She opened her front door for the thousandth time to cold air and a trickling in of friends and boyfriends and friends’ boyfriends’ friends. The table quickly filled with casseroles and desserts, rolls that lost their warmth on the car ride over, and wine with twist-off tops because you serve the cheap stuff at these kinds of things. Green and red sweaters and necklaces matched the garland and bows spread hastily about the room. And music played in the background serving as the score for the entire evening. Johnnyswim for the small talk. Drew Holcomb for chatting about PTO and travel plans. A little She & Him Christmas album for filling up plates and passing around napkins and looking for more serving spoons before resorting to a fork. Ella Fitzgerald towards the close of the evening. And at one point Ryan Adams because it’s her party and she can do what she wants.
She swam in and around and under her guests, offering seconds or refills while catching up and laughing at stories through teeth stained purple by wine. And then as plates filled up the sink (and counter and trashcan) and the playlist circled back to the beginning, the inevitable parade out began. Slowly at first, and then all at once. Hugs and thank you’s and Merry Christmas’s interrupted each other. The open door sucked out the warm air and voices unapologetically. The sound of car doors and engines and the last goodbye’s could be heard from the hallway. And then finally, as the door closed with the evening, a final rush of cold air spread quickly through the house, settling with relief into the corners and cracks and crumbs quiet on the floor.
She unplugged the stereo and thought about cleaning, but instead grabbed someone’s half empty glass of wine from the bookcase and sat down next to the Christmas tree in the corner. Her back pressed against the wall. It felt softer than a wall should feel. As if tender and swollen from absorbing the music and voices and clinking of glasses over the last four hours. A sip of wine deepened the purple of her teeth. And she stared tiredly at the tree, still twinkling and buzzing as if no one told it the party was over.
All seven feet of it looked proud, offering no concessions for being a pre-lit, pop-up tree that sits in a box for 11 months out of the year and cost about as much as the plastic cups all over the room trying weakly to reflect some of its light. It didn’t even seem to care that only the front half was decorated. She ran out of ornaments and was too cheap to buy more so the back of the tree is bare against the wall towards which it faces. Like wearing a hospital gown, she thought. But completely unaware of the exposure.
And then she began to cry. Another sip, and then full, fat tears catching the twinkling lights like tiny prisms of empathy. You and I are the same, pop-up tree. Proud and cheery and warm and festive and trying to hide our nakedness.
In the northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or 22. It’s called the winter solstice. (She thought that would make a really great name for an angsty band for that very reason but then remembered that she was 25 and probably should let the whole angsty band thing go.)
In ancient times, when the belief that the sun was a god was still widely held, people thought that winter came each year because the sun-god had grown sick and weak. The winter solstice then, being the turnaround point of the winter decline, represented the end of this sickness. And so the evergreen boughs, which were hung all over windows and doors, served as a reminder of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun-god was strong and summer returned – a reminder of better things to come.
Then in the 16th century, Christians in Germany started decorating these boughs and trees to celebrate the coming Christ. Most also believe that Martin Luther was the first one to add lighted candles to the tree. The story goes that he was walking home one winter night and was so struck by the twinkling of stars amidst the evergreen trees that he attempted to recreate it for his family in their living room.
Swing and a miss, Luther, she thought, and took one of the lights between her fingers, letting the heat from the bulb grow until it hurt a little.
She pressed harder into the wall and closed her eyes.
So this tree, this Wal-Mart, pre-lit, pop-up tree is here in this house, in this corner, to serve as a symbol of the end of the winter solstice, a picture of better things to come, a depiction of the twinkling of winter stars, and a celebration of the coming Christ.
And it’s completely naked on one side, wearing a hospital gown of decor.
She saw the tree. And then she saw herself. She saw the shiny red ornaments and big patterned bows and then empty, tired branches in the back. She saw her Christmas parties and Advent candles and carol signing in the car. And then she saw her wickedness, her self-absorbed view of relationships, her utter disregard for the coming Christ. A tiny, plastic manger hanging by green, tattered yarn. And a realization that she has neither sought out nor fought for the rest that comes from the Child himself. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
And then in the midst of the tears, aside the tree she now pitied, a thought, (or a voice? – she never really knows). It’s still an evergreen. The undecorated, exposed, naked half of the tree in the corner is just as much a part of the evergreen tree as the twinkling, ornament-filled side you can see. It’s just as much a symbol of the end of the winter solstice. Just as much a picture of better things to come. And just as much a celebration of the coming of the Messiah.
And so it must be that the wickedness and desperation of man, the self-absorbed heart, the disregard for Christ, is just as much a necessary part of celebrating the coming King as the Advent candles and Christmas parties and the joy and excitement of the season. They are equal parts true, equal parts important, equal parts beautiful. We celebrate Christ the deliverer when we remember both that we are delivered and what we have been delivered from. The bows and the branches.
Christmas is such a joyous celebration, the coming of Emmanuel, the arrival of God in the flesh. But how necessary it is to celebrate this on both sides of the tree. How foolish it would be to try to hide the half that he came to save – the naked, exposed, wicked part of it – lest we ignore the desperate need for his coming. And how beautiful that he did come, seeing every empty branch, and bringing to us the righteousness and hope that dresses even pre-lit, pop-up, Wal-Mart trees in majesty and splendor – in bows and ornaments and twinkling lights.
She cried again, fat tears of awe and wonder, and decided to leave the cleaning for tomorrow. She stood to go to bed and then turned the tree around, ornaments in back, grateful for the empty branches, amazed by the beauty of the King.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.