The most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw was a discard on its way to the dump. It had been a lean Christmas for us, and in the absence of funding for elaborate decorations, my mother built a simple faux fireplace on the main wall of our living room. The mantle allowed just enough room for our stockings and for the nativity scene to rest in prominent view as the center of our celebration. The whole display was actually made of cardboard, but it was colorful and festive and she got it special for me, so I was perfectly content. My uncle, however, who came visiting the day after Christmas, found it confusing. He pressed my mother at some length for a good reason that I did not have a Christmas tree, as all children rightfully should. (This is probably a good time to note that it was my first Christmas, and he was only five years old.) Not having the financial acumen or social sensitivity required to grasp the situation, he finally resigned himself to the injustice of it all and – no doubt at the behest of the adults – decided to spend his energies playing outside. Some time later, in the midst of dinner preparations, my uncle came bursting back into the house. He was red-faced and out of breath, yet oddly reserved and mannerly for a young boy in the throes of vigorous exercise. This could only mean that he wanted something. Sure enough, not even waiting for a pause in the conversation, he donned his most cherubic face, widened his eyes with pure innocence, and inquired as to whether he might have six of my mother’s chocolate chip cookies, please, right away. This was oddly specific. My mother had made plenty of cookies and was happy to dispense them to her sweet little brother generously, but there was something curious in his manner that led her to question him. Why six cookies, and why the urgency? It turns out, my uncle hadn’t resigned himself to injustice at all; he had been busily setting things right. As he was enjoying the outdoors, one of our neighbor boys had been assigned the chore of taking his family’s used Christmas tree to the curb for pick-up. Sensing providence and opportunity, my uncle immediately approached the boy and began wheeling and dealing for its acquisition. Since cookies were the only currency available to him, that’s what he offered and the neighbor decided six would be fair. All my uncle needed was to take those cookies out, and the tree would be ours. Swallowing back a rising lump in her throat, my mother opened the cookie jar and let him choose his six perfect cookies. He ran them outside, then talked his new friend into helping to carry it into our house. These two earnest young boys muscled my tree across the street, through the door, and into a corner near the nativity scene, then somehow managed to prop it up securely enough for display. This was some tree. What had originally been perfect form was now lopsided from the weight of its former decorations. There were scattered clumps of crushed icicles all over it on random branches. It had lost a fair number of needles at the hands of its young movers, too – but it was mine: my tree, my gift, bought with the uninhibited love of a young boy who cared enough to go find it for me. Love made it perfect. I don’t know whether my family added any decorations to my tree that night, or how long it was allowed to stay. In truth, I don’t actually have a visual memory of it at all, just images imprinted on my heart from the story as we’ve told it over the years. Yet that tattered old leftover tree remains as the standard to which I hold all Christmas trees, and the epitome of love made tangible and real. Oh, and to this day, my mother still gives her little brother cookies for Christmas. Every year.
“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel…”
I hate to admit this, but in the past, I have written off this bewildered confession as evidence of weak character on good old Charlie Brown’s part. How can anyone not be happy at Christmas? There are lights and parties and movies and treats and friends and snow and presents… Why, you couldn’t escape Christmas cheer if you tried, I’d have thought. Clearly, this was just a means to a story – almost an unbelievable stretch, to be honest – and our protagonist would get over himself in the end.
Cut to me sitting in the living room just last night. It was a perfect Christmas moment. I was quietly basking in the glow of the Christmas lights and the fireplace. My family had just bid farewell to the last of about twenty-five good friends and relatives who had attended our Christmas Open House. Candles were burning, my tummy was full of homemade treats, and the house had settled into an almost poetic stillness. It was even snowing outside, a particularly rare gift in this region. All was right with the world.
At least, it should have been. Yet even in the beauty and tranquility all around me, I could feel nothing at all. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t lonely or stressed out or fearful. I just could not connect with my surroundings and all that they should have imparted. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel… I get it now.
Observing the media during the Christmas season (which they cheerfully insist begins in August), we get a pretty good picture of how we should be. The grocer’s commercial assumes our typical families will be frolicking about the kitchen together. Morning radio shows inform us of which toys and electronics are every happy kid’s must-haves. Jewelers’ billboards demonstrate the ideal couple’s celebration, which is backlit by the frosty glow of a skating pond and featuring a diamond no smaller than your average beagle. These are the messages we receive.
It is no doubt due to all of this helpful guidance that Christmas has a stereotype of inciting depression. For instance, my family’s baking projects may involve dancing, but most likely in an effort to extinguish spontaneously combusting butter, or to peel the youngest child from the refrigerator’s ledge. My divorce was final years ago (probably due to a glaring lack of ice) and the economy has made a mockery of must-haves for anyone. It becomes easy to wilt under an inadvertent message of inadequacy and failure.
Thankfully, Isaiah 42:3 tells me: “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.” I don’t know for certain yet whether the root of my blues is circumstantial, psychological, or biological, but I know this: God will not let me be snuffed out completely. Above all things, Christmas is my reminder that God keeps His promises. I know that He remembers me, and that He will preserve me.
My new church has a tradition that I think is very cool. In the middle of December, they hold a Blue Christmas service designed to address this phenomenon. It is structured around dealing with the pressures and feelings of loss that are so common this time of year. Basically, it gives us an organized setting in which we have permission to feel whatever we need to feel, and to receive grace and prayer for it. I will be attending with a sense of profound gratitude.
If you are among the blue this season, I would like to encourage you to find a similar outlet if you can. You are not alone, nor are you defective. You have a good reason for feeling – or not – this way. I pray that you may find resolution and relief, and that your flame will be rekindled.
If you are not one of us, I implore you to be kind. We will try not to cry all over your party clothes.
originally posted 12/13/10