**WARNING: this is fairly long**

Christmas is over. We are back from vacation and have just recovered from the exhaustion of the long drive back…and gearing ourselves to rejoin the world.

The Christmas tree now looms in our living room. It needs to come down, we (my husband and I) want it to come down, now. Guy could have the tree up all year, I think. The girls are indifferent.

Kent is away at work for the day. On a whim, I decide it’s time for the tree to come down. I will surprise him for when he comes home.

I think to myself how nice it would be to have some background music or movie playing while ‘we’ take the tree down, knowing that it is mostly myself who will be shunting the boxes around and doing  most of the work, but that’s ok. I really just want us to be together, like when we put the tree up. It’s different then, of course.

I look at the tree and realize that I have not even taken a picture of the whole tree lit up in all it’s glory. We did not do the usual tradition of letting Kent put up the star and then watching together as he plugged it in to see all the lights come on. We missed the ‘ooooh’s and aaaah’s’ this year of that moment. We did not get the family photograph in front of the tree that we always did. Huh!?

I sigh to myself.

Something is stirring in me as I think about it…the pressures, the excitement, the anticipation is over now, but for me, in the aftermath of Christmas, the reminicsing of what actually happened, how it happened, is almost more precious to me…now that the craziness is over, time and peace to reflect brings a richness to the memories that I did not have the time yet to savor.

I grab my camera and snap away to create a new tradition (even if it is only for myself and even if it is only for this year – maybe not so much a tradition then…): I will remember Christmas as I take down the tree. Seeing as we missed out on all the usual ‘putting-up-the-Christmas-tree traditions‘ this year.

The kids clear the room of all their toys so that we have space to bring in the boxes, ready to reclaim their treasures.

Guy chooses ‘Frozen’, I make myself a cup of tea, and we set to work.

 

The tippy top of the tree displays a lob-sided star. It teeters there to tease. At first it bothered me that I could not get it to stay upright, but now it comforts me in its imperfection, as I ponder how perfectly it mirrors this Christmas season for me. Trying and striving with high hopes, slowly ebbing with lack of energy and a commercially Christmas bitter taste left in the corner of my mouth. From trying to balance the Christmas time obligations and decorating with devotions and quality time with the kids, to standing in lines and packing for a vacation…helplessly feeling and seeing Christmas slip through my fingers. The energy and depression of Christmas time swells into endless waves, to climax at that moment we all prepare for…Christmas morning with all its significance and trivialities, excitement and disappointments.

But now, as I look back, I can wipe the negative vibes off the chalkboard in one foul swoop and collect the beautiful, special treasures into my basket. One by one I find and carefully lay them in next to each other, on top of each other, reminiscent of the next most important Christian date, Easter. Interesting analogy as it comes to me, quite unplanned and rich.

 

I start by removing the children’s handmade ornaments and am touched by a friend who so carefully and thoughtfully (because that just who she is!) helped the kids make an ornament this year! I normally make one with the kids, but this year I did not even come up with an idea, did not even take a peek at Pinterest for something incredible, so this was extra special for me. Not only did they get to have a play date, and be served the most amazing hot chocolate with whipped cream and candy canes, but they got to do the ornament too. Three in one. Or is it four…

 

I smile as I reach in to take off the perspex snowman with a red-and-white striped scarf frozen in a moment of ice-skating joy! For a moment, or two, or three, this season, I was lamenting the fact that I was being dragged along by the hype of Christmas sap (the movies, the food, the beautiful pictures in magazines, decorations, …) On and on, the usual stuff, like listening to a recording over and over. Rehashing, spending, rushing.

Yes, I know what Christmas is all about. I most definitly know! And that is why I was even more perturbed by the growing uneasiness and apathy within me. This year I was angry. I felt like a ‘sheeple’, shuffeling along to some ancient rhythm along with the masses, knowing that certain things were just ‘expected’, even though I know… And then, driving to fetch the kids from school one afternoon, listening to Pastor Bob Barnes talk on my usual tuning in to ‘The Parenting Minute’, he said something that lifted the season out of the box I was trying to lock it into. He said something to the effect that as long as you and your kids know what the true meaning of Christmas is, then have as much fun with as many things as you want during Christmas (alluding to the usual controversy of santa, amoung other things). Be free to do what you want.

How nice to give myself the freedom to enjoy the season!

So yes, little snowman, you have nothing to do with the birth of baby Jesus, but you’re cute, so you will go back up next year, maybe I’ll even put you up next to a baby Jesus ornament to remind me that although you gave no real meaning, that you’re just fun and there’s nothing wrong with fun at a time when we are ecstatically celebrating our King’s birth!! The more fun the better!! I just needed the reminder.

