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Traditions Remembered

As I walk through the few remaining rows of Christmas trees, I attempt to sort out my feelings. Growing up, there were hundreds of acres of trees. These few are all that remain. I should feel something, I tell myself. While a little part of me wants to cry, the emotion that’s bubbling up instead is joy. I’m playing peek-a-boo from behind the trees with my 18-month-old grandson. My husband and kids walk the rows with me. 

We’re searching for the perfect tree, and I’m looking forward to the beauty and fresh pine smell it will add to my home. Of course, it also will leave sap on our hands and drop needles on the carpet.

This year in particular, the tree farm I grew up on reminds me that joy and sorrow often mingle side by side, especially during the holidays. Year in and year out for 50 years, my family brought the tradition of cutting down and bringing home a live Christmas tree to countless other families. It was exhilarating and exhausting. There were festivities and frustrations. It was satisfying, yet stressful. We loved it. We also looked forward to the end of the season.

About a week before Christmas, the steady stream of customers would slow to a trickle, and we could finally focus on our own family traditions. We wrapped the presents and prepared the food. On Christmas Eve, our family’s traditional night to celebrate, we were ready.

After consuming our array of appetizers, main dishes, and sweets, we tore open our gifts, moving from the youngest child (and later grand- or great-grandchild) to the oldest. Then, we gathered around the piano for the most treasured moment of the night. I don’t remember when the tradition started, but what began as a few simple Christmas hymns evolved into a four-part amateur rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus.

As the family grew, so did the “choir.” At almost 30 strong, we struggled through—sopranos straining to reach the high notes; altos, tenors, and basses searching for the harmony lines. Despite our imperfection, singing those hallelujahs soon became the main event of the night. Even the non-singers took part by running video cameras and taking photos. The littlest family members stood among us, gazing upward to the voices that drew their attention away from their new toys. No one packed up their gifts or sent the kids to the car until the singing was over. 

Just like the tree farm that attracted customers from far and wide, the opening measures of the song pulled us all together in a melodic embrace. Year after year, we could count on Mom’s powerful alto voice, while Dad, beaming with delight (and a little pride), helped carry the bass section.

When Changes Come

In 2018, with my parents in their key roles, we gathered to sing in their home. Mom’s beautiful tree, adorned in white lights, lace, and rose-colored ornaments, blended well with her country blue decor. Glass candy bowls brimming with her Sugar and Spice Pecans were reduced to bowls of crumbs by the end of the evening.

By the following year, as Mom’s Alzheimer’s gradually stole her strength and skills, my parents could no longer host all 40+ members of the family. We gathered a few miles away at my sister’s instead. Although Mom and Dad attended, Mom could only tolerate the noise and crowded house for a couple of hours. They headed home before the singing. 

Still, we carried on. Things weren’t quite right without them, but muddling through our hallelujahs helped distract us from the gradual changes our family was experiencing.

Then came 2020, and the changes were no longer gradual. We lost Dad suddenly in July after a fall and brain bleed. Though he had been aging, the abrupt end to the life of this hardworking farmer, our father, was the last thing we expected on that lovely summer day.

Mom’s Alzheimer’s continued to progress. Then, in late October, after tests revealed she had cancer, we arranged for home-hospice care. The pandemic was raging, and difficult as it was, my siblings and I decided it was best not to gather for the holidays. 

Which brings us to Christmas, 2021. It’s been nearly 18 months since Dad went to heaven, and nine months since Mom joined him there. As the world continues to deal with COVID and all the losses associated with it, we are feeling our own great losses. Losing the two people who had formed our family, raised us, and held us together over the years has taken some time to get used to.

So much has changed. My parents’ home, now inhabited by one of their grandsons and his family, is no longer decked out in Mom’s “country blue.” The farm is still a meeting place for us all, but there is no teatime around Mom’s table. And with the tree farm closing a few years back, only a sparse number of trees grow in the field.

Our 2021 Christmas celebration will be different. We’ll gather at my brother’s house for the first time. We’ll try a new gift exchange idea. My sisters and I tweaked the menu for our family feast. The great-grandchildren have grown and changed since we last gathered and we’ll welcome two new little ones for the first time.

Though some aspects of our gathering will be different, other traditions will remain. I know someone will bring Mom’s sugar-and-spice pecans. As always, we’ll critique the size and shape of the host’s Christmas tree. We’ll talk and laugh and reminisce. 

Then we’ll sing our hallelujahs.

I’m sure we’ll be choking back the tears, but when one of us drops out, another will carry us through. Our family has changed, but the love we have for each other—our siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews, and the “great-grands”—has only deepened. Mom and Dad would have wanted—no, expected—us to keep on singing.

Searching for the Stable

For all of us who canceled celebrations in 2020, this year will bring a new appreciation for gatherings, corporate worship, and togetherness. But like our family, many are grieving losses—of jobs, relationships, opportunities, loved ones.

Our yearning for tradition in the midst of loss can make the holidays especially difficult. Celebrating and singing might be the farthest thing from our minds. And yet what a comfort it is to know that, whether we’re crying or singing, “Emmanuel” means God is with us.

The evergreen trees with their glittering lights, no matter how perfectly shaped, will not heal our broken hearts. The hallelujahs, no matter how in-tune and on-time, cannot bring us lasting joy. Instead, we turn to the One who promises everlasting light and life. The One to whom we raise those hallelujahs.

As we walk through this Advent season, we are searching for more than the perfect tree. Our traditions might fill our earthly need for stability. But what we’re really searching for is in that stable under the star. What we crave is the comfort of the Christ-child.  

Despite the sadness we feel in this broken, hurting world, our faith lies in him. For “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord.” He alone has the power to heal our broken hearts and turn our sorrow into joy. His birth promises a future celebration better than any past, present, or future Christmas party. 

He is our “King of Kings, our Lord of Lords … and he will reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!”

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