The sun was on the downward slide toward the horizon, and we still hadn’t found the tree. Not a tree, mind you. There were trees all around. But the tree—one that would fit in the corner of our tiny living room, with a good shape and strong branches. The tree for our second Christmas together.
We were exploring our third field at the local tree farm, one packed close with deep green spruces far too tall for our apartment. It was only the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but so far all the best trees were spoken for, and many remainders boasted yellowing needles, huge bare patches, and haphazard shapes like squat Christmas bushes. Dry brush and vines tangled their branches and caught my boots.
I’d heard stories about this farm’s glory days. My husband’s family had been coming since before he was born. A photo album on my brother-in-law’s Facebook page shows our nieces and nephew getting bigger, year after year, as the family poses on a bench swing. They’ve stopped looking for trees here, but they still come, bundled up for their annual photo.
It’s a tradition, I know. But I’m not sure the tree is here. My inner problem-solver kicks in. “I’m not sure we’ll find one here. Maybe we should . . . try another farm?”
“Maybe . . .” Chris is examining a spruce slightly taller than he is. The branches stick out at odd clumsy angles. “I guess this might be the last year we get a tree here. But I need closure! What about this one?”
The melding of holiday traditions: it’s one of those little things about marriage. I was raised on artificial trees, and our tree decorating custom looked more like a construction project than a family adventure. My mom would bring the boxed-up puzzle of metal and plastic from the utility room and unpack bins of ornaments and lights. After rearranging furniture away from the living room window (Christmas trees should always be by a window, so drivers can see the lights from the road), she’d sit on the floor, surrounded by stacked metal branches of different widths, and piece it together, from bottom to top. Then she would string the lights.
One year, she got a ridiculously good deal on a craft store’s display tree—the tree and all the decorations were yours for cheap, if you were willing to take the display apart yourself. It was a magnificent tree, broad and tall and deepest green. Sure, the sparkly, green and purple Mardi Gras ornaments were ugly (why Mardi Gras on a Christmas tree is beyond me), but this was the tree that taught us solid green lights were an interesting alternative, and the trick of lighting a tree like a shop display is to use way more than you need and carefully weave them in the branches, from tip to back and back again, until the whole tree sparkles through and through.
So the lights. Mom strung the lights. Then, and only then, my sister and I would hang ornaments. The sentimental yet falling-apart ones went toward the back. Glittery ones were best hung by lights for maximum sparkle. When it was over we’d flip the switch, and suddenly—it was Christmas.
Chris doesn’t seem super thrilled with this particular tree. I remember one I spotted in the first field we checked. Not too tall. The bare patch small enough that we could hide it in the corner. Soft, fluffy needles. I offer to go back and look for it, and we traipse across the field for a second look. The determination to find the tree, today, here, before the sun goes down, is serious.
I wander up and down the rows of leftover trees. This field is even more sparse than the others, probably the first one people search, as it’s the cleanest and has the smallest trees. But I can’t find it. I see one that could possibly be it, but the tree has already been claimed, strung with a name tag and little bits of ribbon. Chosen.
We stand in the darkening light a little longer. The tree farm is technically closed now, and a decision is needed. “Well? How about it? Should we just take the one we found over there and make it work?”
The thought of waiting another week is . . . less than thrilling. “Sure. Let’s do it.”
Chris automatically seems lighter with the decision made. “Just wait. When we get it home, it’ll be the best tree ever. I’ll fight anyone that says it’s not.”
The childhood Christmases I remember most are the disrupted ones. There was the year of the live tree experience. We wandered the farm and drank hot cocoa and chopped it down ourselves. Novices that we were, our tree’s trunk was too crooked and it fell over three times before Christmas was done.
Lives grew busier. College and jobs made schedules so busy we’d find ourselves hustling to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. And then there was the year my Grandpa went into hospice care and my parents made a hurried trip to Georgia the week before Christmas. My sister and I pushed back the darkness the only way we knew how: decorating the house with Elf playing in the background and cookies baking in the oven.
“I think it’s the power of liturgy.” Chris and I are driving home, our new tree, the one with the sparse and awkward branches, bundled and tied on top of the car. “It wouldn’t be the same if I got a tree somewhere else, you know?”
“That makes sense.” I tell him about my childhood trees and disrupted traditions, and how when life got in the way of our usual Christmas, we made it work. We made memories. Christmas always found a way to break through.
Liturgy: repeated ceremonies, a way of doing and living that shapes our lives and the stories we tell ourselves about the world. Lighting Advent candles, pulling the boxes of decorations out of storage, listening to Christmas music after Thanksgiving (or if you’re us, sneaking it in a few days before), decorating the tree. Not one moment is insignificant as we shape this season.
But what do we do with the disruptions, when the kids grow up and people move on and “It’s just not Christmas without fill-in-the-blank“?
I think of the traditions God’s people followed before the arrival of the child Messiah. I think of how they waited, how they went through the motions, and how Jesus quietly disrupted every little ceremony. And what is Advent if it’s not looking for another cosmic disruption, when everything wrong in the world is put right, the breaking of the endless winter and the Kingdom coming down?
Feast. Celebrate. Decorate your trees. Embrace the interruptions as gifts. The light is coming.
Jen Rose Yokel is a poet, freelance writer, and spiritual director. Her words have appeared at She Reads Truth, CCM Magazine, and other publications, and she released her first poetry collection Ruins & Kingdoms in 2015. Originally from Central Florida, she now makes her home in Fall River, Massachusetts with her husband Chris, where you can find her enjoying used bookstores and good coffee.