This year, without a big celebration planned, Karen O. Zimmermann's Christmas tree moved outside to glorious results Credit: Courtesy of Karen O. Zimmermann

Swaying birchbark stars, lichen tinsel and bright red rosehip balls — this tree dazzles without glitter or glass ornaments. Remove the lights and topper, and every bit of it will be burned or composted, turning into energy or becoming food for some creature.

This year my Christmas tree moved outside. It sits on the deck beyond the glass doors, sending light and wonder into the house, and the real wonder is why I never did this before. It is closer to where I sit right now than when it was inside, and closer to the bonfire where we will burn it with appreciation and honor on Candlemas Day. COVID-19 has its trials, but it also brings gifts, and this is one of them.

In the past, Christmas could mean hosting 30 plus friends and family, with all the holiday gear from tablecloths and candles to the show stealer, a wild balsam fir with bubble lights, crystal chandelier drops and Scandinavian corn husk figures. There is nothing preventing me from setting up our traditional shimmering glorious tree, except that we can’t really share it. I love pulling out the old family ornaments and greeting them after their year-long nap, but they can nap a bit longer.

This year I am moving the feast, with far fewer guests and the tree outside.

My excitement about this year’s Christmas just went up a notch. An outside tree — how appropriate that is. It offers an entire new world of decorating opportunities and my creative juices begin to race. An outside Christmas tree is not simply an evergreen wrapped in lights. We do that in front of the house. I want a real Christmas tree, loaded with decorations, a bit Victorian, ablaze with lights and topped with a shimmering star, and glowing with the spirit of the holiday.

My COVID tree is coming to life. This is a new path, and we are taking it together. First came finding the tree. I wandered around the property, and without going far there was that balsam by the big white pine next to the garage. One side had only a few branches, and it was growing into the path we use to hike up the mountain behind our house. It would probably have to come down in the next few years, and so I asked it how it felt about being our Christmas tree. It didn’t answer. But I imagined a slight nod, and so I gripped my handy battery chainsaw and made a clean cut. It fell gently to the ground.

I did not have to measure to see if it would fit in the living room without hitting the ceiling. It was going to be outside and there was no ceiling to worry about. I had never had such a tall tree, and I drew an admiring breath each time I saw its imposing stature.

I put it in our tree stand, a green plastic bin with screws we had nailed to a plywood platform so it wouldn’t fall over. Right after I got it up we had heavy rain that really should have been snow, and it stuck to the tree’s needles. Christmas was weeks away, and whatever I put on it would probably get soaked, too. The tree would also be knocked about by winds, and hopefully covered in snow. Whatever I used for decorations would need to withstand all that nature threw at them. There was no way my vintage corn husk dolls were going outside, or the chandelier crystals from my mother.

I considered my options as I wrapped the tree in lights. Myriad tiny white fairy lights went on, then a few strands of the bubble lights my husband loved as a child. These have a column of fluid in a glass tube that bubbles from the heat of the small lightbulb. When a safer version came on the market we hunted them down and bought some.

A star made of wire I had found at my favorite local bargain store was to go on top. At this point the realization that my tree was 10 feet tall stopped giving me joy. I had climbed to the last step of our six-foot step ladder, but there was no wall or support for me to use the top platform, and I know that is a bad idea anyway. I had recklessly tossed the lights up over the upper branches, but I needed to clip off the top of the tree to place the star on it.

I asked a neighbor if she had a larger ladder, but she did not. She did, however, offer to come watch from a safe distance, with 911 entered in her phone and ready to send. We knew if I fell she would not want to approach, as she has been isolating due to a compromised immune system.

I grabbed my clippers and the star, got the ladder as stable and close to the tree as possible, and resolutely climbed up. I reached and pulled on an upper branch, gently tipping the tree top toward me. Snip, snip — I neatly removed the tip and tossed it and the clippers to the ground. I really could not reach to wire the star securely, so put it on with a few tugs, twists and prayers, and released it. Not bad, I thought, and quickly stepped down to the safe step.

This year, without a big celebration planned, Karen O. Zimmermann’s Christmas tree moved outside to glorious results. Credit: Courtesy of Karen O. Zimmermann

Now to decorate it. Wood and plastic would withstand the elements, but I am not a plastic fan, and wood ornaments could be hard to find. I looked at the tree, and saw the forest and rocks behind our house created a wild backdrop, not the usual yellow-green of my living room wall. Whatever I put on the tree would need to feel right at home with that backdrop. I then realized another benefit of the outdoor tree. There would be no undecorating and wrapping up of ornaments for next year. No matter what spin I put on it with festive music, taking down the Christmas tree always feels a bit sad to me.

The perfect COVID ornaments for my outdoor COVID tree began to become clear:

— Burnable in the bonfire, or able to be composted.

— Foraged or found here in the village.

— Have colors or textures to stand out from the fir branches

I began to collect my decorations.

Tinsel

A few days of rain and strong winds had knocked a variety of lichens to the ground, some even landed on the deck where the tree stood. I collected mostly two types, pale green and stringy boreal beard lichen (Usnea subfloridana) and plump mounds crumpled rag lichen (Platismatia tuckermanii). My lichen book suggests that a lichen similar to the strands of usnea was the original tinsel.

The stars

I used scissors to cut star shapes out of paper birch bark (Betula payriferous). This birch, not a very long-lived tree, is often found lying on the forest floor. The bark is very water resistant, and the inner material of the tree is decomposed leaving the bark mostly intact. I found several pieces, and though I loved the final result, there was a lot of waste. First, I quickly learned the pieces had to come from fairly large logs, as small circles were too curved to cut. And then I found just how crumbly wet bark can be. Many of the points of the stars broke off as I snipped, and I only successfully cut maybe one out of three stars

Big and showy

Dried hydrangea flower heads are a pale coffee brown, and stand out against the dark green of the fir boughs. Some friends had several large bushes in their courtyard, where they had been protected from wind. Mine only had a few ragged wisps of flower left, so I gratefully collected an armload from them. I left a foot or more of stem on each blossom, and wove it into the branches instead of tying them on with string.

Iridescent

Oyster shells from my shell midden, which is constantly growing from oyster feasts, or dwinding as I cull for craft projects, had holes drilled with my Dremel, and cotton kite string loops threaded through for hanging. These gleam pale white even in the dark.

A touch of color

An outdoor tree lit up at night. Credit: Courtesy of Karen O. Zimmermann

Large, still plump rosehips add a touch of holiday red. I tried just poking these into the tree branches, but they fell down, so they too were tied on with string. The rosehip twigs are very prickly, and gloves are recommended.

I think my tree is beautiful, and for now I am calling it done. It is easy to overdo, and sometimes more is too much. Some people like salads that include everything but the kitchen sink, I prefer simplicity and harmony in textures and colors as well as in flavors.

I watch the tree out the window. There is wind, and the lichen clumps bounce on their branches as oyster shells sway. My indoor tree never did that. I see two crows on a red maple tree beyond the deck, and hear a few chickadees in the distance. I wonder if a bird might land on it. With an outside tree, that is a possibility.

My COVID tree is not my usual Christmas tree, but it brings joy and wonder and hope. Who could ask for a better Christmas present?

Karen O. Zimmerman, Homestead contributor

Karen O. Zimmermann is a writer, journalist and Maine Master Naturalist. She can most frequently be found on the trails near her home in coastal Maine, where she never fails to find something to inspire...