It was a cold, gray day, but not the kind of gray that says snow is on the way. It was just dark, and the closer I got to home, the colder and darker it became. As I pulled into my parking space, an idea began to form in my head, and I went inside to convince my sister to join me.
My mother had declared that there would be no Christmas this year. Though we usually got a tree the day after Thanksgiving, decorated, and played carols through the new year, this year she had said Christmas was off--the white walls of our little apartment screamed into the silent emptiness that drained my spirit as soon as I got home.
I told my sister that we were going to get a tree...quickly. Our plan was to have it up and decorated before she got home from work, with the mess cleaned up and dinner on the stove. We bought a noble fir, Mom's favorite, and lovingly hung the ornaments as Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, and Bing Crosby took over for the walls. Mom came home just as I finished setting up the manger scene. She burst into tears, apologized, and then dug out the outside lights. She said it was the greatest gift we could have given her, and promised to never ban Christmas again.
Of course, that was never in her power, because Christmas is about Jesus. The tree doesn't matter, but attitude does. As I left home, I promised myself I'd never forget. I haven't. And though the tree doesn't matter, I find it is the memories surrounding our Christmas trees that separate Christmases in my mind.
At eighteen, I was in the hospital until just before Christmas day...I can't remember our tree that year, but I remember that the nurses decorated my IV pole. My first year of marriage meant a tabletop tree, because my husband wanted no tree at all; the next year we had a tree at least as big as me. When my son was born on Christmas Eve, I remember sitting in Mom's rocker and staring at her huge tree, thinking, "I just had a baby." I can't remember anything else about that tree.
As my son grew, so did our treasure chest of memories: his first ornament made in Sunday school, a green Noah's Ark with his name on it tied to a three-foot red yarn loop; trekking into the blue mountains "just off the road" through snow drifts taller than us both to cut down our own tree; the excitement of seeing familiar ornaments through his child's eyes; the thrill of ending his birthday by sleeping in front of the lighted tree to celebrate the birthday of our King.
Then one year I didn't think I could bear to put up the tree. My husband had left just three months earlier, and I was drowning in memories...opening Christmas boxes would mean putting our loss on display. It would mean recognizing that things had changed. It would mean putting my trust in the One who does not change. We put up the tree a few days before Christmas, and modified one of our traditions. My birthday boy decided he wanted to stay up all night on Christmas Eve. So we did. It didn't matter that the tree skirt was the only thing under the tree. The house smelled like Douglas Fir and chocolate and Jesus was there.
He was there two years later when we realized that we would have to skip the tree...in the loving arms of my students who had made a paper tree to reach the ceiling in my room at school. It's "ornaments" were hand drawn by my students, each and every one. I brought it home and taped it to the wall, draping it over our couch. We slept on the floor, as always, and knew we were loved.
He was there when my son decided he didn't want a tree and I put one up anyway, knowing that what he really didn't want was to remember when he just put on ornaments and Dad wrestled with the tree stand! He will be there when my son is gone, and I can't put the tree in the stand.
It's not about the tree. It's about the Everlasting Life it represents. It's about pointing to Jesus, just as the Star of Wonder pointed to Bethlehem, where Hope was born in a manger so long ago.
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