I'm sitting in my living room on Christmas Eve. There's a fire in the fireplace, and I am looking at my Christmas tree, with its funky ornaments. The tree is just a beauty, but the decorations could in no way be described as elegant and intentional. No, a more accurate word to describe them would be "eclectic." In addition to the more conventional glass globes, there is an embossed metal butterfly of rust and blue, a bouncing robot on springs, a wooden cardinal whose wings flap when his branch is touched. There is a tin Virgin Mary from Mexico, a tiny schooner outfitted with three sails, a stained-glass candle, and a papier-mâché Santa reading a list of requests for toys. And that is just the beginning.
My husband of four years is relaxing with me, and despite the holiday rush and hurry, in spite of the commercial wash over everything in this holy season, all seems well. It was not always so for me. The Christmas tree reminds me of an earlier time in my life, a time when depression and despair threatened to overwhelm me.
Six years ago I found myself alone at Christmas time, as was the usual situation, for I was long ago divorced and my grown children were thousands of miles away. I could not travel to visit them, for I was a parish minister seeing to the needs of my flock at Christmas. In addition to the usual services at the church, we had a Christmas pageant every year, a special music service by the children's choirs, and a Christmas Eve service -- actually, three of them. And of course Christmas is a difficult time for many congregants, so there were the inevitable pastoral care concerns, on top of everything else. I did not have the energy or the will to decorate a Christmas tree. So I was sitting at home one evening a few days before Christmas feeling lonely and nursing a huge case of self-pity. Who cares for the caretaker?
Then an idea worked its way through these troubling thoughts, and appeared like a Christmas angel -- you should get a tree! Yes, you should get a tree! But another voice countered, what are you thinking? You would need help to get a tree into this house, and you have thrown away all the old decorations that you used to have. You don't even have lights for a tree. No, it's impossible.
Even so, the image of a Christmas tree kept lighting my consciousness, begging for attention. So I spoke again to myself: just ask for help, just tell people you want a tree to bring you Christmas cheer. You should know that I am an introvert and not a social person. Generally, I do not like gatherings of more than two. But I needed people, I needed a measure of love. So I acted on my impulse. I sent an e-mail to every friend I thought might respond, asking them to join me for a "spontaneous tree-trimming party," to take place the following evening. A guy friend of mine agreed to help me select a tree and haul it into my house and put it in a stand. I had somehow saved my stand, covered in cobwebs, in the basement. I washed it and made the red paint shine.
Then the next day, it hit me -- nobody is going to come to a party just a few days before Christmas! They will all be busy with other parties and events. No one will show up, and I will be left more depressed than ever. Images of my childhood began to haunt me, as I remembered all the Christmases that my father was either absent or dead drunk. You have set yourself up for another heartbreaking Christmas, I thought. How foolish of you!
In a panic, I decided I needed to enlarge my guest list -- I would leaflet the neighborhood and ask everyone to come to my party. Surely there are people in the neighborhood who might be available, and even if they don't know me, they have seen my house in passing by. Maybe they would come to my party. I went door-to-door through several blocks of the neighborhood, leaving leaflets on porches and in mailboxes. Come to my home for a spontaneous tree-trimming party! the leaflet said, and bring a decoration for my tree, if you have an extra one.
Anxious, I waited to see if anyone at all would appear. And then at the appointed time, people began flowing in. A friend two doors down brought her husband and a string of lights, to start things off. Virtually every friend that I had invited showed up, and most of the neighbors. People were stringing cranberries and popcorn in my living room. Three children created a star out of aluminum foil. Various individuals brought, not their extra ornaments, but what must have been the finest ornaments in their collections. Each put their offering upon my tree.
So that evening I was blessed beyond measure with the warmth of love and community. The following year I met and later married the companion of my dreams. I had been single for more than 30 years, and Christmases of the past were working holidays. It's different now. Retired from the parish, I now can relax by the fire, and remember. Each year my tree, still graced with these gathered, given ornaments, reminds me of the abundance of love in the universe, and challenges me to keep my heart ever open to receive.
Marilyn Sewell is the subject of a documentary film, "Raw Faith," available on Netflix.
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