Two years ago, I wrote what could fairly be described as a diatribe against the decorated cedar trees that adorn Austin’s Loop 360 this time of year. I have nothing against Christmas decorations. In fact, I am a huge fan, prone to spending an hour or more hanging individual strands of tinsel from the Douglas fir in my living room so the light reflects off them just right. But I don’t like leaving nonbiodegradable things on the side of the road, and my holiday spirit has never been so strong as to overpower everything I learned from the Don’t Mess With Texas anti-littering campaign. 

A recent KXAN-TV article about a newly organized group of locals who remove some of the decorations—they call themselves the Coalition of Anti-Litterers, or COAL—made me realize that the roadside Christmas trash trees aren’t going anywhere. Many people will still consider this practice to be a harmless expression of seasonal joy. And others will rant and rave against it. Like the annual cable news slugfest over “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays,” the very Austin battle between tree decorators and tree huggers is now a holiday tradition. 

However, in the spirit of non-partisanship, I decided to spend some up-close-and-personal time with the cedar trees I normally just curse at from my car. Maybe I could soak up of some of the festive spirit that tree decorators use to justify the practice. And maybe there’s some middle ground—maybe some Austinites were successfully spreading holiday cheer without spreading holiday trash. 

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I present a list of decorated cedar trees, ranked in order from most enraging to least enraging. 

Emily McCullar

1) This is the sort of holiday decoration that really helps you see the silver lining. And by silver lining I mean the silver strands of tinsel radiating in the December sun after being blown off this tree by the wind. This photo doesn’t do the nightmare justice. Tinsel was on the ground in clumps, some just below the juniper, others scattered ten to twenty feet away. The ornaments weren’t staying on the tree, either. If the argument in favor of this practice is that people are responsible enough to clean up the decorations they leave behind, then this particular cedar tree is proof of the opposite. 

Christmas trees

Emily McCullar

2) At first glance these festive white flowers appear to be sprouting from the earth below, but they aren’t. They’re just regular ol’ litter, albeit slightly more aesthetically pleasing than a tire-flattened Big Gulp or a rusting can of Natty Ice. I’ll give these decorators bonus points for using tinsel garland instead of easily scattered tinsel strands, but from a design perspective they seem ill-prepared. There is clearly not enough garland for this tree, and it almost looks as though they just threw it on the juniper before rushing off. I wonder what caused our decorators to abandon such a recklessly unfinished project? A shining Dodge Ram careening dangerously around 360’s bends? A disgruntled employee from the nearby Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve who has finally, fatally snapped? Hope they’re safe so they can come back and clean up their trash. 

Emily McCullar

3) The first thing I noticed about this lil guy were the pets. I assumed they belonged to the decorators. “Aw,” I thought, always in favor of good doggos and kitties getting the love and appreciation they deserve. But when I got out of my car to look more closely, I realized that the images, loosely draped over this cedar tree with twine, were just the kind of meme-like stock photos you’d find all over some baby boomer’s Facebook feed. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t “get” modern conceptual art, but I truly don’t know what this holiday installation is trying to inspire in me. If the point of glittery ornaments and tinsel is to create a visual mix that will give anyone who views it “holiday cheer,” and “holiday cheer” can be understood to be the positive feelings of reflection associated with this time of year (gratitude for loved ones, sincere appreciation of your accomplishments over the past year, affection for the world you live in), then I’m not sure this cedar tree has accomplished that. And also the photos aren’t even level. Do better. 

Emily McCullar

4) This one is a mess. There are ornaments all over the ground, and the garland is droopy and barely hanging on. It is, in many ways, against everything I stand for. But that color scheme! I love the muted blue of the garland, which plays nicely with the tonal variety in the ornaments. Also, the proportions and balance are good. The diameter of the ornaments is about the same size as the thickness of the garland. I have no idea why that matters but I like the way it looks. And the garland goes all the way to the top of the tree, which means the decorators picked a size of tree they had enough garland for, and brought a step stool or ladder to make sure they could adorn the whole thing. The intentions seem admirable (or as admirable as blatant willful littering can be), and they put at least a little thought and effort into creating something that would be visually delightful for others. Points subtracted for not planning for wind. 

