A few days ago my wife and me put up the Christmas decorations in our home. It would be different this year, as it was just the two of us in our home.
Our six children, now grown and living in different places, are beginning to establish their own experiences and traditions for the holiday. At first, I really didn't care whether there was a tree, ornaments or a baby Jesus and manger scene on the piano. Who was going to be there to enjoy it with us? All I was seeing was the emptiness and the home void of our traditional December activities in preparing for Christmas morning.
Much like the first time I held my oldest daughter following her birth, not knowing how to be a father, I didn't know how to be alone.
Begrudging, with a bah humbug cloud to my demeanor, I retrieved the boxes full of decorations from storage with the intent of getting it over as quickly as possible.
First we moved the sofa to make room for the tree. Next we pulled our artificial scotch pine from its box, connected the parts, strung the lights and prepared for hanging the ornaments. In years past, my official decorating participation would end here, and the children would take over with hanging the ornaments and dressing the home with Christmas decorations gathered during the previous 35 years as a family. This year we split the duties between my wife and me. My wife setup the manger scene and holiday knickknacks, and I hung the ornaments.
The ornaments were consolidated into two small boxes and had been carefully packed from last season. As I opened the boxes, I quickly placed the first few ornaments on the tree. The next ornament I handled was one I had made for my mother when I was a boy. And an unexpected transformation began. I felt like a child whisked away, rediscovering Christmases I had all but forgotten.
My first experience was the Christmas mornings in Las Vegas during the '60s and '70s. My mother was a single mom, raising three children without much help from my dad. She worked the graveyard shift as a waitress at the Horseshoe Club. Every Christmas was usually split between going over to my dad's for Christmas Eve for our first Christmas and then being brought home Christmas morning for our second Christmas with mom.
I think it was the Christmas when I was 12 I remember most. As my dad dropped us off at our home, unlike previous Christmases, we brought our presents received from dad, to my mom's home. And oh what a Christmas it was, more toys and things than a child could wish for.
Inside the home, we laid new gifts on the couch and excitedly dove in to discovering and unwrapping our second Christmas with mom. Within just a few minutes, the few presents mom was able to secure on her limited income were unwrapped. I had received everything I had asked for. Christmas couldn't have been better. Then I turned to mom as she sat on the couch to thank her for what I thought was a wonderful Christmas. She was alone, no presents to open and tears streaming from her eyes, and said, "Barry, I'm sorry I couldn't do more."
How do you respond as a child? I simply replied, "Mom, my Christmas is perfect. Thank you."
I understood for the first time the sacrifice and love my mother was offering for her children. When I looked at the things my father had purchased, they lost all value to me because they had not been given in love but despitefully, to hurt my mom.
Next, came four ornaments from my last Christmas in Germany as a missionary, in a little city called Hof. They were the wooden soldiers and the bird house. That was the year my companion burned down our tree.
In Germany there is a tradition to light candles on the tree. Our tree was about five feet tall, very much like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, scrawny and very dry. In addition to a few wooden ornaments, we had placed a few candles on the tree as decoration. While I was in the kitchen preparing our Christmas Eve feast, my companion shouted, "Help! Help! Fire! Fire!" I went into the room and our tree was in flames.
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