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Finding Christmas Anyway

Susan Ashby Mergler December 23, 2014
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The tree glowed more brightly than it had any other year. Despite the thousands of white lights, to me it still seemed barren and cold, devoid of any Christmas ornaments. Years before, nothing could have restrained the urge to haul out the tree and have it beautifully adorned by mid-November. This year, however, it finally found its place beside the fireplace just after Thanksgiving. A full week into December it was still without ornaments hanging from its branches.

Thanksgiving had been a wonderful holiday filled with family, kids home from college break, football games and constant bantering about what Santa would soon be bringing. The house adorned like a show place, as it is year after year, everything was in its place except the final touches on the large family room tree.

And then Monday happened. Not the dreaded metro commuter Monday that is the ugly sibling of the revered and weeklong awaited Friday, but Monday, December the 1st. The day the unthinkable happened.

My husband who had faithfully provided for us as he rounded out a thirty-year career in sales had thoughtfully chosen to retire and pursue other avenues. Burned out from the Fortune 500 world, he wanted a different challenge, a new direction. Mortgage and tuition couldn’t pay for themselves so sailing off into the real world of retirement wasn’t a rational reality at the time.

Through personal connections and a resume burgeoning with accomplishments, he found just that, something different and new. A contracting consultant with the federal government felt like the right path to take at the time. Barely two years into his new venture, infighting among department heads and egos too big to co-exist finally brought down a government-funded project that harbored my husband’s job. And just like that, he was standing in the kitchen, red faced and unemployed in the middle of Cyber Monday.

For the first time in our marriage that had typically maintained every dotted “i” and crossed “t”, the reality hit me that our bills would soon be outnumbering our bank deposits. What a crappy time to lose a job I thought as I secretly longed to scrap the entire holiday season this year. Wish lists were long and mostly still unfulfilled. There was an abundance of green and red wrapping paper but a shortage of things to wrap, and that likely wasn’t going to be changing anytime soon.

As I continued to stare at the obnoxiously glowing tree, reminded of what wasn’t going to be under its branches this year as we quickly tightened our financial belt, I began to see how misguided and selfish I had become. How could I have let the trappings and secular season of excess cloud my thinking?

Slowly, I began to pull out the boxes of ornaments from the basement. With both kids back at college and enlisting my visiting mother’s help in trying to put the last touches on “Christmas”, I climbed the ladder and placed the beautiful porcelain and lace angel at the top. As each ornament found its way to a branch, I was reminded of some blessing over the past twenty-five years of marriage that had been crowned with two wonderful children, a daughter and a son who completed our family.

The tiny creations from preschool. The handmade, crayon scribbled ornament from our sponsored child in Kenya. The surfing Santa from Hawaii. The ornaments from WWII that stand as a testament to my mother having lived through a childhood during a scary and very uncertain time in our nation’s history. The personalized ornaments from our annual trek to NYC for my yearly assurance at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center that I had made it another year cancer-free. The lovingly crocheted snowflakes created by my grandmother who found joy in both the good and the bad because she lived the proclamation that “all things work for good for those who trust the Lord.”

Had I trusted the Lord? Had I trusted Him during my tirade of tears after learning the news that my husband had lost his job a few weeks before Christmas? Had I already forgotten Who carried me through the days when I often wondered whether or not my children would remember their mother had I not survived cancer?

Continuing to empty the storage boxes, I pulled my hand back as something deep inside pricked my fingers. Looking inside, I pulled out two gumballs. Not the kind for which kids love to beg a quarter and watch as the many colored candies come racing down to the metal flap, but the ugly, prickly kind that fall from the trees in late summer, the annoying droppings of seedpods that hurt bare feet when running to the backyard tree swing and that frustrate the immaculate lawn keeper with their constant littering.

I turned each one over in my hand and smiled at the silver glitter held on by copious amounts of glue. My young daughter had turned these ugly balls into beautiful creations. She saw potential in the mundane and what generally appears unattractive to most. Years ago and more corporate relocations than I cared to recount, she had picked the ugly little balls up off the ground, dressed them in what she considered to be the best holiday finery she could find and proudly placed them up high on a branch of our Christmas tree. And that is where they have perched ever since.

Doesn’t God do the same for us? Doesn’t he pick us up and dress us in his finest robe of forgiveness and acceptance and place us where we can shine for all to see? He uses our sinful nature and our human capacity to make mistakes both big and small on a pretty regular basis and chooses to look past what we see as ugly and unworthy.

The tree finally decorated, I turn to survey “Christmas” in our house. Amidst the piles of unstamped cards and stained recipes of still to be baked cookies, proof of my lack of readiness for the season, I also realize that neither was the world ready that very first Christmas night. Sadly, even today, it does not appear to be ready.

Oh, there are many places one can look to be convinced that everyone else is ready–Christmas trees in magazines, storefronts and neighbors’ houses, seemingly Martha Stewart perfect. Many trees more creative and décor coordinated than I ever could imagine on my own, some only hinting at the possibility that it’s Christmastime, have prompted the frequent question from my kids over the years as to why our tree doesn’t match. My wish as they have matured into young adults is that they now understand the story that our tree tells. Real life isn’t matchy-matchy. It’s messy and sometimes ugly. But it’s our own beautiful story. And it’s our own beautiful tree. And now, it is finally decorated and ready for Christmas.


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  1. James Warren December 23, 2014

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I’m sure many people can relate to your experiences, and your focus on “what really matters” will inspire others!

    Feel free to share it even more broadly using the social sharing buttons above.


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