As a child, Christmas began six weeks before December 25th, when our family pulled on our heavy coats and boots, trekking a bit up the road, deep into the woods of a neighbor, to tag our Christmas tree. The air was freezing, and I watched my breath puff into the air. A thorough study of one tree after another, until: There it is! That’s the one!
My father tied our tag fast to a tall and sturdy branch, our last name claiming the beautiful little pine. I patted a branch with love, saying goodbye for now, returning home to enjoy hot cocoa sprinkled with miniature marshmallows that melted and swirled deliciously atop the steaming drink. We returned shortly before Christmas, paying cash to our good neighbor before chopping it down and carrying it home to decorate.
Christmas afternoon was spent at my grandparent’s home on Washington Street. The house was full of relatives: adults at the big table, grandchildren at the card table which was placed in the front hall. My grandfather was perpetually cold, so the heat blasted, leaving us far too warm in our turtlenecks and sweaters. I looked for the ribbon candy, (always ribbon candy), placed on my grandmother’s proper, heavily-oiled New England coffee table. That ribbon candy signaled Christmas, as did the pine wreaths hanging on their front door. After gifts, and our traditional meal, we grandchildren bundled up to play outdoors in the freezing, and sometimes snowy yard. The adults stayed behind, lingering over coffee and hot tea, cleaning up the kitchen and holding off on serving the pie until dark. This was Christmas to me.
When I grew up and married, my husband’s job landed us far, far south. It was roasting when we moved; still in the throes of summer.
I was stunned when our first fall arrived, (according to the calendar), without even a speck of foliage. The only weather pattern change was that September was even more sweltering than its predecessor had been. There was no walking down any road to tag a tree. We ended up overpaying for a spindly little pine from the side of a road, purchased from a poor fellow who was sweating profusely in his shorts and tank top.
I buried my sadness and made the very best of it: decorating our apartment with bunches of lights, dreaming along with Bing Crosby as he crooned White Christmas, and turning down our air conditioning in a small attempt to add a festive winter chill to the sticky humidity that was suddenly my new normal. The longing for a turn of seasons hurt more than I cared to admit. It felt a little like hearing a beautiful song unheard by most. My entire life had been lived with four clockwork changes; I knew no different and realized for the first time how important the seasons were to me; buried down deep in my bones. Now I was living a perpetual summer. And so it went.
One day, that first married Christmas season, my husband came home with a small bag in his hand.
I bought something for you.
I opened the bag and pulled out a white wax angel ornament, which smelled exactly like the Christmas pines of my childhood. I inhaled the aroma as I hung it on our tiny tree, and turned to hug my husband.
This year, now in our twenty-sixth year of marriage, Jon and I were running an errand together.
We need to buy a tree, he reminded me.
I agreed, and at that very moment he received a text from a kind man at our church.
Pastor, have you bought your Christmas tree? If not, my wife and I want you to go and choose one. It is our gift to you. Get the best one.
So we did. The air was cold, and the smell of pine, fresh.
Our daughter and I chose a handsome beauty: tall and full and classically shaped. The fellow wrapped it in netting, loaded it up in our truck, and waved goodbye with a hearty: Merry Christmas! My breath puffed in the cold. Yes, Christmas had officially begun.
Later, my husband hoisted the tree into the stand, while we instructed him: A little this way, no…that way! Finally, it was just so. We strung lights and sat mesmerized by the bright twinkling.
The next day I pulled out our red tub of ornaments, looking for the angel, as I always do, and remembering back to our first Christmas. This act of searching, and remembering, has become my own Christmas tradition. The scent still lingers on that wax ornament; I love it so.
I recall buying ribbon candy one year, happening upon it in a store while Christmas shopping. Tears pooled as I was instantly transported back to Washington Street and the hubbub of conversation; the card table and heat full-blast.
So I purchased the ribbon candy, setting it on our coffee table that Christmas morning. Our children were young, but old enough to eat the treat.
Here’s the funny thing: while willing to try it, they had little context. I feebly explained that this reminded me of my Christmases as a little girl. They listened, and tried the candy, politely, but it was more of a That’s nice, Mom.
This awakened me. My traditions, and memories and childhood were for me. No two stories are exactly alike, and God has his plans. It was after this Christmas that I stopped working so hard to recreate my own childhood delights, stamping them upon my children, and allowed our own traditions to serve our family. This was all easier than I expected, and it went something like this:
What are your favorite things we do as a family to celebrate Christmas?
Four little faces chimed in, with pretty much the same simple answers. We have been doing most of those things for a long time now.
As our family has expanded again, this time through marriage, I am holding traditions gently, softly in my opened hands. Things change, as do seasons. I am embracing that each year will probably be different, as our children begin families of their own, with traditions unique to them. They might not have ribbon candy, or tag a tree, or have a little wax ornament. But they will have their own delights, and I will cheer them on every step of the way.
In the meantime, I will be planning new ways to serve my family, even from afar. If God blesses us with grandchildren, I already have some plans cooking; traditions to enjoy. We’ll see what sticks.
But for now, I will continue to gaze at my small wax ornament, hanging on our twinkly tree, and thank God for His faithfulness to our family over all of these years. I will thank him for all of the traditions that have served us, binding us together as family. And I will thank him most of all, in his magnificent wisdom and stunning sacrifice, for gifting us with his most precious Son.