“All we wanted was a Christmas tree!” my daughter proclaimed as she gave herself a face-palm, “But noooooooooo.” She repeated the exact words and tone I had said just minutes before, but they sounded much more dramatic in her 3-year-old voice.
My family was huddled in our kitchen. Our hats, coats, and mittens, soggy from the rain, were half on and half off.
“I have an idea,” my husband proposed. “We’re just going to go up into the attic and get out the artificial tree from when we were first married.”
“WHAT!?” I yelled, looking at him like he was the Grinch about to steal our Christmas tree and stuff it up the chimney. “No No. No.” I yelled, standing in the doorway. “We are going to have a good old fashioned family Christmas. We’re getting a REAL tree. We’re going to press on and we’re going to have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tapped danced with Danny … well you know…”
Apparently 2020 has turned me into Clark Griswold – I’m trying so hard for a good old fashioned family Christmas that it’s ending up a right old mess.
It was only 10am. We had left the house 2 hours earlier, all bundled up and excited. Today was the big day: Christmas Tree Day! We had it all planned out: we’d arrive at our local Christmas tree farm at opening, safely avoiding crowds. With hats on our heads, masks on our faces, and Christmas Spirit in our hearts, we pulled our mini-SUV sleigh into the parking lot 10 minutes early. While we waited, the kids played on the wooden train playground. This was going to be a good day.
Until… we went into the farm and discovered: they were out of trees.
December 4th and a Christmas Tree farm was out of Christmas Trees. (Thanks 2020).
Back in the car, we drove to one of the many tree-lots in local parking lots, but they were closed. Then, just as I began to google other options: it started to rain.
“All we wanted was a Christmas tree,” I yelled at the sky, “But noooooooooo.” Our Christmas Spirit was waning. The Clausometer was nearly down to zero. So, we went home.
We did eventually get a tree that day. Hours later, determined to find Christmas Joy, we loaded everyone back in the car. We tried a few more places before eventually ending up back up at the original tree farm, who had managed to bring in trees from their other location. My daughter and I selected a tree in the rain. My husband waited in the car with our son, who had had enough of the nonsense and fallen asleep. By the time we arrived home with the tree atop our car, it was pouring. After pulling in kids and tree, everything and everyone was soaked.
But we had a Christmas tree – it would make everything better. Because we ARE going to have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas … or else.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling extra pressure to make this Christmas a great Christmas. It’s December 2020 – the last month of the worst year in most of our lifetimes. We’ve been in some arrangement of quarantine/lock down for 10 months now (275 days as of this writing). We desperately need some joy. And in my mind, twinkle lights, a tree, and decorations WILL do just that. Christmas WILL be special. We WILL have fun. We WILL create memories. The Christ Child WILL be born in our hearts once more. Everything WILL be okay.
Christmas will make everything better. Something has to, right?
It’s been a rough year, but I still have faith. For God has still “become flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:14). God is still “Emmanuel, which means God with us” (Mt 1:12) The angels still proclaim, “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2: 10). God is here in our neighborhood, with us, bringing joy to all people who sorrow.
In this, I hope. And in the meantime, in my small corner of the world, joy will come in the form of a twinkle-lit tree with funky ornaments. Which is why, I spent the rest of the weekend, bopping around our house like some crazy Christmas Elf, determined to be Christmas Joy incarnate. I pulled out all the Christmas decorations from the attic: Advent Calendars, nativity scenes, ornaments, stockings, books, movies, Rudolph stuffies, Nativity stuffies, pillows, dishtowels, mugs, wreaths, play Christmas trees, wooden Christmas trees, ceramic Christmas trees, fairy string lights, garland, inside lights, outside lights, and so on and so on.
When I reached the bottom of the last box, I pulled out my most treasured Christmas decoration: 4 painted wooden houses, each with a letter on it, spelling out N-O-E-L. I smiled and giggled when I pulled them out, proclaiming: “Here they are!” They may not look like anything special to you, but they are special to me. They used to sit on my Grandmother’s China Cabinet in her dining room. She, as any good church lady would, had it spell, Noel. But her grandkids, as any good grandkids would, always had it spell other words. It was my favorite thing to do at Christmastime at Grandma Grinder’s house: change the NOEL sign and wait until Grandma noticed and scolded us for it.
The NOEL sign was the first thing I requested from Grandma’s house when she moved into the nursing home a few years ago. It’s held a special place in our Christmas home since then, and even more so since her death in May 2019.
“Please make it spell ‘L-E-O-N’” my husband called.
“What about L-E-N-O?” I said laughing, setting them up.
Then I made an important decision, “I know the perfect one for 2020!” I set up the letters: “L-O-N-E.”
L-O-N-E. I stepped back with a realization: “You know, no one but us is going to see any of this.”
The Clausometer dipped again, as my Christmas Spirit waned. A weekend of Christmas decorating flurry only to realize that all of this was only for us. No Christmas parties, no Christmas play dates, no Christmas family dinner, no standing around the Christmas tree hand in hand singing “Fahoo fores dahoo dores, Welcome Christmas come this way.” (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1966). Even our Christmas Eve worship will be virtual, lighting our candles together, but apart.
2020: the LONE NOEL.
I suddenly realized what was underneath my insatiable Christmas decorating drive: I was desperately trying to make up for all the losses of 2020. With all that we’ve lost and missed and endured, I just wanted to give my family a special Christmas. I wanted to forget that we were missing yet another special celebration with beloved family. I wanted to remind us that light still shines in the darkness – and that light can absolutely come in the form of tiny twinkling tree lights.
This might be a LONE NOEL, but we are not alone. We are not alone for “God is with us.” We are not alone, for we have beloved people whom God has placed in our lives, whether they live in our houses or in a Zoom square on our screen.
For maybe this isn’t a LONE NOEL, but a Silent Night – a quiet Christmas. A simple Christmas. A Christmas away from the busy stores. A break from the stress of hosting parties. A moment to stop traveling and start being. A year to truly stay “Home for the Holidays.” An opportunity to let the Christ Child to be born anew in you.
The other day, I was listening to James Taylor’s version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from his beautiful 2006 Christmas Album, James Taylor At Christmas. As I listened, my eyes welled up with tears. For Taylor changes the lyrics of the last stanza. He doesn’t sing the traditional lyrics:
“Through the years / We all will be together / If the fates allow / Hang a shining star / Upon the highest bough / And have yourself a merry little Christmas right now.”
Instead, Taylor sings: “In a year / We all will be together / If the Fates allow / Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow / And have ourselves a merry little Christmas now.”
Listen here to this incredibly poignant version.
Friends, I hope in a year we will once again be together. Until then, may you find joy in the muddling through. Whatever small things bring you joy (be it lights or decorations or movies or Christmas PJs), I pray you have Hap-hap-happiest Christmas.
With respectful references to:
Christmas Vacation, 1989
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1966
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, 1943, Martin and Blane
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, 2006, James Taylor