The childhood Christmas I remember best happened the year we could not afford a tree. I was 12. I don’t know the problems my parents faced that year, but I clearly remember what we did instead of a tree.
In the spot where the tree would have stood, we took a couple wooden orange crates from the garage, a couple of planks from Dad’s woodshop, a piece of old drapery, and created a platform. There we carefully placed the cardboard nativity scene that had been in the family since I was six. It was our centerpiece for Christmas.
Mom gave us each a few dollars and told us we could buy gifts for each other, but we could spend only one dollar on each gift. She challenged us to discover what was possible, that the receiver might still like. (Mom wasn’t a teacher for nothing!)
We used old, familiar tree decorations to decorate the house in new ways. We wrapped our “finds” with care and laid them in front of our little manger. Unexpectedly, we were more excited than usual about our Christmas Eve ceremony of reading the Christmas story and giving gifts. Gifts were small—I remember receiving bobby pins with rubber tips. There were also a few “empty” packages, with letters of love and appreciation inside, written on colorful paper.
We loved that Christmas!
Looking back, I know that one reason I remember it is that it was an exception: we usually did the more usual things. But I also suspect there was something else happening, something deeper. We couldn’t look outside ourselves for the main pleasure of other years: choosing, buying and decorating a big beautiful tree. So we looked inside ourselves and became creative. It was a lot more fun—and meaningful—than our usual external focus.
Today, I still enjoy the external pleasures of Christmas observances. But over the years, I have also learned that inner observances—of Christmas or other parts of living—are richer and more lasting. They are more beautiful. I suspect inner practices come much closer to touching the eternal in our hearts than any external activity can possibly do. I forget that almost as often as I remember it. This Christmas, though, I’m giving it a lot more attention. Care to join me?