O Solstice Tree

solstice tree 1

I’m not sure why I did this. I don’t actually celebrate the winter solstice in any way; I just like having a tree up this time of year. And since my parents have decided to bail on Christmas, that meant I could raid their stash of ornaments and lights.

First I had to transplant my Norfolk Island pine into a heavier pot so it wouldn’t tip over, then drag it away from the windows so I could get some lights and ornaments on it. The tree’s only five and a half feet tall with sparse boughs, so I could afford to be choosy about what I hung. I mostly stuck with birds and antique glass balls. You can’t go wrong with birds and balls. This is a well-hung tree. Of course, it also includes everyone’s favorite ornament, Santa in a bathtub, accompanied by a ceramic Mrs. Claus with arms out in a gesture of alarm. Two wooden elves are seeking escape, one on skis and the other in a small aircraft.

frozen puddle

Probably I should’ve waited until St. Lucy’s Day on December 13, which had been the approximate date of the solstice before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. Hence John Donne’s poem, “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day.”

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

And so forth.


Of course, in my solstice tree’s native Norfolk Island, it’s the summer solstice coming up on the 22nd. “The climate is subtropical and mild, with little seasonal differentiation,” according to the Wikipedia. “The temperature almost never falls below 10 °C (50 °F) or rises above 26 °C (79 °F).” Sounds dull. They do, however, have a Norfolk Island pine tree on their flag — it’s their biggest export. The name of their major settlement is Burnt Pine. They have 51 endemic plant species, including the world’s tallest tree-fern, but their native forests are reduced to a single, five-square-kilometer tract protected as a national park. Numerous endemic species of birds have gone extinct due to habitat destruction and the introduction of rats, cats, goats and pigs. Perhaps some of the fanciful bird ornaments on my tree can serve to evoke the spirits of this vanished avifauna: “the endemic Norfolk Island Kākā and Norfolk Ground Dove along with endemic subspecies of pigeon, starling, triller, thrush and boobook owl.”

solstice tree 2

The official motto of Norfolk Island is “Inasmuch.” I love that.

8 Replies to “O Solstice Tree”

  1. The name of Norfolk Island makes me shudder, since all I know about it comes from The Fatal Shore. The idea of it being a perfectly civilized place, rather than a horrific penal colony, is one that I’ll have to absorb!

    1. Sounds as if it’s had a pretty strange history: a Polynesian settlement that died out after a couple generations, two successive penal colonies, then finally the Pitcairn Islanders forming the nucleus of the population that’s there today.

  2. This is a beautiful post, Dave. It is indeed lovely to decorate a tree at this season, especially here in the northern hemisphere where the exterior world is adorned mostly with the harsh beauties of ice. (Hence, I expect, the juxtaposition of images in this post.)

    I love the name “boobook owl,” which I initially misread as “bookbook owl.” Owls always seem to me like they might be bookworms, in some sense. Maybe it’s that cultural association between their faces and wisdom.

    1. Yeah, I loved that name, too. And I see another subspecies, the Southern Boobook or Morepork, still exists. “In the fictional Discworld novels, the main city is called Ankh-Morpork and has moreporks on its coat-of-arms. Terry Pratchett had not heard of the bird when he came up with the name but retroactively associated the name with the bird in later books.”

  3. I have new appreciation for the Norfolk pine that has survived in my domicile for over 12 years despite my general neglect of house-plants! I do bedeck it in tiny lights at year’s end, though we also do the big Christmas tree.

    I also love that boobook owls, John Donne, Fatal Shore, and Terry Pratchett appear on this page & discussion thread. Sounds so random, but isn’t.

    1. Thanks, Ann. Yes, the fact that my Norfolk Island pine has survived my general neglect suggests they are very drought-resistant indeed. I am just wary of making it grow too fast. My uncle and aunt had to get rid of theirs a few years ago when it got too tall for their sunroom.

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