I’m a linear guy when it comes to decorating for Christmas. That means working from the outside in. Lights on the trees, garland on the porch banisters, wreathes on the windows, spotlights in the yard. When all that is done and right—and it always has to be right—we’ll move to the inside: nativities, candles, lights.
The tree comes last. Always has, too, even when I was a child. I think that’s as it should be. The manger is the soul of Christmas and the reason we celebrate our blessed assurance, but the tree is its heart. I firmly believe that. It is in most instances placed in the room in which we gather and spend our time together, whether living room or family room. We wrap them with lights that by some magic cast a glow upon us that seems warmer than any sun and more comfortable than any blanket. We place stars or angels at the apex to remind us of what shone in that bright sky so many years ago as heralds of the Good News to all men.
But if the heart of Christmas is the tree, the heart of the tree is its ornaments.
It was only recently I realized that, and I have my children to thank for it. The tree had been set and straightened in its stand, the lights had been strung, and the star had been put up. Both kids were in the throes of the seasonal hyperactivity that seems to pour out of them once the Xs on the calendar creep toward December. But the constant torrent of that excitement began to ebb and flow once the box of ornaments was opened.
It was not the sort of silence that signifies boredom or joyless work. It was instead an almost holy stillness, the sort of which I would imagine accompanies some great discovery long buried by dirt and time.
They didn’t reach for the shiny baubles purchased on sale at Target, not even the Star Wars or Winnie the Pooh ornaments from the Hallmark store. What my kids reached for were the treasures wrapped in paper towels and tissues that had over the last eleven months slipped through the cracks to the bottom of the box. The ones that cost nothing but time and effort. The ones they made themselves.
Chances are you have the same sort of thing on your own trees. The house made out of a school milk carton. The reindeer made out of clothespins. A bell made out of a Styrofoam cup.
They sorted these ornaments into their own separate pile. Only after they were secure (and only after repeated pleas by both of them for me not to sit on them) did they reach for the fancier accessories. They tied bows and plugged in the mechanical ornaments. My daughter hung the colored bulbs by rainbow order. It was all lively and punctuated by jokes and cheer—the flow. But every few trips to the tree would be to hang one of their own ornaments onto the tree, ones made in kindergarten or pre-school or even last year. Those trips would be made in that awed silence–the ebb.
I didn’t ask my children why they acted such. I wasn’t sure if they knew, and I wasn’t about to spoil their unknowing. They’ll learn that soon enough.
In a few short years what my children see as the magic of Christmas will yield to a new understanding. They will know that Santa isn’t real, but that their memories are. They can see them each year as they hang them on the tree and all their outward talk turns to talk directed inward. They’ll remember where they were when they made them, whom they were with, what they were feeling. They will glimmer in the sun during the day and in the bright lights during the evening. They will look and they will remember.
Maybe that’s where all the warmth of a Christmas tree comes from. Not from the lights, but the thoughts.
That’s what I think now. Christmas is a time where memories are made tangible and we glimpse the thin line of life that connects our yesterdays and tomorrows, all wrapped up in milk cartons and pipe cleaners.
They’re fragile, like us.
Precious, like us.