that they had prepared for us as a bedroom. The pine-paneled attic was also the storage place of items I found fascinating: books and clothing from the last century, postcards my grandfather bought in Europe in the early 1900’s, old furniture. One day, exploring the attic, I came upon a small pillow, made of rough, beige fabric. It felt peculiar, so I squeezed it, and caught the scent of balsam.
Balsam was our family’s tree of choice at Christmas. Discovering in my grandparents’ hot attic a scent I associated with the cold winters of Northern New York State transported me right back to the wonderful feelings I associated with that winter holiday time of year. The pillow also reminded me of the happy, lazy summer days I spent at our cabin on the Raquette River in the Adirondacks, exploring the pine-scented trails, climbing rocks, and swimming. I slept with the tiny pillow each night of our visit, but left it behind at my grandparents’ when we returned to our New York home. A few years later, my grandmother died, the house was sold, and I never knew what became of the balsam pillow.
Many years later, not knowing this story, a friend gave me as a Christmas gift a balsam pillow filled with needles from the Adirondacks. I don’t think he realized how special that gift was for me. The scent was just as evocative as it had been when I was a child. That’s when I decided that I would make small, fragrant balsam pillows to give as gifts. I’ve done that each year, and I also sell some of them.
It’s become a January ritual. Earlier today I removed needles from our undecorated, dry, balsalm tree. This year, as in years past, I found myself entering a light trance state, as I methodically performed the repetitive motion of removing needles from each branch into a bag on my lap. I thought about this tree, about taking its life to bring fresh greenery into the house at a bleak time of year, which my Northern European ancestors did for centuries. Using the needles is a way of recycling part of the tree, but today, the word “sacrifice” came to mind.
The root word of “sacrifice” comes from a Middle English verb meaning “to make sacred,” from the Latin sacrificium: sacr, “sacred” and facere, “to make.” Perhaps I can regard cutting down the tree as a sacrifice of a living being, making the tree sacred as part of our mid-winter holiday. The tree is a symbol of life, because it holds its green throughout the winter. At this cold and dark time of year, the sacred tree reminds me that life does go on, the green is with us, and will return in full as the days lengthen. Hildegarde of Bingen (1098 – 1197) wrote of the greening power of the Christ, viriditas, green power and energy.
Creating the balsam pillows, I think about the tree’s sacrifice, and about the life that abides and returns. These thoughts transport me into the past of my ancestors, to my childhood, and into the future, as I daydream of the return of the green, with balsam needles in my hands.