O Christmas Tree

Even though officially there’s a month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it seems like as soon as the leftover cranberry sauce goes in the fridge, the Christmas decorations come out of storage. I’ve always been a stickler for each holiday having its own time. No handmade turkeys until the jack-o-lantern gets thrown out. And, please PLEASE no Christmas music before Thanksgiving. But, I love the way our house looks when it’s decorated for Christmas, so I’ve always tried to get the tree up the weekend after Thanksgiving.

After we bought the river house, I especially loved how cozy and welcoming our cypress log home on our wooded property felt with the glow of lights and a fire burning. For most of our 30-plus years together, my husband and I have had a real tree. We usually bought one from the annual tree lot at the Catholic church in our suburb of Tampa.

Our first Christmas at the river in 2014, we discovered a tree farm nearby and cut down our inaugural tree. We had a large one for the living room and a smaller one for the dock, plus live greenery for the fireplace mantle.

I put lights on the porch and dock rails and decorations in every room. Our aging cat Holly (so named because we got her as a kitten right before one Christmas) loved to curl up on the kitty blanket (aka tree skirt) between the myriad presents. We planned for that to be our ongoing tradition.

Fast forward three years.

The 2017 holidays felt pretty bleak. Our 30-year-old younger daughter, Rachel, had died in a car accident in April of that year — just two short months after celebrating her wedding. Holly the cat had succumbed to the ravages of her 21 years in August. We had endured a hurricane over Labor Day weekend that resulted in 5 days without power and a subsequent flood that covered 75% of our two acres, but mercifully stopped short of entering our house. By Halloween (Rachel’s birthday) we were exhausted physically and emotionally. I truly don’t remember what we did at Thanksgiving that year. We didn’t decorate at our house in Tampa at all for Christmas.

But, our river house had already become our refuge and our comfort zone. So, a few days before Christmas we headed there seeking solace. We wanted nothing more than to hibernate for the season, but the four grandchildren would be there for a few days and they wouldn’t understand if there weren’t at least a tree.

So, on the drive up, we stopped at Lowe’s and bought a last-minute-priced artificial tree with built-in lights. The next day I sat it up in the corner of the living room. Then I went through the huge box of ornaments I have accumulated over the decades and pulled out the most generic ones I could find. Nothing sentimental; none of the ones the girls hand made over the years; none of the wooden ones with kitten toothmarks in them. It looked like a sample tree in Walmart.

Fine. That’s about how I felt. Like Christmas meant nothing more than a commercial occasion. Perhaps the grandkids wouldn’t know the difference.

But, a friend gave me a crystal angel ornament with a sweet note honoring Rachel’s first Christmas in Heaven. And my older daughter had ornaments made for all the family members with Rachel’s picture in her wedding dress. Facebook happily provided me with “memories” from the year before with Rachel’s picture. I could not escape Rachel’s absence from the holiday.

But, what I could embrace was her presence.

She is always here. Her spirit. Her spunk. Her obstinance and orneriness (so much like her mother!).

Rachel loved tradition, too. She loved Christmas. She insisted on Christmas stockings hung on the mantel and filled by Santa even when she and her sister were grown.

And, why not? Christmas is about renewal. It is about the birth of the Saviour of the world reminding us again and again until He comes again that we have the opportunity to overcome death. To celebrate forever in the glow of God’s love.

Who knows. Maybe there’s a Christmas tree in Heaven each year. It’s probably not a fake one. In fact, it’s probably a live tree that’s a billion and one years old. With handmade ornaments by everyone who is in Heaven.

Maybe I’ll get to hang one there someday. Right beside Rachel’s.


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