"Mom, are we really not going to put up a tree this year?" my son asked me.
It was December 20. There was no hint of Christmas around our house. I wasn't sure there would be.
Most years, our tree was up the day after Thanksgiving—a magnificent, fragrant, 20-foot fir with gorgeous, color-coordinated ornaments. All December, Christmas music played on the stereo, and luscious aromas filled the air. The doorbell rang again and again. For as long as my kids could remember, our house had been Christmas central.
Not this year. This year was different.
My 20-year marriage had just dissolved in divorce. I was now a single mom with four teenagers. My budget was stretched past the breaking point, and my spirit was strained even further. Some days I could barely manage to get out of bed.
"What's the point in putting up a tree?" I said. "Christmas will never be the same."
Then I saw Sam's sad face, and guilt surged. My kids were counting on me to give them a little taste of normal and joy this Christmas. And I just wasn't capable of doing that.
"I'll get the tree tomorrow," I told him.
Two days later, all four of my kids were home on Christmas break. And there was still no tree. No sign of Christmas.
"This is really depressing," I heard one of them grumble, and my heart broke again.
"I'll get a tree tomorrow," I repeated. Even I didn't believe my words.
That evening, while cleaning up after dinner, I heard voices downstairs, in the finished basement. Then my oldest appeared.
"Mom, we have something to show you."
She led me downstairs. There, near the piano, stood the scruffy little artificial conifer we used to call the children's tree. I'd bought it years before, when the kids were small, and I used it to hang their school ornaments—those construction paper and glitter and macaroni creations that just didn't look right on my majestic, fragrant, decorated, upstairs tree.
Apparently the kids had dug through our store room to find that tree. They set it up, draped it with lights, and hung their childhood ornaments. The tree was still scruffy, but it was beautiful too.
"Do you like it, Mom?" One kid handed me a cup of steaming cocoa. Another started playing carols on the piano. All I could do was sink into a chair and weep.
"Mom, what's wrong? This was supposed to make you happy."
I was happy. And overwhelmed by guilt that I hadn't managed to make Christmas happen for these kids I loved so much. And overcome with gratitude that they had gotten together to make it happen for me.
I wouldn't say that was our best Christmas ever, but it was a memorable one, and we got through it together.
This year, while I gather with my kids and my new husband, and two sons-in-law, and four amazing grandsons around our majestic, fragrant, color-coordinated fir, I hope I can hang on to what I learned that year when I couldn't put up a tree.
First, I cannot save Christmas. I can't ruin it either, and I can't make it happen. I don't have that power. It comes no matter what I do. It doesn't depend on me.
I also learned that year that Christmas isn't a magic antidote for trouble. Carols and twinkly lights don't erase the pain of a fractured family or a foreclosure or a diagnosis or a pink slip, and we set ourselves up for discouragement if we expect that. And yet Christmas still comes, no matter what is going on with us. Emmanuel is still God with Us, right in the middle of all our pain.
And finally, I learned to make room in my heart for surprise, because we just can't predict how the Christ child will appear in our lives. I never expected my Christmas highlight to be a scruffy little children's tree in an otherwise depressing house. Jesus' people never expected a messiah in a manger. Christmas always comes, but not always the way we thought it would—which means our most important Christmas task may be to watch and wait for Christ to come. Again. And for the miracle of Christmas to happen—no matter what.