Monday, December 20, 2010

When Do You Put Up Your Christmas Tree?

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree!
How lovely are your branches!

When do you put up your Christmas tree?

In an online survey of this question, 47 percent—almost half—of the 755 respondents put up their tree between Dec. 1 and 15, 33 percent—one-third—put up their tree the day after Thanksgiving. So that takes care of most of you.

The next group—13 percent—puts up their tree between Dec. 16 and 23. Five percent put up their tree on the first Sunday in Advent and two percent put it up on Christmas Eve.

Many people surveyed who put up their tree at or right after Thanksgiving say they want the “Christmas feeling.” One woman wrote, “life is too short to miss out on the good stuff,” that you should put it up if you want to. Another said, “follow your heart.” This seems to conform to the contemporary attitude of doing whatever feels good.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
“Traditionally, Christmas trees were not brought in and decorated until Christmas Eve (24 December) or, in the traditions celebrating Christmas Eve rather than first of day of Christmas, the 23 December, and then removed the day after Twelfth Night (6January); to have a tree up before or after these dates was even considered bad luck.”

Putting up a tree “early” seems to be a more recent trend. Perhaps it follows on the tail of commercialism. Did you know that Christmas was officially commercialized by an act of Congress? No kidding. Listen to this.

“So vital did Thanksgiving prove in inaugurating the Christmas season that commercial interest conspired in resetting its date,” writes Penne L. Restad in the book, “Christmas in America.” During the Great Depression, retail profits declined, and the Christmas season of 1939 was expected to be especially dismal for business because Thanksgiving fell on the last day of November.

Fred Lazarus, Jr., president of Ohio’s Federated Department Stores, “noted that by advancing the date of Thanksgiving one week, six additional days for Christmas shopping could be added to sales calendars,” Restad writes. “Persuaded by his logic, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the feast from the 30th to the 23th of November, and in 1941, Congress set the annual date of Thanksgiving at the fourth (rather than the last) Thursday in November.”

This guaranteed a four-week shopping season each year. Of course, that doesn’t stop corporations from putting up Christmas trees and playing Christmas music (spend, you consumer, spend!) in September.

I love Christmas. It’s my very favorite holiday. Especially Christmas Eve. One of the things I love about Christmas is the time leading up to it, Advent. The expectant, excited waiting. Awaiting the coming of Christ.

When I was a kid, we put up the tree on Christmas Eve. Sometimes the night before, but usually on Christmas Eve. Dad would go to a lot and bring home a tree. There were always plenty to choose from, because it seems that most people in those days (or in that part of the country?) put up their tree close to Christmas.

A woman who grew up in upstate New York told me that when she went to bed as a child on Christmas Eve, the house had no signs of Christmas. Her parents decorated the house, hung stockings, put up the tree and put the presents beneath it while she and her siblings slept. Can you imagine the glory of Christmas morning?

I decorate the house the first or second week of December. I hang old and new Christmas cards, string up lights, drape greenery about, place the Nativity on the mantle. This all sets the mood of Christmas and anticipation of the tree.

The only disadvantage to putting up the tree so close to Christmas is they’ve been pretty well picked over by the time we buy ours. That is, since Mr. Mitts died. He was a nearby neighbor who sold Christmas trees for, like, $5 to $7. Lovely trees.

Sometimes we cut a cedar from our own property. Not the greatest of trees, but the right color, shape and smell, and the price is right.

Oh, Christmas tree. It seems the English translations of “Oh, Tannenbaum” vary. I like this ending:
Each year you bring to me delight, meaning in the Christmas night
Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, of all the trees most lovely.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Death Takes No Holidays

In a heartbreaking scene in the movie, “The Two Towers,” King Théoden mourns the death of his only son with weeping that comes from depths of his soul. “No parent should ever have to bury their child,” he says.

A few days before Thanksgiving, two sets of parents we know lost a child. All through Thanksgiving week, in the midst of the cooking and family happiness, my heart kept returning to these mothers’ and fathers’ loss. Why can’t death and calamity take a break in November and December?

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.
(Matthew 2:18)

For this is part of Christmas. The evil King Herod, you may remember, when the three wise men came looking for the baby Jesus, told them to let him know when they’d found the baby. Of course, they knew the king was evil, so after they’d found Jesus, they took a different route home. When Herod found out, he was infuriated, and ordered all the male children in the Bethlehem area under the age of two to be killed.

In the 12 days of Christmas, day four, Dec. 28, is Holy Innocents Day, when we remember the Massacre of the Innocents.

In America, we say that a person is “doing well” if they are holding it together during the funeral and that they are “not doing well” if they cry. That’s pretty sick. With the death of a loved one should come “wailing and loud lamentation.” Yet that does not usually happen until after the funeral. At the time of death there is shock. Then we must make the arrangements. Family and friends gather around us. We receive their offered comfort.

Then, after the burial, after the covered dishes have stopped, after everyone has gone home, then we are alone with our grief.

“Grief is the experience of finding yourself standing alone in the vacant space with all this torn emotional tissue protruding,” writes John O’Donohue in “Eternal Echoes.” “In the rhythm of grieving, you learn to gather your given heart back to yourself.”

This takes time. And even though the loss is shared with others, it is lonely. Nobody else had exactly what you had with this loved one, so nobody else has lost what you have lost.

The grieving loosens its grip when we realize that this person is with us in a different but very real way. The connection between us can never be severed. Although they are absent, we sense their presence. As O’Donohue says, “You become aware of the subtle companionship of the departed one.”

And we know, too, that while someone is absent here, they are present somewhere else. For the Christian, there is the hope/faith that we will again, at our own death, be with them physically. This is a great comfort, but it does not stop us from grieving.

My youngest daughter has lived overseas for 10 years. Before she left, and for several years after, I grieved with the weeping and travail of deep loss. When I visited her or she came here, at our parting I grieved all over again. Yes, I knew I would see her again, but that did not—does not—stop me from missing her.

Too often our culture and community can make us feel that mourning—with its lonely withdrawal—shows a lack of faith. We are expected to snap out of it, to jump right back into living. Yet we need to feel our loss in order to get through the grieving process. A good companion understands this, and makes his or her presence available.

Rachel … refused to be consoled… because she needed time and space to grieve. Even at Christmas.