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Vermont’s Sacred Tree

The 40-foot balsam Christmas tree, donated by North Light Farm in Calais, in front of the Vermont Statehouse is backdropped by the statue of Ceres on the Statehouse dome. Photo by John Lazenby.
With the western sky firing pink over the Greens, you knew something special was imminent. 

The last rays of the waning December sun came to shine on the tree, the first act in one of our most important Vermont traditions: the tree lighting ceremony. 

The ceremony started late, but it didn’t matter to the crowd milling around in the dusk on the Statehouse lawn, a pair of visiting goats wandering through the murmur of flatlander and Vermont accents and the call of elementary school children joining the voices of the children’s choir in “Christmas Time is Here,” composer Vince Guaraldi’s theme for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” 

When it did start, the tree lighting ceremony was bigger and better than ever, highlighting familiar Vermont ideals, such as the uniqueness of the land. The 40-foot balsam is a tree “like only Vermont can grow.”

Appeals to tradition were not forced, such as how the statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture on top of the golden dome, “shines down on us.” Or how the century-old North Light Farm in Calais, which donated the balsam, makes sure that everyone gets a cup of hot chocolate.

The ceremony stressed community connection. “It’s more important than ever,” Gov. Scott reminded us when describing his “Rays of Kindness” program, that “We remember the good in each other regardless of our differences.” 

Front and center was the 40-foot balsam, the largest ever — its 3,000 lights numbering 1,000 more than last year. The tree represented all these values and held them together — tradition, unity in kindness, connection to land and neighbors — an exemplar of flourishing in community as we move into the future. 

Overall the ceremony felt as ancient as anything we do. It felt as if there was never a time that we didn’t gather and light the tree. Yet the traditional feeling belies how new the tree lighting ceremony is. Although it began in the 1960s or 1970s, it was only in the ‘90s that the tree and fanfare began to grow into what we have today. 

I think the Vermont state Christmas tree tradition is growing organically to become our most authentic and visceral tradition — our “realest” civic ceremony — because it calls something out of us, our identity as a people of this forested land.

Even deeper, the tree lighting draws on our instinctual desire to gather ceremonially around a “sacred” tree. Human beings have been doing this from time immemorial, whether those trees be Thunder Oaks, Bodhi trees, or Sun Dance trees. 

Now we’re creating a way to do this again. The Vermont Christmas tree is dynamically evolving, shifting its emphasis in this public space from the religious symbol that it is in church settings to a symbol of civic connection and mutual caregiving. Becoming a little bit like the Eastern Pine for our Mohawk neighbors, the Great Tree of Peace, which stands at the center of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and holds the people together. 

 Can this tree hold us together? Can it bridge the complications for those who want the tree to have an exclusively “religious” meaning and those who have felt excluded by it? 

I hope so, because the tree lighting is the one ceremony that is about the deepest connection we all hold in common: the land we walk on and that sustains us. Maybe the Menorah that will stand in front of the tree, lit at the start of Hanukkah, can help us sit in a more robust pluralism, not erasing differences but more authentically inhabiting them in a good way.

I’m also cautiously optimistic. There was probably more contested meaning under the surface than I sensed, but at the tree lighting ceremony there was none of the raw division of our culture wars. It felt like we were just happy to be with each other celebrating light in this season of night. It was a moment of possibility that Gov. Scott captured: “we can find common ground, we can heal divisions, we can have faith in and compassion for each other.” 

I believe in the tree. The tree doesn’t just represent the best of our ideals, but gathers us together and helps enact them. As the tree lighting ceremony grows, the tree will continue to cultivate us, its rays of kindness helping us to sink our roots deeper into Ndakinna and more intertwined with each other. To be a people that only the land we call Vermont can grow. 

I’m already looking forward to next year.