Our little window for tree-cutting was quickly closing on us. The schedule had been relentless and there were a couple of hours in which to cut the big tree that finds its place in the same corner of our living room every yuletide season. We had two of our kids and Ezra and Colleyanna with us. More importantly, the two tree-cutters were also preachers and both of them had two sermons in front of them the following day. (One of them also had a four hour drive home.) Saddened to learn that the nearby tree farm we’d patronized for the last few years had no big trees this year, we traveled a little farther to a beautiful spot in God’s north Alabama world; a secluded tree farm we’d discovered online. It was a beautiful day and the kids and I rode through the farm in the back of the trailer, thinking of fun superlatives for describing the biggest dog we’d ever seen and watching the baby goats (and noticing that NONE of the trees looked like Christmas trees. They all looked like giant bushes that had just grown up in the wild…kind of like the shrubs in front of your house when you never prune; only bigger.)
But just as we were completing our round of travel around the farm, guess who we spotted at the little office building on the property’s entrance. It was the man in the red suit himself. The tree no longer mattered to Ezra and Colleyanna. They saw Santa Claus! (…at which time my son-in-law mouthed the words to his wife “Remember…my sermon. Remember it’s four hours home.”)
There were no other children around. (There might be a reason this tree farm was kind of desolate on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.) Santa was Victorian. He was authentic. He was conversational. He took time with each child. Colleyanna was afraid, at first, but Santa gave her time and space. He spoke to her in gentle tones and let her examine his white gloves. Ezra talked ninety-to-nothing. He told him about the binoculars he wants for Christmas and about how he wanted to look at the night sky with them. He examined the beautiful golden compass that Santa pulled out of his pocket and learned that Santa depends on that thing to always find his way home. Meanwhile Hannah shot about a bazillion perfect pictures.
The preachers among us missed the whole thing, of course. They were out there among the trees, trying with all they had in them to find a tree that would “redeem the time” it took for us to get all the way over that river and through those woods. They called us over to look at a specimen that was about 14 feet tall. We let the kids play on the sleigh and trudged over to look at 14 feet of a great big bush. It’s branches began at the ground and traveled all the way up…like a bush. Some of the branches at the bottom, furthermore, were going to have to be cut away in order to get the giant bush in the huge bucket we use for a stand.
Standing there surveying the tree, I could hear my husband talking to the proprietor. I could hear the man explaining how he doesn’t do a lot of pruning and shaping. (We knew that.) “A lot of my customers tell me they prefer the natural look.” This was that.
But seven dollars per foot for the “natural look”? We stood there and hemmed and hawed. My son-in-law said “I think this is your tree.” (The sermon was motivating him.) My husband said “This could be your tree, but just remember…Lowe’s has some pretty good 12-footers.”
I knew the tree had problems. I could see that it was going to take some serious tying off to our mantel to even stabilize the massive bush. I knew it would be extremely difficult to decorate. (I mean there were no branches directed “out” for ornaments and tinsel. All branches were several feet long and they all traveled “up”.) I could see that the tree would be even more directionally challenged when we did the necessary trimming of the trunk. in short, this tree was a true, albeit massive, hybrid between “Charlie Brown” and a specimen from Who-ville.”
But the kids had spent a long time with Santa at this farm. They were playing on the sleigh. Santa had taken a lot of time with the golden compass. The huge dog and the little goats and the trailer ride over the bumpy terrain had been the start to a perfect tree-cutting experience. I knew that my choice now was to take home the giant bush (….all of the big trees on this lot were giant bushes) or to tell the kids we were going to the store and buy a tree. I also knew that their daddy was likely not going to even let them go with us to purchase a tree. (There was the sermon.) We’d exhausted every area tree farm possibility. My husband, the patient, good sport that he is, said “Whatever you want to do. Just know this tree is going to be a pretty expensive “Charlie Brown” tree. But it’ll be fine if that’s what you think.”
In my mind, I weighed the options. This was going to be the centerpiece of two or three large gatherings. All my friends have those “perfect” trees. They all think I’m over-the-top, anyway, about old sentimental or vintage or even art deco-rations. What will they think about this old bush…the tree that really belongs on the Island of Misfits? Then I looked over at the children who were anxiously waiting for the part when we yell “Timber”, fell the big tree, load it on the trailer and sing our way home. I looked over at Santa, who had been so kind and personable to our children while we took all of those FREE pictures with the best Santa we’d seen this year. And then there were the sermons.
