It is late Christmas afternoon. The rain that came earlier, for most of the day, has stopped, leaving the road beneath my feet alternately crunchy and smushy. The clouds have not completely disappeared. The sky is a mottled pewter, still and dull. The bird sounds are soft and low to the ground. I can’t identify any of them.
In the distance, over the field and through a large stand of pine trees, I hear gunshots. Muffled by the dense atmosphere and the distance, I can not tell whether they are made by a rifle or shotgun, a Christmas present most likely, being broken in by its proud new owner.
It reminds me of all the Thanksgiving mornings and Christmas afternoons of my childhood in which my father, my uncles, and, later, my brother and cousins, clad in various degrees of camouflage, gathered up in a field to hunt. Their success was never measured by the number of doves or quail they shot, but by the stories they wrote from just being together.
It is the kind of memory that would generally evoke other holiday memories, that would send my mind down a trail lined with images of Icebox Fruitcake being pulled from the back of Grannie’s refrigerator, of an Etienne Aigner pocketbook being pulled from under the Christmas tree, of a sticky cedar tree being pulled across a field by my four-year-old nephew.
Generally. But not today.
Today there is the matter of the Christmas tree. Four days before Christmas the top section of lights on my Christmas tree blinked once and died. Two days later the middle section bid farewell, leaving only the lower third illuminated. Every time I walked through the living room, the crippled state of my tree caught my attention, reminding me that as Steve Walsh and Kansas pointed out in the late 70s, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky. Before I left the house I was looking online at post-holiday sales on Christmas trees because, of course, I have to resolve the issue a full 365 days in advance.
It occurs to me that while Mary and Elizabeth get all the attention this time of year, Martha (she of the “distracted by many things” fame) is probably more familiar to the women I know. Trying to feed the big crowd that is due to arrive at any moment, provoked at a sister who doesn’t do nearly enough to help, the work of the holiday has (she thinks) fallen all on her and, to make matters worse, somebody (that would be the Son of God) is saying things like, “Sit down, Martha. Let’s visit.”
Back at home, the first thing I see as I walk in is the tree. I pause. I take a breath. The truth is that no one else noticed its failure. Not the technician who came to fix the gas logs. Not the family that came to celebrate the season. Not even the children who camped under its false branches awaiting the distribution of gifts.
For all that I have noticed this Christmas – the distant look in my father’s eyes as he watches his great-grandchildren open gifts, the chrismons fluttering among the branches of the evergreens in the church chancel, Christmas cards growing into a soft mound on the silver tray – I am learning that perhaps there is also value in not noticing. I don’t have to see or hear or even feel everything. I can choose what is worth acknowledging and ignore the rest. What kind of Christmas gift is that?