 

Baby Jesus lies in a carved out calabash, all the way from sunny South Africa, sourced out carefully by GG at some quaint flea market. Every year she sends a Christmas box with some Christmas decorations and her famous cookies. The cookies don’t last the day, but her thoughtfulness will linger all the way till next Christmas when we put these decorations back up.

 

My tea is cold. In all the busyness, I forgot about it. I go into the kitchen to warm my tea up in the microwave, and walk past the fridge where some families smile at me with their Christmas wishes. I feel blessed as I wait for my tea!

 

I take a sip of my tea. My thoughts still linger over the  friends  on my fridge. My eye moves further down the fridge to the devotion prepared by our church. A rush of cold guilt comes over me as I face my failures: why is it so difficult to do the daily devotion? We want to, we plan to, we love to, but then it falls short of actually happening like we thought or planned. Instead, the rush of life, the exhaustion of work and the wonderful craziness of childhood carelessness pushes time away.

 

I walk passed our Playmobil nativity scene in the entry hall (which changes daily, mind you) and notice that Joseph and Mary are looking on at the manger,  looking as if they were not sure as to where Jesus is. They see him there and I imagine they are relieved (there is nothing worse than losing sight of your child  – ask any parent – as well as the huge relief to find them again). An analogy swells up inside and I am reminded of moments here and there during this season where I lost sight of Jesus, if even for a moment, here and there, but then, the pursueing peace in finding him over and over again in small (and big) moments. I am reminded again too that it is me, and not him, that loses sight or moves away. He is always with me, never leaves me and will never leave his rightful place: it was a manger so many years ago, but now it is as the ruler of the universe, and ruler of my fickle heart.

 

By the time I reach the living room to resume, I glance over to the coffee table to put down my tea, and spot the painted sleigh made a few years earlier. It is the ultimate reminder of failure to withold traditions made in earnest excitement for the kids. Watching the kids’ enthralled at finding new little treasures each day as they wrangle the sticky drawers open…well, that didn’t happen at all this year.

Haley asked me ten days into December, why we weren’t doing the sleigh-thing, and I answered that it was because I saw Christmas being about getting, getting, getting and that I just didn’t think that them looking forward to getting more was such a good thing. It really was what I was thinking (you know, the lamenting thing…). She suggested I just put it away, and I agreed, although I never did get to put it away. I should have just packed it away next to Dash – the Elf on the Shelf – who didn’t even get out of the Publix plastic bag he was wrapped in from last year (again, due to lamenting). Sigh.

But, having just had the revelation of Jesus being alive and well, and with me, the failure fizzled to nothing right before my eyes. The sleigh looked beautiful to me once again – maybe next year I’ll do something fun with that.

Besides, we did feed the reindeer on Christmas Eve and find their fallen sleigh bells the next day ..proof of one of those bells nestled in the bough. (It’s a good thing that Pastor Bob Barnes had realigned some straying thoughts before Christmas actually arrived).

 

 

I spot an ‘H’ in the tree. A twinge of pain strikes its familiar path. But just as the letter is deep amongst the leaves and is almost buried, so the ‘path’ has slowly been overgrown by grace and love and understanding. The pain is soothed. It remains a reminder of friendships lost, but at the same time,  the letter stands for ‘Hope’ for healing and for love to flow yet again. So yes, it will go up again and again.

 

In contrast, the happy little snowman in his luminous lantern – yip, it glows different luminous colors when switched on – smiles a smile that touches us ‘happy campers’. It’s a reminder of the new friends who gave it to us,  and how God grows us, and knows us, and puts us together with people we basically just need to be with.

 

As I take off the Nativity scene ball, which I think is just too beautiful, I am reminded about Christmases with family. We are so far away from our family, so it is a little sad as I think about not being able to play the usual ‘tug-of-war’ as to whom we would be spending Christmas eve and Christmas day with. Each event blends with the faces of family members, laughs and stories to make for a wonderful concoction.

This year was a little weird for me as I found out that one of my sisters decided not to celebrate Christmas and do away with even the family get-together. I was not sure how to respond, so I didn’t. Happily, I found out that there was huge remorse for the decision and this will not become a new tradition for them – whew! Both my sisters, great Christians with immense faith, have decided that they will not be celebrating Christmas or Easter in the conventional manner. In fact, in no manner. To them, the birth and death of Jesus is an everyday affair. And you know what? I will not judge them for their decision. I have a new view on Christmas myself this year: FREEDOM to celebrate Christmas as much or as little, or however or whichever way, one decides. It’s a very personal time and each family decides for themselves how they will celebrate one of the most important events of human history – whether in a quiet moment of reflection, or an all-out crazy conglomeration of santa and sleigh bells, nativity scenes and gifts, Jesus birthday cakes and honey roasted hams. As long as you and your family know and appreciate the real meaning of Christmas: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

A ping goes off on my phone to remind me of someone’s birthday today. I realize that we forgot to call a friend whose birthday is on Christmas day. Remembering birthdays are not my strong  suit. I think about being born around this time of year. I think about friends who, after having lost two babies, had a beautiful, healthy baby boy just a few days before Christmas and I think of other friends who had a D&C on December 26th – extreme opposites only a few days apart with the birth of a Perfect Baby in-between. God gives and he takes away, but his greatest gift of all, will always be Jesus.