The perfect tree or the perfect end to the whole experience?? Which?…Easy decorating after the children leave or hearing the kids yell with excitement when the tree (massive bush) comes down?? Salvaging the sentiment of the day at the farm by the river or…well…Lowes? I looked over at the children on the sleigh and said “ We already got our money’s worth with that Santa and all those pictures and, well, it’s just a tree. I think we need to take one home. Let’s cut it.” Sentimentality, in my heart, always wins over efficiency. Every time. Besides, there were the sermons.
The rest is history. The moment was perfect. Ezra thought the tree was even perfect. (He still will think that when he comes back in a few days and sees it decorated. In his eyes it will be “bru-tiful.”) They took that massive Leyland cedar bush and put it in a shaker machine. Seeing a tree that big having a shaking fit was pure joy for the kids. Ezra imitating the giant jitters was almost worth the price.
And that was the last thing that was worth the price. Getting the tree in the door, getting it in the bucket, getting it tied off to the walls and windows and mantel, getting any decorations to gravitationally comply, hiding huge gaping spaces in the greenery with every life-sized Coke Santa or large gift, figuring out a way to top a bush that has one long wisp of a sprig sticking out at the top and attempting to bind together some semblance of a Christmas tree shape was the part of the sentiment that became less and less “tender”, shall we say, as the hours up and down the ladder wore on.
But then again, it was just a first-world problem of a Christmas tree. I’m praying for so many that would love the chance to be decorating a Christmas tree rather than be in that hospital or rehab room. I’m thinking of friends who will not see their children and grandchildren this holiday season at all. Homes where the joy has been stolen this year because of selfishness are reminders that what’s over in the corner of my living room has little real significance at all. I think about mothers who are agonizing over children who’ve walked away from God this year.
As I took out those ornaments that had to be hard-wired instead of hung this year, I remembered so many sisters who had made contributions to the funny tree….There were Betty Anderson’s West Huntsville ornaments, Deanne Foy’s porcupine, Wanda Weber’s stars made from road maps and Pam Emerson’s yearly cross-stitches in tiny plastic frames…and the children’s little handmade reindeer and snowflakes! Darcie and Harrison, Colton and Nell…all have their handmade contributions on the big bush. The macaroni and Lifesaver and popsicle stick ones made by Caleb and Hannah in years gone by are there. It’s always the very most meager ornaments shaped by tiny hands that shout our wealth as we put up that tree!
So it’s over there. It’s propped and tied and hidden and I’m still watering it just like it was pretty. A hundred people squeezed in around it last Sunday night. We laughed and prayed and ate and drank Coke from old-fashioned glass bottles. (I’m especially glad for the famous Coca-Cola Santa this year!) And we drank chai tea, and coffee and cocoa and cider and lemonade. And moving around, shoulder-to-shoulder, with my family in Him, I drank in the truth that the Colleys are very rich. It was the best kind of drinking party.
And 10 other lessons from this year’s tree:
- There is a big difference between a full-grown tree that’s been pruned and one that has not. It’s that way with kids, too. Diligence in cutting away the ugly stuff each year is so important.
- Sermons really are way more important than trees and Santa, of course. Priorities.
- Just because something is planted on a Christmas tree farm doesn’t mean it’s a Christmas tree. (There’s similar truth about people planted in a church somewhere.)
- Just because a big deficiency is temporarily hidden does not mean it has been removed. (Sin is like that, too. You move the big Coke Santa and it’s still there. Everyone else might not see it, but the One who owns the tree knows it’s there.)
- Children are the most gracious critics. Maybe that’s why God says we should be more like them.
- Sometimes, the wrong quick decision at the tree farm has consequences that you’re not really comprehending in the moment. (Sin is like that.)
- What’s up at the top needs to be substantial, too. (What’s at the top of your world? Is it substantial or flimsy? It’s what people are noticing about you!)
- Sometimes just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it’s good. (Think of lots of entertainment venues, sports tickets, and worldly pleasures here.)
- “Natural” is not always better. (Take the “natural man, for instance, from I Corinthians 2:14. Sometimes we need some cleaning up that’s way beyond our nature.)
- The best ornaments are not the ones that take the eye of the world. (Remember the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit in 1 Peter 3?…way better than the gold and pearls and costly array.)