When I was a little girl, my family had several traditions that signified Christmas was coming. One was our annual trip to the big city of Knoxville, where we would go see a church choir perform the Living Christmas Tree. Men and women wearing red and green robes stood in a tiered choir loft built especially for the occasion. Afterward, we would go to the Hyatt Regency to see the poinsettia tree standing several stories high in its spacious lobby. While we were there, my parents would let my sister and me ride the glass elevator to the top floor. We would get a birds-eye view of the tree and watch as our parents grew smaller and smaller.
Another tradition was assembling our tree, which was likely purchased from Sears Department Store. First, we would anchor a long, notched pole in the tree stand, and then we would organize the branches according to the colors the tips were painted. The red-tipped branches were inserted into the bottom of the pole, then the blue, and finally the white. When our work was done, we had a proud pine tree standing in the middle of our living room. After we strung it with lights, wrapped it in tinsel, and bedecked it with ornaments, it looked like a real tree (even though it never smelled like one).
Finally, we would put our nativity under the tree. I would place the wooden stable on the tree skirt, and then I would gently unpack the figurines and study each one closely. My mother had made them in a ceramics class a decade before, and she had painted them too. I loved the sky blue of Mary’s cloak, wrapped around her as she kneeled; the green stripe on Joseph’s cloak, who stood tall yet gazed down; the gold, silver, and bronze accents on the wise men’s crowns and gifts; the shepherds in their monotone tunics; and the goldenrod hay in the cradle holding baby Jesus.
I would thoughtfully position each character in the stable, and then I would lie down and carefully slide under the tree. I loved the feeling of being immersed in the twinkling lights and being face-to-face with the nativity. Even then, I knew the stories were true. I knew them by heart…literally. The children in my church were challenged to memorize Luke 2:1-14, and I had memorized it word-for-word, King James Version no less:
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
The words would repeat in my head as I looked at the loving face of Mary, the solemn face of Joseph, and the reverent faces of the wise men and shepherds. I, too, felt loving, solemn, and reverent as I gazed at the nativity and thought of Jesus—the Son of the Most High, the promised Messiah, the Savior of the World. I didn’t know what these names all meant, yet in my young heart, I knew they meant everything.
Many nights I felt drawn back to the nativity. I would turn off all the lights except for the Christmas tree lights, and then I would slide under the branches, face-to-face with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. In the warm glow of the lights, peace and contentment settled over me. I felt welcome, like everyone else who had gathered around the manger.
Today that same nativity lays tucked underneath my mother’s Christmas tree. Miraculously, all of the figurines are still present and only one has suffered the wear of more than 50 years: the donkey, with his broken ear.
Oftentimes, it feels like the only figure who isn’t accounted for is that precious young girl.
As Christmas draws near, I find myself vacillating between frenzied busyness and full-blown exhaustion. I long for a break more than I long for Christmas. The irony is that in the midst of my weariness, I cannot sleep. I toss and turn until I finally give up and move to the couch. I lie there, gazing at the darkened shape of our Christmas tree. In the quiet, I hear a voice whisper, “turn on the lights.” I do so, and in the glow of the twinkling lights, I see the shadow of the little girl. She beckons me to approach the nativity, to remember the stories, and to rest there once again.
A lover of story, Susan Tucker has always been captivated by beautiful writing. She is drawn to themes of tension, joy/grief, hope/loss, freedom/shame, which she explores in her own writing. Susan spends her days teaching middle school English, mothering her two teenage sons, and loving her husband of 25 years. She cherishes her first cup of coffee each morning, moments of quiet and solitude, restorative yoga, worship music, and faithful friends.nbsp