“So, how long do you leave yours up?” Erica asked during her visit a couple of weeks ago about the Christmas tree still standing decorated in my living room. It was the first time I’d seen my old college roomie since before I moved here over three years ago. In fact, the last time she’d come to St. Louis from Virginia was on a road trip with me seven years ago to see our other college roommate after the birth of her first child. We were both soaking in the time together and enjoying the reunion.
“Oh, that’s been up since last Christmas,” I replied casually.
“Really?? Wow! What made you decide to leave it?” she asked.
“Well, you know how much I adore Christmas, right? But last year—Christmas 2014—the entire season was just really dark and hard for me. There was no enjoyment at all, and I just didn’t know how to deal with that. Every time I looked at my tree it hurt. Then one day around the time in January when I’d normally put it away, I came around the corner, and when my eye caught sight of it, I felt a hint of joy. It made me smile. My therapist kept telling me to do the things on my self-care list that brought me life, and Christmas was on that list. So, I decided I was going to leave it; I wanted to enjoy that feeling in my heart for as long as the sight of the tree would cause it. I thought people would chide me, but when my friends would come over and hear my explanation, they were all like, ‘Do it!’ So, I did!”
“I think that’s fantastic,” Erica responded genuinely. “And that made decorating this year much easier, I’m sure.”
“Totally,” I agreed. “I actually didn’t pull out any of my other decorations at all this year. I had my tree, the lights around my ceiling, and other little year-round reminders. It was really nice, actually! And it was such a breath of fresh air to not have any of the stress of decorating or un-decorating!” I just . . . enjoyed it!”
Christmas 2014 was indeed a dark season for me. It had only been a couple of months since that fateful day of jury selection when my emotional stability seemingly started collapsing around me, and all of the things about the Christmas season that never fail to warm my heart and stir a very deep joy were not even coming close to breaking through the darkness and depression.
During that season, there was one particular therapy session in which I expressed how lost and isolated and not joyful I was feeling and how frustrated and confused I was by that. My therapist asked me what it was about Christmas that was so special for me. My answer:
The promise of the crucifixion and resurrection is that God would make a way for Him and His creation to finally be together for all eternity. Christmas is the moment He came to make it so; it’s the moment He began that unhindered dwelling with us.
I know that the Christian church views Easter as the ultimate Christian celebration; the cross is of course the ultimate symbol of the gospel because of what it means for our present and our future, both temporal and eternal. It is why the cross is displayed in our homes, on our stuff and clothing, in our church, and even in our jewelry; (yes, even I, who hate wearing jewelry, own several cross necklaces!).
But for me, Christmas speaks the gospel much louder, because it was the moment Jesus started His journey toward that cross. The fact that God himself was born a tiny baby is made even more profound when we stop to consider that He knew what suffering He was headed toward and chose to come anyway. That, my friends, was the moment of true sacrifice. I do not diminish the cross and what Christ suffered there and during the three days before He rose from the dead. But Christmas was the moment of His choosing that obedience, that sacrifice, and it is that moment of His choosing and following through that shows us just how much dwelling with us mattered to Him.
For that reason, the piece of Christian jewelry that I wear to proclaim to the world Whose I really am is a nativity necklace my dear friend Chris gave to me for Christmas 2011. It’s a silver medallion depicting Mary with baby Jesus in the manger and a little star above. It is so simple, and you’d have to look closely to even notice what it really is, but for me it is the most meaningful symbol of my faith. In that moment, God became man and dwelt among us—the God who is so perfectly holy that He cannot be anywhere near sin found a way to come and dwell with us while we were still sinners and even before He secured the means of our salvation. That moment was the promise and the fulfillment suddenly woven together into an unbreakable One. It was the first true taste for humanity of what it means to dwell with God; oh how desperately I envy every human that had the privilege to know and love and touch Him while He walked this earth as one of us. Meditating on what that must have been like takes my breath away and causes an ache in my deepest core; the profundity of that reality is simply too immense to be captured in human words, but that reality is why Christmas is so profoundly special for me. That is the moment, the reality, that put everything into motion that would culminate in what we celebrate at Easter.
