Monday, February 9, 2015

Taking Down the Christmas Tree

We celebrate Christmas longer than most people and keep Christmas decorations up longer than most people. Just last week, I was still listening to and singing Christmas songs.

While the world tends to kick off the Christmas celebration early - by Thanksgiving Day (which is rapidly disappearing as a national holiday) - at the very latest, we don't even start thinking in terms of, "Hey, we should bring out a box or two of trinkets," until after St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) at the earliest.

We do, however, engage in a fast (less about food now that I have health issues and more about attitude) beginning Nov. 15, which continues through Dec. 24, to prepare ourselves for the birth of something wonderful and joyous. The Western Christian church has something similar - advent - which is a bit shorter, beginning on Dec. 1.

One Western tradition I adopted and adapted for my children in 1983 when Christopher was only 18 months old, was the Jesse Tree. This is the story of the Old Testament and the events that prophesize and lead up to Christ, told visually and symbolically, with "ornaments" that represent people and events. Instead of the customary four weeks, ours had six weeks of symbols, one for each day of the fast.

I can still recall how, during Christopher's naptime, I wrote lists detailing what to include and how I might represent it. Then, since I had no money, my sister, for a belated birthday present, took me on a wonderful trip to Louis Joliet mall where we searched for items that could fit. She spent a total of $30, and we had a blast finding them. I still have those items, things like wind-up chattering teeth to represent The Tower of Babel. Others were homemade, such as the bag of lentils to represent Jacob and Essau.

It was a marvelous supplement to our home scripture study, a fun was to teach key Biblical events, and a treasured pre-Christmas tradition that only went by the wayside just a few short years ago Each day I would bring out an ornament; a child would guess (taking turns by days as I added children). We hung them on a miniature four foot tree, the only tree standing in our house for most of what "the world" calls the Christmas season.

We took our time decorating, no mad rush to get it all done in a day. The only time I personally have decorated anything was my last year in college, when I impulsively bought a small tree, lights, garland, etc., and ran the garland around all the doorways (my "front" door, as well as the doors to my closet, shower, and bathroom) in dorm room inside the very gothic-y and wood-all-around Tower Hall at the University of St. Francis in Joliet.

The following year, I was married, and Richard wanted to do all the decorating, which he did up until the last year or so of our marriage. Joshua had a wonderfully artistic eye for it, and he assumed the role in Marycrest and nearly all of our years in Channahon. For most of our Christmases, we had a live trees, and as Christopher grew older, he'd take the younger kids and chop one down, with Rebekah doing most of the hanging of ornaments, saving the special and elaborate ones my mother had given me for me to hang. In our last few years in Channahon, we had an artificial tree, as it fit nicely into a corner in our tiny living room.

This year, we almost didn't do anything. We had lost our home and the family life that accompanied it. Three children had dispersed and were making their own lives and traditions. The other three are busy to their eyeballs with work and school. Now that I'm an employee and gone a minimum of ten hours a day, I'm not home to cook, clean, decorate, or moderate the ebb and flow of fasts and feasts that provided the rhythm of our very rich daily lives for three decades. Rebekah felt the lack most keenly, but we didn't have the resources to accomplish much - no money, no time, no transportation.

So one night, Timothy brought home a four-foot tree he had bought on sale at Sears, already lit. That Sunday, we had one ornament to place on it, a homemade one, from a woman in our church, with the likeness of her son, now deceased, to whom we as a family had ministered. Instead of Rebekah mourning the Christmases of her past, I challenged her to make Christmas for us, and she, alone, cooked all twelve traditional Slavic Christmas Eve dishes that we used to prepare together as a family. Joyfully, very joyfully, she Timothy and I partook of them, as Daniel was stuck in Mendota with no ride home.

And that Christmas Eve night, we added one more ornament to the tree. It was waiting for me in a gift bag on my chair when I arrived at work, the first time in my entire life I was away from home on Christmas Eve. Rebekah, who had walked with me to work had urged me to open it right away; indeed, she was more excited than I was. I set it aside, telling her, "It will give me motivation to get the work down. I'll open it after I finish 'so and so.'" And then I sent her home to start cooking.

As I was working, I heard my co-workers, one by one, go into my editor's office and thank her for the gift. That's when I realized who had presented it and decided to open it, so I, too, could express my appreciation that day and in person.

Inside was an ornament she had made, filled with perfectly fabricated strips of stories I had written throughout the year. In the past twelve months, my family and I had taken our shredded lives and were reconstructing them into something new and bright. Now I was holding something my employer had so thoughtfully made for me, something beautiful that literally represented it.

So while the rest of the world takes down those Christmas trappings on December 26 or New Year's Day or January 6 if they are especially pious, we keep ours up until February 2, even though few (if any) Catholic churches still bless candles on that day or if, indeed, any Christian church in this country recognizes that not until this date has arrived - Mary's churching - that Christmas truly has passed.

Oh and, by the way, we don't experience any post-Christmas letdown either.

But we do have packed away, until next year, two very cool ornaments, the foundation of many more wonderful Christmases to come.


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