Our home is now decorated with the lovely things Wendy and I have accumulated over the years. There are a dozen crèches, three or four Father Christmases, a wooden star that has lost a ray, an angel that shows the effects of advancing age, and a few new items we hope the great-grandchildren will one day cherish. Since our space is limited, our artificial tree is not only short but skinny!
I suppose as we grow older our minds tend to hearken back to Christmases past. Since my childhood family was poor, we never got a tree until after dark on Christmas Eve. No one ever cost more than a dollar, and if the lots were already closed, we got one for a dollar less than that.
Each Christmas I am reminded of a near disaster over thirty years ago. We lived in a big old spacious house. Our small children wanted a tree that scraped the ceiling. We found a nearby lot that seemed to have just what we were looking for. The tree we settled on, however, had a few long ugly branches at the bottom, which I proceeded to remove on the spot with a saw I borrowed from the lot’s proprietor. I’m not certain how many I cut off, but when I had finished there was a foot or more of naked trunk, which had to be chopped away. Then another couple of the low branches had to go, and a bit more trunk. When I had finished, what had started out as an elegant tree had shrunk to waist high.
There ensued a vigorous dissent from the family, which had watched the mutilation with considerable agitation. “We will not take that wretched tiny tree home” was the unanimous opinion of the four bystanders. Quite humbled, I negotiated with the lot owner for a second try. Since it was late in the season he agreed, with the proviso that I not touch it with anything sharper than a glove.
That mutilated tree has become a Christmas metaphor for me. When I hear people say, “We’re not going to take Christmas seriously this year,” I wonder what lower limbs they have chopped off. “We’re not sending out greetings this year.” “We probably won’t decorate the house.” “Ever since the kids have gone …” “We don’t give parties and won’t go to any.” “I wish they would play something else.” “Church? Why bother?” Chop! Chop! Chop! until we have reduced Christmas to a pedestrian exercise we can well do without
But perhaps something catches us and we renegotiate the whole thing at the last minute. Maybe it’s the sound of a carol played from the roof of a nearby church; a letter from an old friend telling us of a new baby; a mother’s death; a box of cookies a child made just for us. And then dawns the realization that life’s most precious gift comes in a rude manger.
So we make our way to church on Christmas Eve to sing carols and listen to an old story—and we are caught up in the mystery of it all once more. Afterwards we go home, hold each other, and phone family members far away. And we give thanks for the providence that has brought us safely through another year. For a few moments we are healed of all the discouragement, despair and death the year might have brought. Just for these few moments we know that God is with us; that this tired, old, violent world has been the living room of the one we call “Emmanuel.” So we pause and say with Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one,” and perhaps catch a glimpse of the peace which passes all understanding.