My mother elevated Christmas tree decorating to an art form long before it became cool to do that. Each year, her process began when my father brought home a Douglas fir, purchased from a lot near his job in downtown Philadelphia. Dad took his role in our Christmas tree traditions seriously. He measured, pondered then measured again before buying. After he arrived home, he’d saw off a portion of the trunk to ensure that the tree could take in fresh water. Once he secured the tree in its stand, the yearly battle of the lights began. In those days, most homes didn’t boast several outlets on every living room wall. Therefore, a complex system of extension cords snaked in and out of our tree to accommodate all the multicolored strings of lights.
Now the time for my mother to perform her decorating magic began. First, she hung our collection of mercury glass ornaments, spacing them perfectly all over the tree by color and size. My brothers and I were not allowed to handle these fragile keepsakes until we reached late elementary school. As the oldest, I became my mother’s first ornament assistant when I turned ten, a great honor.
After the glass balls, she and I positioned all the paper creations we made at school, careful to keep colors from clashing. We finished our decorating with tinsel. This final touch took the longest as my mother insisted that it be put on strand by strand, evenly, precisely. When the last piece of tinsel hung in properly, my Dad ceremoniously plugged in the lights, and Christmas filled our living room. The lights and ornaments, shimmering through the silver tinsel, added a sense of wonder and the anticipation of gifts soon to appear under bottom branches.
When I turned thirteen, we moved to Michigan, next door to my father’s parents and the family business. We made some mild alterations to our tree routine. Since my Dad now worked next door at our family’s florist and greenhouse business, we all piled into the business’s delivery van to cut down a Christmas tree together, at a nearby farm. After that, all routines remained the same, old traditions carried into a new home. By now, I knew all strategies for designing a beautiful Christmas tree.
One evening, close to Christmas, I wandered over to my grandparents’ home, as I frequently did, and came upon an appalling sight, my grandmother, perched on a couch arm, chucking handfuls of tinsel onto her Christmas tree. Handfuls. Throwing them. She heard me come in and laughed at the shocked expression on my face. “Not quite like your mother does it, eh Sharon?” she cackled.
I couldn’t make sense of this scene. I spent most Saturdays, the previous summer and fall, working side by side with this woman, well-known in our community as a premiere floral designer. Her creativity and attention to detail for every design from bridal bouquets to funeral arrangements, made her much in demand. Many times, I needed to rework a corsage or remake a bow to fit her high standards. Who in the world was this crazy, tinsel-tossing woman before me now?
“Sharon, maybe you could reach the top of the tree for me and finish this up? I’ve got some baking to do.”
“Suuuuuure……” I said hesitantly. Not only the tinsel needed a rescue. Ornaments didn’t seem to be arranged by size or color or any discernible plan at all. Many remained in the boxes. Overall the tree looked as if someone upended a box of decorations onto it. “Who puts on tinsel before they even get all the ornaments on?” I wondered to myself.
She read my expression and said, “You’re welcome to rearrange the ornaments too and put some more on if you want.” And with that, she climbed off the couch, handed me a clump of tinsel and disappeared into the kitchen.
I stared at the tree, momentarily overwhelmed. Then, every bit of training I’d learned in my mother’s Christmas boot camp kicked in. Every ornament and clump of tinsel came off, and I started from scratch. Two hours later, I felt pleased with my results and my grandmother praised my efforts. It became a tradition for me to decorate my grandparent’s tree every year until I married and moved away. I beamed when our entire extended family gathered at their home and folks oohed and aahed over the tree while she and I shared knowing glances.
As a teenager, I never understood why all my grandmother’s design expertise and passion didn’t extend to her Christmas tree. As an adult at the age now that she was back then, I get it. My grandmother worked anywhere from 8-12 hours a day in the shop, doing all the design work herself, except for weekends when I helped. I easily understand now, with adult perspective, her exhaustion. I’ve worked in other floral shops since then and I know what it’s like to stand for hours at a time, designing and arranging. As far as your legs are concerned, it’s not unlike factory work.
As a teen, I could only see the haphazard Christmas tree. I completely missed the weary person next to it. I don’t know which end of the spectrum you are on today, so I’m offering encouragement in two different directions. First, if you’re in tinsel-chucking mode, give yourself some grace. Preparing for and celebrating Christmas with friends and family is like a part-time job. If you’re already working at another job, Christmas is a lot. Ask God to help you prioritize and let go of expectations that are too high. People don’t need six different kinds of Christmas cookies nor does your house need to look like a Martha Stewart photo shoot.
Those of you whose schedules are more flexible, is there someone who needs your time and energy resources? Is there a young, working mom whose children you could watch for a few hours while she Christmas shops? How about sharing coffee and a Christmas cookie with someone newly widowed struggling to celebrate their first Christmas alone? Take a restaurant gift card to a family with a loved one who will be hospitalized over the holidays or just recovering from a surgery or traumatic event. Accidents, illness and injuries are no respecters of Christmas.
All around us are people barely getting through their ordinary days, let alone Christmas, if we will but open our eyes to truly see them, the way Jesus does.