In our house, the season begins with the lighting of the first Advent candle, but I don’t have a sense of the house being prepared until the tree is up, and the Angel of the Lord has ascended (or descended, depending on perspective) and sits, albeit precariously, in her place.
For many years, the decorating of the tree has fallen to me, and I admit that I don’t always do this bit of “celebration” with a glad heart. In fact, I can remember many Christmas trees from my childhood more clearly than I can those of the past 44 years in my own home.
The family tree, oh so long ago, was always a fresh-cut spruce. There were no Little House on the Prairie outings to fell and carry home the tannenbaum. In my remembering, my dad would have wanted to cut that tree himself, but would have been forbidden to do so by my mom. Dad had polio as a young man, and was left with a paralyzed right arm and hand. He did carpentry around the house and produced some lovely wooden pieces that I still own. But swinging an axe with his left arm? I’m grateful to Mom now for her bossiness.
Once the tree was home, Sharon and I helped with the decorating, enjoying even while enduring Mom’s insistence that each ornament be hung on exactly the right branch for balance and beauty. And the hanging of the tinsel? Gott im Himmel. There was no standing back and tossing handfuls of icicles at the branches – a style favoured by my children, but one I’ve never adopted, such was the influence of my obsessive mom. Finally, the smell of Christmas pervading our small living room, all decorative bits in their place, the Angel was carefully placed to watch over Christmas. She was a beauty. Sculpted of strong plastic, feathery wings, eyes raised heavenward. Unfortunately, over the years the light bulb heated her skirts and they began to scorch, until finally, sometime after I left home, she was deemed a fire hazard and I have no recollection of the tree topper with which my mom replaced her.
The other tree that is magical in my memory is the giant that graced the front of our small St. John’s Lutheran Church in New Sarepta. I’m quite sure from the earliest of my Christmas Eve recollections, the tree was lit with candles, although my sister disagreed with that memory. The services, also in the first years I remember, were in German, and even today “Oh, Christmas Tree,” doesn’t hold a candle (never mind the ones flickering on the tree) to “O Tannenbaum.” As we exited the church, each child was handed a brown paper bag with an orange, a handful of hard candy – the men put these bags together and they had huge and generous mitts – and a handful of nuts in the shell. Big smiles on small faces.
Fast forward to the Hegerat family Christmas tree decorating celebrations. The lights, which I asked Robert to put in place quickly fell to my part of the “deal” when I re-arranged his work for the second year running. Thereafter, he relaxed in his chair and read while I decorated. To my delight, I found an angel almost a replica of the one who graced our Harke famiy tree and she is with us still.
When Elisabeth and Eric were young enough to consider the tree-trimming tradition to be fun, I was delighted to let them hang whatever they chose as high as they could reach. Elisabeth liked to hang all of the angel decorations in one spot. They were a choir she explained and they had to be together or we wouldn’t hear them. I suggested that if they were spread out, their voices would carry in all directions, but she wasn’t buying it. Within a few years, the shiny baubles and the old ornaments inherited from my mom were joined by the treasures the kids created at school – oh, those elementary school teachers who loved the pasta angels and the child’s handprint on brown construction paper transformed into the head of Rudolph. Some of these mementos still come out of the box each year – and some go right back into the box – but the tree represents the life of a family. When I became too stern about the hanging of the tinsel, or perhaps they had more important places to go and things to do—clearly I gave the impression that I loved doing the job – my family left it to me.
Now I’ll go carefully place each decoration with a moment of pondering its origin, and then I will hang every glittery strand of tinsel and think about my mom, and about my dad whose generous left hand helped fill the brown bags for Christmas Eve. For isn’t that what a family Christmas is about? Peace on earth, hope, and abiding memories of the saints who’ve gone before.