Trimming the Christmas tree changes a lonely heart

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Dec. 21 2013 11:25 p.m. MST

Decorating the Christmas tree brought memories made more meaningful as I wrote them down.

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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.

My companion, against my warning, decided he wanted to light the candles. We got the fire out; however, we were unable to save the tree. It was black with no needles. The apartment smelled of smoldering fire. We did everything we could to clean up the mess, which took until 2 or 3 a.m. In order to get the smell out of the apartment, we left the window open all night. It was one of the coldest nights I can remember. The next morning for Christmas, we rehung the ornaments on the tree and opened our presents. It’s a Christmas memory that literally burned a special place in my heart and will always bring a smile.

One by one, as I uncovered each of the ornaments, memory after memory of Christmases past were brought into view. One of my most favorite memories was the 1992 Christmas in West Jordan. That was the year we began what would become our family tradition I will refer to as a Christmas Treasure Hunt.

That year rather than having all the presents under the tree on Christmas morning, each of the children was presented with a Christmas paper-wrapped container filled with candy and a letter from Santa. Oh, what a shock the children had when to their amazement there was only one gift for each of them under the tree. One by one they opened their present and read aloud their letter from Santa, "Merry Christmas from Santa. It’s time to start your Christmas adventure. Solve one riddle at a time. Search out and find one gift at a time. Once you have found your present, return to let the next person in line begin their quest."

Each letter was filled with Christmas riddles and clues. Solve the riddle in order to find your present. The gifts were hidden throughout the home under tables, in closets, under beds and even inside the washing machine. In the years that followed, each and every member of the family has eagerly awaited finding his letter from Santa under the tree to begin the Christmas Treasure Hunt quest.

Now as our children are starting their families, we are seeing them continue the tradition and create their own versions of the Christmas Treasure Hunt.

Within a couple of hours, my wife and me had decorated our home. This year the decorations had more meaning than in past years because I took time to remember and wrote down those memories so they will not be forgotten. It's a new chapter for my wife and me, but it was a very important time for us as we remembered Christmases past, we still have many more Christmases present and future to share together alone and with our children and grandchildren. I look forward to the memories that will be created.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an educational website for genealogy and family history. Facebook: facebook.com/barry.ewell

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