The Tree

By Jean Matthew Hall

This year The Tree stands as eight feet of sparkling lights decked in silver, gold and white with accents of rich cranberry. Glass and china angels dangle from the branches like jewels from a princess’ earlobes.

It hasn’t always been like this, though.

Jerry and I celebrated our first Christmas together in 1968. Our tree was a lopsided, left-over plastic thing we inherited from my mother along with a dozen boxes of ancient decorations she had rescued from her attic. Some of those rag-tag decorations adorned our home for many Christmases.

The Tree has always been one of my favorite Christmas joys and responsibilities. As our children grew I drafted them to help me each year. None of the three children were ever as excited as I, but they complied and helped Mom out December after December.

Year after year The Tree was central to our Christmas celebrations. We hung gifts on it. My husband hid special Christmas envelopes within its branches. We gathered around The Tree to tell the story of the first Christmas. We stacked packages wrapped in red and green underneath it. We sat around The Tree sharing those gifts. Until they were grown and gone, our children slept in sleeping bags near The Tree every Christmas Eve night.

As the years rolled by The Tree took on the role of a family scrapbook. We dressed it with multi-colored lights and blessed the branches with snowmen and angels, stockings and wreaths made from popcorn and coffee filters, play-doh and craft sticks. Miniature school pictures and photos of toddlers and teens dangled everywhere and added to each Christmas’ supply of memories.

Then came the Christmas of 2000, and everything changed.

Our oldest child, Stephen, died suddenly in May of that year. The summer was filled with heartache for us. Autumn was a chilly reminder that life was going on “as usual” without our precious son. We made a brave effort to celebrate Thanksgiving together as a family. But December brought dread instead of joy.

I kept postponing my Yuletide ritual of pulling The Tree and boxes of decorations from their hiding place. I dreaded the thought of rummaging through those boxes of breakables and the years of memories tied to them. When I could postpone it no longer I headed for the attic with icy determination.

Climbing the stairs was like following a coffin to its final resting place. As I gripped the door knob to enter the attic I made a decision. I would decorate for Christmas that year, but I would do it differently from all those Christmases we shared with Stephen.

The next day our daughter and I picked out a live tree heady with color and fragrance. After we set it up it in a corner of the living room we headed for the attic. I pulled out only the boxes containing tinsel and generic ornaments with no sentimental value. While Tabitha sorted through those I drove to a discount store and stocked up on new white twinkling lights and plain, glass ornaments.

It worked, I think. The Tree filled its usual corner of our living room. It was lovely to look at and it didn’t drag me down in grief.

For the next eight Christmases I purchased new ornaments each year. I tried different color schemes and different themes. Each year The Tree was different from the previous years. I was succeeding in making The Tree emotionally sterile – and keeping it in our Christmas celebrations and out of the broken places of my heart.But in December of 2009, I noticed something different about The Tree. My trek to the attic wasn’t filled with dread. Those boxes of neglected family ornaments called to me. So I pulled them out and gently unwrapped each ornament. I spent hours pulling memories out of hiding and back into the front room of my heart.

As I hung those decorations on The Tree, I was able once again to actually enjoy them. Yes, I cried as I did it. And, yes, I missed our son terribly that day. But it was a sweet kind of missing him. An I’ll-see-him-again-someday missing him. A quiet joy washed over me as I let Stephen once again become part of our Christmas.

It was late in the evening when I finished The Tree of 2009. Hundreds of miniature stars twinkled on a lush field of green. The gold and silver bulbs reflected their light and gave the room a warm glow. Garlands of silver beads rested on outstretched branches. Angels of every description peeked through The Tree’s emerald fingertips. Doves nested here and there. Occasional clusters of cranberries and bits of crimson drew my eyes from glittering bough to glittering bough. A gilded angel stood watch atop The Tree. And suspended from the branches were tiny photographs and child-made reminders of Christmases past.

I stood there breathing in the peace and listening to the quiet. Floating softly on the silence of that December night was a faint whisper of Christmas joy. Joy over the beauty of The Tree and all it had ever represented to me: our family loving each other, caring for each other and holding each other up in the hard times; the Christmas festivities that linked us with our past, knit us together in our present, and gave us courage to face the future; and our faith in the tender wisdom of the Savior whose birth we celebrate each year, and in whose arms we, too, will one day rest.

“It’s alright to be happy at Christmas,” the whisper said to me. “It’s alright to keep this one who is absent from your home forever in your heart. It’s alright to celebrate again beneath these branches. It’s alright to embrace again the memories nestled in The Tree.”

Here.

Now.

Rejoice!

 

“It’s alright to be happy at Christmas”

“It’s alright to keep this one who is absent from your home forever in your heart.”

“It’s alright to celebrate again beneath these branches.”

“It’s alright to embrace again the memories nestled in The Tree.”

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One Response to “The Tree”

  1. Alice Muschany says:

    Your story was beautifully written and carried a beautiful message as well. You’re right. Our loved ones remain forever in our hearts.

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