The first Christmas after my father moved out, when I was five, my mother decided she’d get herself a Christmas tree. She’d always wanted one, always thought they were pretty. But, growing up in a religious Jewish home, having one had always been forbidden. Even during the thirteen years that she and my dad were married, though they weren’t especially observant, they’d never put up a tree.
So, here it was December of ‘71 and she decided what she wanted: A 3’ artificial tree that stood on top of two large boxes in the living room, putting the top of it at about 6’. Nearly a real tree height.
My mom wrapped the tree in garland, hung ornaments, and carefully hung tinsel strands. She was very proud of her Christmas project. Her Christian Projection. We were given one warning, while it was ok to admire the tree, we must not under any circumstance, show it to Grandma.
I was 5. I was excited. I couldn’t help myself.
My grandparents arrived that evening, winter wind blowing in the door with them. I took all of 3 seconds before I shouted, “Grandma! Grandma! Come see our tree!” My grandmother looked confused. My mother looked aghast. I was filled with shame. Why bother having a tree if you weren’t going to revel in it and show it off? More importantly, if we were Jewish, why the heck were we bothering with a tree at all? I couldn’t comprehend it.
Years later, after my mom remarried, our house was taken over by the nearly 25 foot tree my stepdad would saw down from the forest. But decorating it was not a family affair. It was something he and she would do together, in grand isolation from the rest of us. Or, that’s how it felt to me. But I did love the tree, ostentatious as it was. I loved the scent, the colors.
When I married–a Jew–he, like my father, established a “No Tree” Xmas. It was simpler, less work. But I missed the pine, the debate of white vs. colors, steady vs. blinky, all of the rituals that other families across the world were having at once.
This year, I am on my own. If I want to get a tree, I totally could. In fact, the other day, I noticed on Facebook that someone was giving away a box of ornaments. Cool, I thought! Maybe that’s the nudge I need to get started on my holiday decorating. I answered the ad and set out to retrieve them. On my way, I received a snippy reply from their owner. Did I understand fully that these ornaments were to go to someone *in need*? Realizing that they were advertised in the Cascades/Lowes Island/Ashburn section of FB, surely the woman giving them away wouldn’t be shocked that I wasn’t exactly homeless. I wrote back, “Yes. I do. I am in need.” And I drove towards the meeting spot.
Her husband brought the fabric box down and I opened my tailgate. Ooops, I’d forgotten to take out my recent grocery/Christmas gift purchases, as well as the baskets of bottles of Ranch dressing, olive oil and vinegars I’d brought back from my (soon-to-be-ex kitchen pantry) the day before. I guess the sight of the bottles tripped a trigger. After I got in the car to drive home, I received a text from the woman, “My husband said there was quite a lot of alcohol in your trunk!!?? Money for beer???? But no money for ornaments????!!!!!”
Could she have been any less filled with the Christmas spirit? I wrote back, “I am in need. The beer was $5 and is a gift. I’ve just come from the grocery. This is mine and my daughter’s first Christmas on our own. Your generosity is not in vain.” Holy-self-righteous-donator-of-ornaments!
There it was. Immediately, the shame of being a 5-year-old-Christmas-loving-Jew came flooding back, as did the intensity of unfairness in being unjustly judged. How dare she spew venom on me and my new Christmas ornaments? I so wanted to turn the car around and bring her back her now-tainted Christmas baubles! But I decided no. I’d keep them. Or maybe give them to a friend. But at any rate, I’d allow them to be a symbol of my serenity, rather than my shame. I could not control her need to be harsh, judgmental and critical, but I could decide to not to let her petty heart get to mine.
Difficult endings make for new beginnings. I may not look needy enough for your free bulbs, Lady, but I am. I need Christmas this year. We all do. With all of it’s joy. And, maybe, just maybe, a little bit of Christ-like faith in humanity and unconditional love.
(Title song quote used w/o permission of Joni Mitchell).