Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
"Christmas waves a magic wand over this world,
and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful."
--Norman Vincent Peale
During this season, we will see around us the signs and symbols that are so much a part of Christmas. They are an interesting mix of religious and secular. The Nativity scenes, the wreaths on the doors, the lights on buildings everywhere...all combine to lift spirits. Most of these symbols are universal, and thus have lost a bit of their meaning to us personally. But the one symbol of Christmas that touches in a very personal way is the Christmas Tree.
For our family, it is the centerpiece of the decorations adorning our home, and when the tree goes up and the lights go on, usually on the day after Thanksgiving, it is the Peanuts gang singing to us, "Christmastime is here."
There are several reasons. First of all, it's just beautiful to behold. No matter how many times I walk past it, it catches my attention for at least a few seconds. And those are happy seconds. When the tree goes up, the boxes of ornaments come out of storage, and the whole family pitches in on the decorating. Whether old or young, adult or child, it is a happy time to be together.
The most important thing is what is revealed as the ornaments come out. Like most families, our Christmas decorations are a hodge-podge of fancy limited edition ornaments, some kinda generic glass bulbs, and a whole bunch of Santa ornaments, reflecting the fact that one of the Old Gent's red-suited partners lives here. But also in those boxes are those humble handcrafted pieces put together by anxious childhood hands, some adorned with the picture of a small child with a shy grin who somehow has been turned by time into a 30-something adult. Every time one is produced, there is a story that is told, a memory of the day it was created, the name of the teacher, and the exchange of a loving smile between child and adult. There on the tree is the first ornament we bought for our first Christmas as a married couple. There's also one for 5 years and 10 years. We remember what our life was like when we hung that particular bauble on our tree. All those great stories about us and our kids pour out of us in the warmth of love. The grandkids listen with rapt attention, eager to hear about what mom and dad were like at their age.
Holiday time can be frenetic with activity. But for that hour or so, we're all together, engaged in the same activity; living Christmas.
It has always been this way, regardless of the family. This is a time when generations come together, when the story of this clan is told and re-told. It took place in log cabins on the edge of the frontier, in fancy mansions near carefull tended parks; in single-wides and apartments; in a foxhole in combat; in a hospital room. Wherever that tree was set up, family was there, although sometimes in spirit.
Christmas was there.
Finally, the last piece is on the tree. Our granddaughter is given the star and lifted up to ceremoniously top the tree. We all step back and gaze at our handiwork.
I've seen professionally decorated trees, how neat, symmetrical and artistic they look. But as beautiful as they are, to me they have no soul. Because among all the neatly arrayed and carefully chosen decorations, there's not one that says "family."
Christmas is many things, but most of all it's about family. In the beginning it was about a family who gave birth in a stable surrounded by farm animals. It is about how that child grew up to try to tell us that all of us who call ourselves human are all part of one really big family, and that we should love each other as family.
Today. people gather from far away places to endure tight quarters, limited bathroom availability, and that somewhat disconnected feeling that comes from not being home. But they gather because they know that time is passing, and that the opportunities for the whole family to be together at the same place at the same time degrade with each turn of the annual calendar. These are precious times, times to be enjoyed and cherished. Times to make and store wonderful memories to take back home.
I think of this when I look at our tree. I think of our children -- now adults -- and the memories flowing from a lifetime of growing up and growing old. There, hanging on those branches, is the story of our family, singly and collectively. Each light glows with a loving memory, lighted down through the years.
It's called a Christmas Tree. But it's far more.
It is, in fact, the Tree of our Lives.