Growing up in Southern California, I would often pester my mom for a different kind of Christmas tree. I would ask, “What about a Christmas palm tree, or a cactus?” I usually got only eye-rolls.
Perhaps it was a bit of adolescent urge to be different, but it also came out of ecological observation: Douglas Firs didn’t grow where we lived in the desert-chaparral climate. They didn’t represent our seasonality—nor did snow, reindeer, sleighs or mistletoe. Why did we need images of European winters in our arid climate—why not create traditions surrounding the seasons of this place?
Though my mother never took me up on the suggestion, the question—why is Christmas disconnected from the land around us—hasn’t left me, even now that I live in Western North Carolina, a place with regular winter snow, and an abundance of Christmas trees.
The prevalence of Christmas trees here has less to do with the natural landscape, and more to do with a multi-million dollar Christmas tree industry. Five to six million trees are harvested annually in North Carolina, according to the NC Extension Service—and much of this harvesting, as well as the spraying of pesticides and herbicides—is done by migrant labor.
A recent article in The Guardian brought the conditions of tree-farm workers—their exposure to toxic chemicals, grueling labor, and unfair wages—and their struggle for justice to an international audience. Yet this struggle likely remains invisible to shoppers at the tree lot.
Christmas tree workers aren’t alone in this—our Christmas ham was likely slaughtered, processed and packed somewhere here in North Carolina. Smithfield’s pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina is the largest in the world, processing 32,000 hogs a day, and is just one of 2,100 in the state, many operating on the labor of low-wage workers, many of whom are immigrants. As it sizzles in the oven, as we carve it and serve it onto our plates, we don’t smell nauseating chlorine and ammonia, or hear the deafening hum of machinery that these workers are drenched in every day. Nor do we remember the flooding of the manure lagoons after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, or Hurricane Floyd in 1999—when basins storing concentrated pig waste were breached, inundating the surrounding rural communities with sludge tainted floodwaters.
In reading the Birth narrative with agrarian eyes, we can see the experience of migrant farm workers, and many of the rural poor, is much like that of the shepherds of the Nativity. This connection draws us into a way of reading the Christmas narrative through the lens of the land and the agrarian poor of ancient Palestine who lived close to the land.
The shepherds at the scene, as it has been often noted, were marginalized people in ancient Judea. Despite the prevalence of the shepherd as a symbol for Israel’s monarchy and for God, shepherds were peasants. Keeping sheep required movement with the herd, taking one away from the village center and to the margins in the most literal sense.
Being a shepherd meant being at once rootless and rooted—deeply connected to the land, yet estranged from the stability and sense of permanence associated with agrarianism. One had to have a deep connection to the animals, an understanding of their needs and habits, their health and their safety. They also needed an understanding of the land, the pastures; of the patterns of weather and the seasons. But they went where the herd went, and thus they were on the fringe, separate from the society of village or town—a physical rootlessness combined with social ostracizing.
And yet the Scriptures give them center stage: they are not only the ones who are visited by the angelic messenger, and witness the newborn Messiah, but they go out and “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” (Luke 2:17) Just as with the women at the empty tomb, Luke highlights that the first messengers of the Good News are those from the margins of society. Luke’s Gospel brings the rural poor from the margins to the center, and invites us to do the same.
That good news sung by the angels to the shepherds is “on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” On earth—shalom. In this world, on the ground we stand on, we will find restoration.
The Nativity is an earthy scene, despite the heavenly aura we’ve given it with halos above the holy family. Even in our most sanitized depictions, though, we still see Mary, Joseph and Jesus surrounded by not just shepherds, but animals—livestock—in a barn, a stable or a cave. We acknowledge the presence of God’s creatures, and our eyes are focused close to the earth. Whether it was in a barn or in a cave, God comes down to the earth, God becoming human (adam), near to the humus (adamah), in the most humble of forms—a newborn baby.
Where else would the Creator who formed humanity out of the soil take on flesh than here, close to the earth, surrounded by creatures? There was no room at the inn, but the earth is infinitely hospitable. As William Bryant Logan writes in Dirt: the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, “Hospitality is the fundamental virtue of the soil. It makes room. It shares. It neutralizes poisons. And so it heals.”
Christmas is an invitation to grow closer to God as we grow closer to the land. It is the story of the Creator again saying, “It is good”—and choosing to come and dwell amongst us, and all creation.
It is also an invitation to justice for those who bring us provisions from the earth: our food, our clothing, even our Christmas trees. It is an invitation to live the words of the shepherd-prophet Amos, who spoke for the land and for his people, to end our extractive economies and “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”