Christmas trees have a lot of symbolism for me. When I was fourteen, my older brother, just eight months back from Vietnam, died in a car accident at the age of twenty-two. That was in January. For the next couple of years there was no Christmas tree in my house. There were no carols, and for the first year there wasn't even television allowed for my thirteen-year-old brother and me. It was a house of mourning. My Christmas present when I was fifteen was a Boston Rocker, which I had requested. Many of my afternoons that first year were spent at the home of my eighth grade history teacher, Rosemary. She had a rocking chair at her kitchen table, and I often told her I "rocked myself sane" in that chair. So for Christmas that year I asked for a rocker of my own. Years later I rocked my babies to sleep in that chair, and now Rosemary's kitchen rocker sits in front of my fireplace, too.
A few year's after my brother's death, my niece arrived on the scene and re-invented joy. By the time she was walking we had a tree, but all our old ornaments had been given away, so at 17 I hand-stitched a dozen or so little cotton-ball stuffed circles out of red and green cloth, added a bow here and there, and started to re-build the collection. Those are the first ones that go on my tree today. During the years I lived alone I always had a Christmas tree. Often I would pick one so big that I had to borrow a neighbor's saw to make it fit. Some years I was the only one who saw the tree, but that didn't deter me. The ornament collection has grown over the years, and many of them are emotionally loaded, but that's OK, too.
With the heartbreak of Newtown, Connecticut, the loss of my mother and my friend Flanagan, and so much other suffering going on in the world, it is hard to get into the spirit of the season. But that is why it is so important to keep the flame of joy alive with strange traditions like bringing dead trees into the house, and draping twinkling lights that could turn a neighborhood street into a landing strip for lost planes. Defiant joy. With all the pain in the world, God chose to share our humanity. He understands pain. And in times like these, He is the only source of comfort.