Darkness is the predominant theme in the weeks surrounding the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Almost every culture and every religion throughout history has marked this time of the year with various celebrations or symbols commemorating the movement from darkness to light. (For information on some of the Winter Solstice celebrations throughout the world check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice.) Given my Germanic background, the Christmas tree has been one of the predominant symbols of light in my family at this time of the year. The choosing, cutting, placing, and decorating of the tree have always been surrounded with numerous rituals and traditions. That’s why this year was such a departure from tradition when, for the first time in my life, I put up an “artificial tree.”
While assembling and decorating the “tree,” I wondered how this change would affect our holiday celebrations. I worried that I might lose some connections to the past. I wished that circumstances hadn't changed so much that an artificial tree was necessary. As I pondered the uncertainty of this holiday season, my musings brought me back to age 8, the first time that I was actively involved in the Christmas tree rituals.
In many respects, the 1954 Christmas season was like that of any other during my childhood. The four weeks of December had been used by our family as a time for the emotional and spiritual preparation for Christmas, while most of the physical preparations were postponed until Christmas Eve day. During that day the tree had to be trimmed, the house cleaned, the baking done, and our hand-made gifts given last-minute finishing touches.
One of the things that made this Christmas different was that my dad brought me along on Christmas Eve morning to pick out our Christmas trees - yes TREES! By December 24 most tree lots were nearly empty and trees were almost being given away, so my dad got two for the price of one. I thought this was a pretty good deal until I looked at the trees and saw how scrawny they were. Tears came to my eyes and I whined to my dad that neither one of those trees would be as beautiful as the ones that had graced our living room in previous years.
It was then that my dad confided in me that he always got 2 trees and that they always looked horrible at first. He promised that he would show me how to use some Christmas magic to make one of them look beautiful. When we got home, I received my first lesson in branch transplantation. We took the best looking of the two trees and at every bare spot drilled a hole in the trunk. A branch from the other tree (the donor tree) was then carefully harvested and inserted with surgical precision into one of the holes. After transplanting 4 or 5 branches, our 99 cents tree looked better than the ones in the downtown department store windows. When we brought the tree into the house it received universal acclaim as the best tree ever.
As we sat around the decorated tree that evening, exchanging our hand-made gifts, my parents were impressed with how we all had transformed plain wood, paper, leather, or clay into beautiful gifts. My mother remarked that “it’s not what you have that matters but rather what you do with what you’ve got.” My dad then looked at me and said, “Yes, even scrawny pine trees can become beautiful Christmas trees, if you use a bit of creativity and imagination. But,” he continued, “it’s not just things that can be transformed. Every moment of every day is an opportunity for transformation. What you do with that opportunity is up to you.”
That memory of 1954 comforted me as I finished decorating our 2012 Christmas tree. I knew that the holidays would be wonderful even with an “artificial tree” because the season wasn't really about the tree but about the personal moments of the holiday and what we made of them.
Those distant memories reoccurred again today, New Year’s Eve, as I began to look forward to my 3rd year at MDH. I know that we face lots of public health problems and challenges; and I know that in many respects now, with state and federal deficits and a distrust of government by some, is a dark time for public health and for public employees. However, I also realize that each of these challenges is an opportunity for positive transformation, depending on how we respond to that opportunity. Knowing that I’m part of a great public health team that understands how to collectively take advantage of any opportunity, gives me a sense of optimism as I look forward to another year. You’ve modeled very well in the past how to seize opportunities and I’m confident you’ll continue to do that in the New Year. I’m blessed to be part of a team that knows how to do the best with what we’ve got and how to move forward despite challenging circumstances.
As we move into the New Year, my resolution is to work with all of you, as a department, to bring the light of public health to Minnesota in a way that transforms the darkness of poor health, missed opportunities, and disparities into a long-lasting season of health for all Minnesotans.
Happy New Year,