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Monday, January 7, 2013

Spirits in the night

An old high school mate posted this to Facebook yesterday, and it seems worth reposting here. With any luck he won't sue us for using it:

Just took down the tree. It always seems kind of mean that it starts to smell its best just before you have to chuck it. And putting it out on the curb always takes me back.

If you happen to be stopped in traffic at the end of the NJ Turnpike viaduct to the Holland Tunnel and glance over to the right, you'll see what's left of the neighborhood I grew up in. There's a ball field there that's a lot nicer now than it was when I was a kid. Every year around this time me and my friends would scour the streets for blocks in every direction and drag discarded Christmas trees to that field. We'd make a huge pile of them, then somebody would light a match.

It never took more than one.

In seconds there would be flames shooting way, way up high into the frigid winter night air and the heat was so intense you'd have to stand ten feet back. We'd gather in a semi-circle on the upwind side and just watch. There was no singing or hooting or any other kind of primal rite... just a bunch of kids hypnotized by fire. I guess we didn't feel like the magic needed any help.

Funny thing, I don't remember ever having any issues with the Fire Dept. or the cops. But that's the way old city neighborhoods were. I don't doubt that the cops saw us out there in the middle of the field. How could you miss us? But they probably saw themselves twenty years earlier, staring into their own holiday-ending bonfires. Maybe they even wanted to join in. They probably thought our collective street smarts were enough to keep us safe. In a perverse kind of way, it might have even been good for us. You'd only have to experience one of those fires to develop a lifelong respect for the combustibility of dried up Christmas trees.

These days, when I walk the dog past the sad, lonely, dark trees sitting on the curb waiting to be recycled, I'm really tempted to give them one last moment of spectacular luminosity. It'd be a fitting and more dignified send-off, considering how they've given their lives for one silly holiday. But suburban neighbors and suburban police are of a different time and a different ethos.

I leave the matches at home.

Comments (7)

Beautiful. And your friend can write.

A very old friend of mine is a Las Vegas stage magician (swear to Elvis), and I've known him since he was 11. His parents own a huge stretch of land south of Dallas, so he does the same thing every year when he comes back to visit his folks. He invites all of his friends to come out with their Christmas trees toward the end of January, stack them up in the middle of a field, and have a "Death To Christmas" party. I had no idea how many New Yorkers Jimi had among his friends until so many told me about the old bonfires in the old days. Thank you for sharing that, Jack: that makes me determined to come out to Jimi's next party later this month and join in the spectacle.

Ah, heck...


We did exactly the same thing in Tuckahoe, just north of the city. As many as 20 trees per burn. We hid just in case anybody in uniform ever showed up because sometimes they did. But normally it was just a slow drive by watching the embers settle. Never knew that was happening on ball fields all around the city. Thanks for the story, Jack.

Attended such an event in northern Minnesota 3 or 4 years ago, billed as an "Epiphany Fire". 12-15 retired Christmas trees were piled up in a snowy field. The trees were so loaded with flame retardant that multiple attempts to light, including the use of 12+ gallons of diesel fuel and scrap lumber all ended with a pile of smoldering half charred trees sizzling in melted snow and reeking of diesel fuel. Not nearly as spectacular as it must have been "back in the day"

I recall the Hollywood boosters did a similar thing for fund raising in the 1950’s. Apparently they stopped the practice when some prankster lit the trees before the planned event.

Back in the day, on Christmas night my father would take the used ribbons, ripped wrapping paper and discarded cardboard packaging out to set ablaze. It was a beautiful and peaceful sight, especially when framed by falling snow.

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