It’s at this point that Guy (the only helper during this event – the girls are deeply embedded into the ice of Frozen) offers a question that causes me to stop in my tracks and focus all my attention to answer as correctly as I can. “Shame, poor tree, why does it have to die?”

“From the moment they cut the tree, it is dying. But if it did not die, we would not have a beautiful tree to hang our decorations on and celebrate Jesus’ birthday. It’s like Jesus, if he did not come down to earth as a baby, he would not have died for us so that our sins could be forgiven. It’s sad when something or someone dies, but sometimes the death is for something way more precious.”

Okay, so I lost him a little bit half way, just as I found myself being a little overwhelmed by the truth of it all. Where did this all come from? I did not expect this experience of taking down the tree to be so deep, for me.

 

I look at the bare and beautiful tree as it stands alone in the corner of the room. The kids are engrossed with Anna as she deals with intense angst amongst snow flurries on the screen. They are completely oblivious to the fact that their mother is dealing with baffling inner revelation of seismic impact.  Emotions welling up and rolling down my cheeks.

I sit down for a moment to compose myself. As I look at the bare tree I am reminded of a walk we took on our vacation just days earlier. We had rented a cabin in North Carolina with some friends. In the past, when we have rented a cabin over Christmas, the cabin’s owners had always provided a Christmas tree. Not so this time. We hummed and hawed about buying a tree from the many, many tree farms on and around our hill, and even thought of cutting down a stray tree on the property ( but that would not be a very Christian thing to do),  so we decided not to get a tree at all.

On a walk one afternoon we passed quite a few fir trees – they were growing all over the place. An idea popped into my head: ‘ooooh, hey kids, why don’t you climb up the trees and pop your heads through the leaves and then you will look like the ornaments on a tree?’ It fell flat with the first try, and we moved on. I felt a little silly for getting the kids all hot and bothered with the pine needles pricking their faces, the ground was steep and they slipped and slid. Oh well, that didn’t work. But as we continued on our walk, the kids kind-of-took ownership of the idea, claiming trees as their prize, climbing them to the tippy top or just plain doing what I had suggested. “Take a photo of me!”, were the squeals of triumphant kids. I think they climbed almost every tree along the way, what fun. And yes, they were our living ornaments in living trees.

 

 

In looking at the pictures, there is one of Haley near the top of a tree. She is standing there so happy of her achievement and the sun is shining through the trees. I imagine that it is the star on the top of the tree. And if you stretch your imagination a little, you can see that the star is slightly lob-sided. I sigh as I make the connection between this tree and the tree in our living room, and their stars, and the special ornaments.

 

And then there was that one ornament. I had found (not pre-planned like I would have last Christmas) some clear plastic ornaments that I took up with us – you know, the ones you can fill up with a picture ,or glue and glitter ,or whatever…I gave them to the kids and asked them to put things inside from their time on vacation that were special to them, something that they would consider giving back to Jesus as a gift to say ‘thank you’. Paige had made her own little manger (a few sticks picked up under the oak trees) with baby Jesus (one stick) wrapped up in tissue paper – precious. Guy was a little reluctant so I helped him choose one of his gems, an acorn and some leaves. Haley had also ‘carved’ a bay Jesus from a stick, added an acorn or two, some gemstones, some leaves – her decoration was quite full. I wanted to take a picture of her holding the decoration but she didn’t want to be in the picture. So, like any clever mom, I aimed the camera in such a way as to get her reflection in the decoration. In looking at the picture I found ‘Jesus’ right next to her. Okay, so it is just the way the ‘camera-goody-thing’ on my phone reflected in the decoration. But, for me, it represents the comfort I have in knowing that we did not forget Jesus this season, and he was always with us.

I am feeling so full right now.

The last thing to do is to unscrew the base of the tree and drag the tree outside, ready for bulk trash next week. Out with the vacuum cleaner to suck up all the loose needles. It’s then that I notice that Frozen has just just finished, the titles are starting to roll down the screen. Wow, all if this, during Frozen.

The tree has been taken down.