Emily McCullar

5) I appreciate that whoever decorated this tree was trying to think outside of the box, to send a more specific holiday message than mere ornaments and tinsel can provide. There’s also the genuine creativity and effort that went into the decor; they don’t sell letters like this at the store, so somebody had to cut out and paint each one of them. And nothing seems to have fallen off, so it should be pretty easy to clean up when (though more likely if) the decorators return. The problem is, I can’t tell what message it’s trying to send. Is it saying hello? Hole? Keeol? Hohhkelloo? 

Emily McCullar

6) Okay, this one’s cute. My childhood tree was covered in these, so I love any holiday decoration that incorporates dinosaurs. That it made me think of my childhood tree at all, and inspired joy as I reflected on those memories, is an indication that there was at least some transfer of holiday cheer from this jazzed-up juniper to my cold Christmas heart. Also, everything on this tree is big; so any errant objects could be easily spotted and picked up. I’ve seen a lot of trees with paper products on them, but these decorators laminated their cartoon dinos, so if we are blessed with a much-needed rainstorm, they won’t be turned into pulp, their toxic dyes seeping into the thirsty Hill Country soil. Plus, there’s no trash surrounding the tree and everything seems well-secured. Points subtracted for not reaching the top.

Emily McCullar

7) The picture doesn’t do this particular tree justice. Betwixt its frosty lavender ornaments is wound a string of LED lights, which are hooked up to a solar panel at the top of the cedar. The decorators definitely used a ladder. And if the solar panels do their job, this thing will look like an actual Christmas tree when the sun goes down, providing aesthetic excitement for weary drivers navigating 360 at night. The area around the cedar is trashless and pristine (until you walk a few feet to the next cedar, where there are ornaments and tinsel all over the ground). It could be argued that these creators have taken the landscape provided to them by Mother Nature and amplified its beauty, temporarily, in a way that is unique to this time of year, in a way that seems celebratory and respectful of the cedar tree itself. Someone might say this, just not me.

Emily McCullar

8) This one excited me from the road. The white-ish stuff, which is really just thick mesh ribbon, looked from a distance to be a trash bag attached to the cedar with red duct tape. “Ooh,” I thought to myself, “a meditation on trash. Meta.” Alas, it wasn’t. But still, I do admire that the ribbons are well-secured and thick and likely not going anywhere. I envision parents who wanted to do a fun Austin activity with their children and simultaneously teach their children that littering ain’t the reason for the season. I still don’t agree with the activity itself, but to see someone, anyone really, approaching it with respect for the environment made me feel some kind of cheer, I guess. If only everybody was like that.

Emily McCullar

9) I would have given this one high marks if only for the bees. At first glance, I wondered if perhaps this wasn’t a Christmas tree after all, but a three-months-belated celebration of the birth of my savior from on high: Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter. But it turned out to be something even more magical: the lone holiday cedar that could make me rethink my position that the tradition is all bad. The bees and big pink bow are cute, and the design seems like it was planned with intention in the months preceding Thanksgiving. But the best decoration on the tree is a laminated letter from the woman who designed it, explaining that decorating cedars is something she did for years with her mother, Honey B., who passed away in 2010. She asks people not to take down her bees, and leaves her cellphone number so they can at least let her know that they are doing it. Made me feel like an asshole for wanting to keep someone from mediating their own personal grief at what can be the most emotionally terrible time of year. 

Emily McCullar

10) It is possible that my Grinch heart grew at least a half-size that afternoon. There are people, I am now willing to acknowledge, that participate in this activity in a way that isn’t completely inconsiderate. Some tree decorators appear to go above and beyond to ensure they don’t leave any Christmas trash in their wake, and I can see why they would want to keep this tradition going. But I haven’t ultimately changed my mind. There has been no Come to Treezus moment for your truly. There are  still no cedars more beautiful or joyful to me than the unadorned one defying gravity by growing out of the cracks of a limestone ledge. It makes me nostalgic for my Hill Country childhood, and sappy about the magic of the natural world around me. I don’t love the holiday season enough to mess with an ecosystem that has to stay healthy through the rest of the year.