Before we begin, let me say that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Grinch. I am the sort of Who from Whoville that presses play on her Christmas playlist the moment she wakes up from her Thanksgiving-afternoon nap. On a recent workday morning I visited not one, but two Christmas tree vendors in order to purchase a tabletop frasier for my office, knowing that a proximity to lights, tinsel, and holiday smells would provide an invaluable boost to my morale and productivity. And yet, in addition to hoarding Reese’s Bells and singing along passionately to Kenny Loggins’s “Celebrate Me Home,” one of my most consistent holiday traditions is yelling at other people’s Christmas decorations, specifically those that adorn cedar trees along Austin-area highways.
For readers living in other parts of the state who may not be aware, it is a tradition for some in the capital city to wrap tinsel and hang ornaments atop the many juniper that line our highways. What reportedly began years ago with one local family embellishing a single Texas cedar in the dark of night has spread not unlike the invasive Juniperus ashei themselves—that is, rapidly and with apparent disregard to the ultimate health and habitability of the surrounding environment. If you drive down Loop 360 today, you could see at least 100 of them. Most are unsurprisingly traditional (a couple strands of tinsel and some glass globes picked up from the H-E-B down the street) but some decorators go above and beyond with timely themes and readable-from-the-road messages written on strands of paper plates.
And yet, as cute as they are, the decorated cedars are really little more than seasonally-justified littering. Every year I am surprised that people still participate in this hair-brained tradition, and it fuels in me a rage as incandescent as the polyvinyl chloride tinsel twinkling in the Texas sun. Almost all Christmas decorations are not biodegradable. Animals can easily mistake them for food, or they can be carried by the wind into the nearby watersheds, eventually making their way into our beloved Colorado River (Bull Creek and Bee Creek both run right along 360). On a recent trip west of town I saw a bright red Santa hat lying joylessly on the side of the road—an item not indigenous to the Hill Country, but there nonetheless, presumably after wafting off one of the decorated cedars on a ridge overhead. A few weeks of holiday cheer just isn’t a good enough reason for that Santa hat to be there.
I’m not the only Eben-cedar Scrooge for whom the decorated cedars can induce as strong a headache as the cedar-pollen that plagues us all. A few years ago, employees at the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve along 360 started putting seasonal signs up asking people not to decorate, and they will swiftly remove any decorations placed on cedars bordering the property. “People want to decorate. I get that,” says Wild Basin Natural Resources Manager Aaron Haynes. But in Haynes’s experience, decorators rarely return for cleanup at the end of holiday season. He’s seen groups leave behind even the plastic packaging their newly-purchased decorations came in. “It’s just like, what do you set as your standard?” asks Haynes. “Is a little bit of trash in the preserve okay? For us, none is okay.”
Wild Basin can only police the stretch of 360 that borders the preserve, but local nonprofit Keep Austin Beautiful seems to have noticed the same negligent trends. The group has organized a post-holiday cedar cleanup for the past six years, and this year will expand the registration to accommodate for 300 volunteers, since, according to the organization staffer Myrriah Gossett, “a lot of people decorate trees, but not all of them return to clean them up.”
Both Goffett and Haynes offered environmentally-friendly cedar-decorating suggestions (opt for pine-cone ornaments, and remember that plastic is better than glass) to those who feel compelled to continue the tradition, expressing some reluctance to come down too hard on what seems, at least on the surface, to be a sweet and joyful endeavor. But I feel no such hesitancy. I’m pretty sure Jesus wasn’t born so some Austinites could litter in his name.
Please stop decorating cedar trees for the holidays. If you want to celebrate the season with your family, watch Elf or Die Hard. If you think the juniper is the central Texas version of the pine and you want to celebrate our quirky landscape, it would be better for you to cut down one of the suckers. It’s an invasive species and we never should have let them creep down from the hilltops in the first place. If you wonder what harm one decorated tree could possibly do, picture your tree next to dozens more, surrounded by piles of Christmas trash. And if you think you can make it back in time to pick up every decoration you left out there, google “wind.”
I don’t deny my fellow Austinities the right to celebrate the season and spread holiday cheer. I understand the urge to decorate. When I see a union of red, green, and white, I feel a joy in my heart that doesn’t make rational sense, and stringing lights is an act of love that I look forward to year round. I get it. But if you see a Santa hat laying on the side of a Texas highway and don’t feel sad, then I question whether you fully appreciate the landscape or the holiday. So please stop decorating cedar trees for the holidays. You’re messing with Texas and that’s something we have specifically asked you not to do.