I used to sleep like a cat at Christmas time: as close under the warm, fragrant, and glowing Christmas tree as possible. As I snuggled into my blankets, I snuggled into the aura of the tree — a palpable aura of security, well-being, and rightness with the world. There was no doubt that Christmas day would come, and for a few hours — maybe even a whole day — our family would be harmoniously whole. The tree embodied home the way heaven meant it to be, as it was that first Christmas, when God Incarnate began knitting the fallen world back together through a little Jewish family and a ragtag crowd of witnesses.
And then the tree’s aura was no longer strong enough to hold our family together, and the December came when I was twelve and Dad had moved out and he was never coming back. In this age, parents can get divorced, but it’s impossible to divide a Christmas tree or family culture and still have something beautiful. If your experience of Christmas has always been of one, integral unit, where everyone is a part of every piece of it, what does Christmas become when someone leaves? When there are two homes, two sets of traditions, two Christmas trees? How can God’s dwelling with man make sense now that Mom doesn’t dwell with Dad?
This was my first Christmas grief. But Christmas would become even more confusing and disheartening when I no longer lived with either parent. As a college student, I had three homes, and I spent parts of December in all of them. I didn’t know how to celebrate Immanuel when the outward signs of the season were splintering. So, I gave up trying to feel satisfied at Christmas. I decorated out of habit and resignation; the motions lost meaning and the traditions felt cold.
When I graduated, I felt a further sting as the concept of home during the holidays became even more nebulous. I worked seasonal jobs very far from my hometown, and I often lived in company housing or by myself. So, as I gave up defining my own concept of home, I gave up my own Christmas tree and often neglected decorating altogether. It was a very practical decision: I saved money, time, stress, and heartache.
It’s true I always flew back to my parents’ homes for Christmas as I tried to keep something stable in my nomadic lifestyle. But as is natural when growing up, their homes gradually became “theirs,” not “mine” or “ours,” and so did their Christmas trees. Mom bought a fake tree, while Dad and his new wife alternated between luxurious firs and oriental “Charlie Brown” landscaping trees in pots. There was always some joy in seeing their Christmas trees, but to me, they ultimately represented bifurcation and brokenness.
But — but — throughout these darkened years, every time I stepped next to a real Christmas tree, whether it was in a department store, at church, or in someone’s home, I felt myself shrink to child-size as I would get so close to the tree my face was inside of it, so that all I could see were lights, twigs, and ornaments. I would again be immersed in the aura of wholeness and home.
And then, this year, it happened: I said, “Yes.” It was all very sudden.
“I think we should get a Christmas tree,” my roommate declared in November.
Before I had time to turn and face, home had snuck into my heart, head and then out of my mouth.
“Yeah, I think we should!”
And that was that. Over the semester, God had been redeeming home for me through a ragtag trio of single women living in a Madison apartment, a thousand miles from any family I’d known, where I had settled into a graduate program. All three of us have broken families: divorce, disease, even death have splintered what was once whole for us. But our kitchen has heard more prayers this year than ever, and our whiteboard bears witness to God’s work in us each month. We didn’t wait for things to go back to the way they were when we grew up. We made our own home.
Elizabeth and I found the tree in a pick-your-own lot in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. To our chagrin, the pines had been spray painted blue-green to disguise their drought distress. So, we found the tree that showed its colors most truly: two coats of paint on the bottom third, one on the middle, and none on the top. But in a way, it was perfect. Like the crowd in Bethlehem, we were motley, idiosyncratic, but authentic. The tree was beautiful, and when we put it up in our living room together, it fit right in.
This was the first year I really “played Christmas” in 10 years, because it was the first time I made my own home since leaving my parents’. My home isn’t perfect; it’s not permanent; it’s not even premeditated. It’s simply a hopeful response to God’s work in our lives. Our home is a microcosm of the redemption He has and will bring out of such brokenness in the world—in your home, too. How fitting that the physical symbol of this spiritual reality be a Christmas tree, for it reminds us both of the incarnate Immanuel of Bethlehem and of that holiest of all trees upon Calvary. It is Christ’s work begun, finished, and yet unfolding.