A lifetime of Christmas peace hinges on how a child sees parents presenting the annual celebration. What happened in my formative years with the Christmas tree proves the point.
Daddy would start drinking the night he dragged through the front door what he bragged was the best-shaped tree in the lot. He had me believing nobody’s was better than ours, because his eyes could size up a flawless tree. True to his alcoholic personality, my father required that his selection be decorated to perfection. And he was the sole judge of what that looked like.
First, he would string the lights. He strung and restrung and restrung until the result pleased him.
Next, clutching a bottle of beer, he sat at his place on the sofa, where my brothers and I were already in line and knew not to say or do anything. We watched Mama, waiting silently beside the tree for Daddy to tell her where to hang the ornaments.
Before the boxes of glass balls were empty, Daddy demanded do-overs. “Mildred, put that green ball—not that one, the small one—next to the red one. No! The big red ball. Not there. Up higher. That’s too high.”
If Mama risked hanging anything without his instruction, my father erupted with “Mildred, you don’t know how to decorate a Christmas tree. Put that back in the box and get me another beer.”
Woe to my mother when a string of lights went out! In those days the lights were wired in a series. If one bulb stopping shining, the entire string shut down. It was a hit-and-miss ordeal for Mama as her fingers frantically screwed and unscrewed bulbs to find the bad one. My heart hurt wishing she would find it quickly so that Daddy would not keep shouting, “Haven’t you found it yet, Mildred? Stop that and get me another beer. Hurry up.”
As the tragedy neared its end, I saw Mama’s face staring out at us between the tree branches. Her cascading blond curls framed the pain-pierced blue eyes, the tears silently sliding down her cheeks, and the sealed lips.
That face, stamped on my early childhood memory, appeared every Christmas after I had children. Decorating the tree became drudgery for me, but I kept it to myself. Why say anything that would diminish the Christmas joy of my family?
One Christmastime I thought the other tree might short-circuit my haunting fear of the visitation. My father bought the other tree for my first Christmas. Without any ado it would appear on a table in the living room sometime before Christmas morning. Nothing about that tree had to be improved. It was perfect just the way it was. When it was plugged in and I looked at its shining candles, I felt peace amidst our family chaos.
The Christmases I came back home after I was grown, my eyes skipped around the living room until they located my first tree. Then came a stretch of years I didn’t see it. Thinking Mama wouldn’t mind because other decorations had trumped its space and it might bring me peace, I asked her for it. She answered, “Oh, I threw that out.”
After our children left the nest, I waited to decorate the tree until my husband was gone for a while. I wanted to choke off the least suggestion from him that might stir up my grief. If I had sole charge of assembling the branches, stringing the lights, and hanging the ornaments, maybe the meeting with my mother would not materialize. She came.
A few years later, I bought a 3-foot tree–half the size of what my father would buy. When that didn’t make a difference, I tried hanging only religious ornaments on the tree. Next I returned to a 6-foot tree but one that was prelit. Skipping my father’s first step of stringing lights didn’t keep the visual memory at bay either.
When I was seventy, I finally kept the longtime promise I had made to myself. I threw out the Christmas tree. Never again would there be branches for my mother’s sorrowful face. Then, using removable hooks, I hung ornaments of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the three Wise Men on bookcase shelves.
Three days before Christmas that year, I felt as if a magnet were pulling me to a local resale store. Unable to dismiss the tug, I drove there devoid of a desire to rummage through castoffs in the hope of finding a treasure.
Once I stepped in the shop, my legs walked me straight to a counter on which sat a ceramic Christmas tree studded with multicolored candles. “I just put that out,” the manager said over my shoulder. “If you want it, the box is in the back.”
Within an hour the vintage tree was glowing softly on a table in my living room. My inner child of the past had peace that Christmas and ever since.
I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. It isn’t like the peace that this world can give. So don’t be worried or afraid (John 14:27 CEV).
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