I was in Washington, D.C. this year on the evening that the White House Christmas tree was lit, and I walked by it shortly after Cate’s D.C. Reception. Strangely, it’s not a tree at all. It’s a tall post with fabric and light-bedecked panels that form the traditional cone shape of a Christmas tree. Though it was uncharitable of me, I kept thinking of those ostentatious fake trees that Charlie Brown foregoes in favor of the tiny sapling his friends laugh at. Says Charlie Brown, “I like this little tree and it looked like it needed a home.”
I am the last person who should judge another Christmas tree. I have had my share of failures, including the year I took my family out to cut down our own Christmas tree in Montana only to wrestle with family-wide hypothermia and exhaustion all for a skinny, scraggly tree that made Charlie Brown’s look full and vibrant.
I should have known better, especially when you consider the events of my first Christmas as a married man. Ginger and I were twenty-three years old living in a tiny apartment in New Rochelle, New York. We had been married over Thanksgiving so we had no vacation time left and no money. So we veterans of large, festive family gatherings settled down to a significantly smaller affair in our new family of two.
It went badly from the start. We were late to the effort, going out shortly before Christmas Day to discover there wasn’t much to choose from in the Christmas tree department. And since our apartment could only handle a relatively diminutive tree (bush might be a better word), we ended up with something that would have even caused Charlie Brown to scratch his head. To decorate it we found a box or two of those red glass ornaments that are so uninteresting that they remain on the retail racks every year. Still, they were better than nothing.
But when we got back to the apartment to set about decorating the tree, we noted that the ornaments didn’t come with hooks to hang them. Who knew? And frankly, why in the world would a company sell ornaments and no hooks?
This was a catastrophic turn of events, for Ginger in particular never imagined that this would be her Christmas―complete with a nearly naked tree, no lights, and a single ornament. My aunt had given us a ceramic rendering of the happy couple for our wedding: a fitting but lonely decoration on our tree. Hardly an auspicious start.
But we didn’t settle for that. Amidst tears, we searched the apartment for something we could use to hang our recently purchased orbs. Salvation came in the bathroom, where Ginger had a treasure trove of safety pins. And so our tree gained decoration after all, thanks to some unusual and distinctive fasteners.
I think of that Christmas every year, even now, thirty-two years downstream of that historic and infamous beginning. Some of that is just the usual nostalgia, but some is more meaningful. Often our holidays are laden with expectations about what should happen or what might be. Ginger and I certainly wrestled with such expectations all of those years ago. But it is helpful to be reminded that joy and meaning are not always the byproduct of a well-executed plan or an expected result. Sometimes the best things, the most enduring memories, the most meaningful moments are the ones that happen when things go wrong or plans go awry.
Besides, this season is not simply about what happens in the here and now, or even what happened thirty-two years ago. It is about a wholly different kind of meaning, of love and the miraculous, which has nothing to do with a tree. Charlie Brown was right, you see. All we really need—in this or any other time of the year—is the people who make wherever we are home.
Here’s hoping we all find just that this season and those that follow.