My twins and I hauled up nine tins of ornaments from the basement, while my six foot son and his father let loose with a chain saw on the trunk of a tree. The grinding pain of a severed log blasted over the lilting soprano of the Hallelujah Chorus. Together the girls and I hung glass angels and woolly lambs, most of which are older than they are. There's the flannel snowmen we made in Brownies, and the pewter JOY from a friend in Boy Scouts, whose remembrance emerges every year when I hang the three letters in sequence. When they get separated it is hard to read their message.
On a high branch is a delicate star made of slender wood shavings woven into a Celtic knot,
from the elementary school principal three reigns back. I marvel that it is still perfect, considering how fragile it looks. I lift it out of paper carefully and give it a throne on a lofty branch. The scent of the beeswax nutcracker fills my senses, a miracle I savor since the ceramic mold I made it from cracked ages ago and it cannot be recast. There's the foundation pieced trees with Charlie Brown fabric I sewed last year, perched next to paper angels whose rosy cheeks remind me of my own grown daughters when they were still dancing in clothes hanger wings. The twins graduated from shepherds to angels in the Christmas tableaux, and an evening of protecting a drowsy newborn in a manger left a rouge on their cheeks too.
There hang two wooden crosses from a Guatemalan friend in New Mexico. Those were from the most spartan era of our marriage, living on food stamps and an income of ten grand. Our neighbor, Edna, lived above us in a cockroach infested building. Her simple gift of Catholic crosses painted in tangy oranges and cerulean blues reassures me that we have weathered lean times and lived to splurge again.
Some of the most quaint ornaments are the ones I made when we were first married. There was a rude awakening when I realized that the burden of creating Christmas lay in my empty lap. My mother had always woven her magic with hand dipped candles and poofy paper bells. My first December as a newlywed was bleak, as I tried to figure out where the beauty comes from. I fumbled with the effort, making tiny pinwheels and stuffed angels to adorn our sparse tree. They were pretty to me then, and I keep them in part to have a placeholder of what was lovely to me in 1980. Now I find them prosaic next to the four inch double Irish chains and elves with striped stockings.
This scenario has shown up annually, with variations in casting. It makes for a yin yang combo, the familiar and the novel yoked together. There were Advent seasons when I was an easy target for craft sales peddling ornaments. I wanted brandy new ones to add to the ever more crowded limbs. But now I feel more of a tug for the ones heavy with history, the lopsided starfish from our vacation at the beach who lost a limb to a crabby crab, and the beaded stars my daughter-in-law brought back from Maasai traders in Kenya.
What would life be like if everything was new? If each taste on your palate was an untried flavor, every song on your IPod was unheard of, all the faces to walk through the door were strange?
It sounds exhilarating. And exhausting.
Conversely what would it be like if absolutely everything was predictable? I get a glimpse of it in the movie Groundhog Day. Same conversations, repeat interactions. Yawn.
It is in the intersection of these two extremes that I feel alive.... neither am I completely without bearings nor can I close my eyes and walk without tripping.
Sometimes, when the laundry is folded and soup is on the stove, I ponder how the ratio works for God. Does omniscience mean He is never surprised? Is every detail in creation familiar? Is He ever bored by the predictability of it all?
Behold, I make all things new.Revelation 21
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.Jeremiah 1
New and Knew. Fresh and familiar. Expected and unexplored.
Christmas is the matrix. God Incarnate was formed in the womb, bringing virgin life to a dark world. When Jesus became flesh there was birthed a marriage between Divinity and Humanity. Uncontainable eternity kissed common mortality.
With one leg I am pulled toward the angels who hang like spun glass above my head, proclaiming the unbelievable, the unprecedented. With the other I step inside an ordinary stable matted with straw and warmed by the heat of bleating, wool wrapped sheep.
There is something about my No Vacancies tree that I haven't mentioned. The back faces the wall. I cannot see it, much less decorate it. There is part of this story called Glory to God in the Highest that is not yet visible to me. Seen and unseen meet at the core.
I suppose I cannot yet observe the whole message of JOY. It is fractured by grinding pain and cracked patterns that used to hold me. It is lost in a knot of circumstances that confuse me because the lines reach into tomorrow and my feet are mired in today. The circumference of eternity does not fit in a viewfinder, or a let-me-tell-you-what-happened-today conversation. Yet those fragments are part of my history, the one that embraces poverty and the loss of limbs I thought I couldn't survive without. My life is brighter for the stars carried back to me by daughters who have traipsed on roads I will never travel.
In a few weeks when the presents are all unwrapped and tucked in drawers it will be time to lift each ornament by the hook and set it back into the empty tins. The twins will probably help me, and together we will nestle them in the paper that protects each fragile ball from jostling on the way to the basement. There each snowman and nutcracker will rest with their blank eyes open, waiting in the darkness of a long year.
Then one day next December we will go hunting for them, and they will squirm to be refound. The striped elves and paper angels will seem familiar, like the Messiah playing and the smell of beeswax.