That is also the reason why I love Christmas trees and especially winter or night-time reflection scenes depicting them. I’m not interested in debating whether or not the Christmas tree was originally a pagan celebration ritual; I honestly believe trying to come to a decisive conclusion on that one is like trying to figure out if the egg or the chicken came first. What I do know is that the Christmas tree, regardless of its origin, is an appropriate symbol for what we celebrate.
Being an evergreen, it symbolizes unending life, the promise Christ came to this earth to secure for us if we would believe, repent, and become His own.
Covered in lights, it catches our eye during the day as much as during the night and reminds us that Jesus is the light in the darkness; that we have been called out of darkness and into His glorious light; that with His Spirit dwelling in us, we become His lights in this world, illuminating the truth and the path to light and life for those who are still lost and stumbling around in darkness and death. I use both white and colored lights on my tree—the white lights are always steady, but the colored lights are set to cycle through different blinking patterns. Watching them, I am reminded that Christ’s faithfulness is unfailing and steady beyond all other things, and that we who are so unique in our colors and in the patterns and flavors that we add to the tapestry of human life are grounded in that unfailing faithfulness and free to be ourselves, calling attention to Him and His faithfulness and goodness in so doing.
Adorned with ornaments that are meaningful to us, it reminds us of the people and experiences that have made our lives rich and full, that have brought love, laughter, learning, growth, celebration, and even loss at different times in our journey. We can trace our history in those ornaments—or at least I can—as imperfect as they may be, and each piece of my puzzle shines in the brilliance of the lights all around it, both the steady white lights as well as the blinking multi-colored ones. Those pieces look so different depending on which light is reflecting on it in the moment, but that just reveals to me all the different facets that go into each of who I am and how I got here. I’ll never stop discovering new facets and nuances, never get to the end, yet my God knows their end from their beginning and all their facets in between, and He has said that it is all good. In Christ I am able to celebrate.
Topped with a star or an angel, it calls my attention heavenward, reminding me that there is a True North directing my paths and that He is ever mindful and always protecting and providing for me. I’m reminded by that topper that I am never alone.
Accompanied by gifts underneath, it exhorts us that every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights. He cares about our good and is working for our future and our hope. He sees the details of who we are and the lives we are living and the journeys He’s called us to, and He not only cares for those details but He makes sure we know it’s from Him. Even when there are no gifts under the tree, we have Jesus and His gift of eternal life; even in our emptiness we are filled.
That is why Christmas is my favorite. All of that is why Christmas is so meaningful and special. It is profound, and I feel it’s weight in my heart and mind, and every year I marvel and wonder and find myself in tears and speechless over what it means. That is why my inability to connect with of all this in 2014 was so profound and difficult. Praise the Lord that He made sure it was a short-lived season of loss and grief.
I have enjoyed having my tree up and shining brightly in my living room all year, and I was grateful beyond my power to express that Christmas 2015 was nothing like the year before. This year, I am leaving my tree up again, but the reasons are different. In 2014 it was to allow myself the ability to enter back into that place of meaning once the doors began to open to me again; this year it is to celebrate why that loss and its restoration was such a big deal to my heart, both in the specifics of the two very different Christmas celebrations and also as I see those larger patterns playing out in my life and my story right now.
Interestingly, Lent began this past Wednesday, February 10. It is a six-week period of time on the Church calendar that is seen as a time of preparation as we anticipate the arrival of our remembrance of Good Friday (when we remember Christ’s crucifixion) and our celebration of Resurrection Sunday (when He rose from the dead, forever conquering sin and death and making a way into eternal life for all who believe on Him, repent, and enter His salvation). Jesus had approximately 33 years between His birth and the events of that fateful Passover weekend; we give ourselves six weeks between the end of Advent (the anticipation of Christmas) and the beginning of Lent (the anticipation of Easter). Even if I weren’t to leave my Christmas tree up all year long, I think it is not inappropriate to leave it up at least until Easter, because just like so much else that we treasure in Scripture, Christmas points us to the cross; it is a reflection of what is to come.
Two trees. One story.
Reflect. Repent. Rest. Rejoice.