It Wasn’t About the Tree—What Christmas Taught Me
When my siblings and I were little, the whole Christmas season was one of great joy and anticipation. While we looked forward to Christmas morning and seeing presents stacked beneath the tree, there was so much more in the air around us that fueled that sense of wonderment and Christmas magic—certainly more than we were able to appreciate fully at the time. My dad also loved everything about Christmas. But if there was one thing that gave him the most joy it had to be our family Christmas tree. He took immense pride and satisfaction in preparing a perfect tree every year.
He would take us to the tree lot to pick out the perfect conifer—a balsam fir, usually. He’d spend a lot of time looking through the selection. And he’d purchase the one that was the right height and fullness around which to assemble our happiest Christmas memories. Truth be told, even the best tree on the lot wasn’t quite good enough for my dad. He’d purchase extra branches to fill in any bare spots, usually drilling them directly into the trunk!
Then, when he was satisfied with the tree’s heft and presence in our living room, he’d painstakingly lace the little strands of tinsel—or icicles as they were known—one by one along every outstretched branch. He’d cover the tree in so much tinsel that you could barely see the needles. And that was before he even hung the ornaments and the lights!
As I said, no matter what else we did, that tree was the axis around which our entire celebration turned each and every year he was with us.
Until he wasn’t.
When I was in the 7th grade, in September of that year, my dad died suddenly of an aneurysm. He was only 37. It was, as you can imagine, a bewildering time for a young child. And certainly, an event that changed my family forever. That Christmas, just a few short months after this devastating loss, we tried to summon that old Christmas magic, those feelings of joy and merriment that we had known before. The joys in which seemingly everyone around us was basking. We each did our best, especially my mother, in so many ways.
Soon, it was time to put up the tree for the first time since my father’s passing. We desperately wanted to keep his old traditions alive, so we did everything the way he would have. We went as a family to the local tree lot. We carefully selected the best tree they had. We helped my mom haul the tree in through the front door, and we lifted it into the Christmas tree stand. But it wouldn’t fit. The trunk was large and misshapen. We really didn’t have what we needed to make it fit and it just kept falling over. In frustration, no doubt rooted in grief, my mother had enough. She dragged the tree across the room, opened the front door, and flung the tree out onto the lawn and into the snow.
Fifteen minutes later, our neighbors knocked on the door and said, “you’re throwing out your tree already?,” before asking if they could have it. Along with a few colorful words—the kind I can’t repeat here—my mother said that they could.
That was the year we switched to an artificial tree. That was the year we were first without our dad. But amid all that change and challenge, it was also the year that we discovered some important truths about the holiday, about family, about life, and about compassion for others.
Every family, and every individual, has their own struggles. As much as Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, it’s important for us to acknowledge this fact of life, and to keep it in our minds as we keep others in our hearts this time of year. Christmas, in fact, can be an especially difficult time for many. It can bring up mixed feelings.
When we look beyond ourselves and our own families, we see the struggles and suffering of others in the community, in our city, and in our world. This requires a bit of courage, but for me, it always helps to look at the Nativity scene—the still image that conveys the Christmas story and the struggles of the Holy Family.
It’s the story of Mary and Joseph, traveling a great distance and searching for a place to bring their son Jesus into the world—the very gift of God to humanity. Finally, after finding no room to stay in Bethlehem, the family sheltered amid the oxen and the lambs, the donkey and the goats. And they laid their newborn son in a feeding trough for animals. As difficult as life was for them at that moment, it was a time when the angles of heaven heralded the good news of the virgin birth. A time of true, deep joy to the world. A time of Emanuel—God being with his people.
My own family learned to embrace many new Christmas traditions over the years. But at the core of every celebration was the joy of being together, and the knowledge that God was with us.
These are the same truths that lie at the heart of the many traditions we’ve developed over time at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls—truths that give these celebrations their meaning. The understanding that we belong to a larger family. And the awareness that God is always with us. So, no matter what struggles we may have in our lives, or what joys we may celebrate at Christmas, we remember that God loves us so much he sent the world his son to teach us how to live.
Guided by his lessons, and with compassionate awareness of the struggles of others, our young people give of themselves to help people in need. This is why we love gathering every year at this time and hearing about their service projects. They not only inspire us, but they also center us in the true meaning of Emanuel.
God is with us.
Now that’s something to form our Christmas memories around. No assembly required.