By Hugh Chapman
Earlier this week I came home to find that my wife had put up beautiful Christmas decorations throughout the house. That evening as darkness spilled into our front room I had the chance to sit quietly and fully enjoy the twinkling of lights on the tree as I awaited the arrival of our grandchildren. Julie and I would be babysitting while my daughter and son-in-law took care of some pressing Christmastime business. It was an honor that we both held dearly and I couldn’t wait for Brayden and Avery to arrive.
Living in the Arkansas Ozarks, it’s not hard to find a tree. To find the perfect Christmas tree, however, is a more difficult matter. I believe this year, though, we had done exactly that. The tree was a full seven feet tall and with only a minimal amount of trimming the shape was nearly perfect. It was full and circular at the bottom then gently narrowing as it moved upward toward it’s flawless peak. And yes friends, as you may already have guessed, the perfect tree for the Chapman’s this Christmas had been ordered from Amazon.
But artificial or not, the tree was beautiful and the Star of Bethlehem that my wife had lovingly placed at the top had seemed to make it uniquely our own. That evening I sat in the quiet of winter darkness that was peacefully interrupted only by the glistening twinkle of Christmas lights reflecting from the various ornaments we had personalized throughout the years. There was one to commemorate our engagement many years before, and one we had found the following year to celebrate our marriage. Then there was one for Mom, one for Dad, one for Avery and one for Brayden. Then others for Nana and PooPah, Aunt Susan, and for good ol’ Uncle Bugs. Julie had recovered them all from the packed away crates in our attic and she had strategically placed the ones representing our family around the bottom of our tree so that they would be eye level to our grandchildren.
And when the children finally arrived that evening their expressions seemed to confirm the majesty of the tree. “So Pretty!” shouted Avery as she scrambled to the couch where I was resting and then settled quickly into my lap so that together she and I could take in the beauty that her Nana had created all around the room. I quietly held my granddaughter while her brother Brayden fiddled with an I-Pad looking for the Christmas music his parents had allowed him to download just that afternoon. Then moments later as Brayden hurried into the kitchen to help his Nana with fresh baked cookies, the happy sound of John Denver and the Muppets began to fill the house with joy in much the same way it had done when my own children had first listened many years earlier. As I watched, listened and held tightly to my grandchild, I realized again the special magic that children always brought to the season.
And I recalled my mother.
She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and often in winter her condition would be aggravated by the cold and damp. Yet the pain of that disease never diminished her love for Christmastime. I can recall a Christmas of long ago when she had rested in a rocking chair and held me in her arms on a snowy winter night. As her chair rocked softly to and fro, my youthful eyes moved from the colorful lights of the tree to the darkened snow banked windows of our tiny southeast Missouri home. I had listened that night as she told strange stories of wise men and stables, of shepherds and of animals, and of a sleeping child lying in a feeding trough whose mother had carried him for many miles but then could go no further. Even at such an early age I recognized the passion within her voice and knew the night she spoke of was true, and that it was special for reasons much more important than the gifts I was certain my sister and I would soon receive.
It was my mother who taught us to honor our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, not just at Christmastime, but each and every day. And it was she who taught us the importance of loving our family and to always be there for one another in our times of need. For my mother, these were not separate issues for she believed that if we as children were taught to love Jesus, then just as surely we would make our respect and love for one another a priority in our day to day lives.
It was from these thoughts that I was suddenly jostled as my Granddaughter squirmed from my embrace and moved purposely toward the tree. I looked on with curiosity as Avery began carefully taking our special family ornaments, two at a time, from the bottom of the tree and laying them gently in a pile. Then when they had all been removed, she took the first one from the stack and stood on tipped toes, reaching as high as she could in an attempt to re-hang the decoration nearer the top of the tree.
“Sweetheart,” I finally asked, “what are you doing?”
She stopped playing her decorating game and looked back over her shoulder without offering an explanation. I stood, then moved toward her. “Avery, Nana worked hard decorating the tree for us and it looks so nice.” I took an ornament from her hand and returned it to its proper place along the bottom of the tree. Avery stood silently, her golden hair beautifully illuminated by the soft glow of Christmas lights. “There,” I said, “It’s right back where it should be. Now let’s put all the others back where Nana had them before she comes in and sees that we’ve messed up all of her good work.”
In the softness of a December evening, surrounded by the happy sounds of Muppets singing carols and the lovely scent of fresh cut pine, I hurriedly returned each of the ornaments. Then finally as I replaced the very last one to the place where Julie had intended for it to be, I turned back to Avery and for the first time I could see the glisten of a tear that had formed in her eye.
Kneeling in the floor I leaned in and kissed Avery’s cheek and gently wiped away the tear with my finger. “I’m sorry sweetheart. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I guess I just don’t understand why you wanted to move Nana’s Christmas ornaments. Didn’t you think they were pretty the way they were?
My four-year-old granddaughter looked quietly at the hardwood floor, then slowly raised her head and spoke so softly that I had to lean in to hear her. “I wanted us to move toward the star, Poopaw,” she finally whispered. “I wanted us to be like the wise men who searched to find Jesus.”
And suddenly her purpose became clear, and like a hundred times before, I felt foolish in the presence of my wiser and infinitely more perceptive grandchildren. The tree had all the beauty that Avery’s grandmother could provide, but it needed one thing more. It needed the heart of a child to make the picture complete.
I wrapped my arms around Avery for a hug, then leaning back I smiled and said, “Well Sweetheart, now I understand.” Then standing up, I put my hand on her tiny shoulder and together we looked toward the tree. “And do you know what Avery Grace?” I said, “I believe you are absolutely right. And if you want me to, I’ll lift you up real high so you can put our ornaments as close to Jesus’s star as you want to.”
Then for the next few minutes we worked together, with Avery gathering the ornaments from the floor and with me lifting her to the highest branches of our little tree. In short order, the tree was again complete and just the way Avery had envisioned it. Then hand in hand we stood back and admired the tree that now reflected our good work. Though pretty much bare around the bottom, the top near the star was full and bright.
It was then that Nana and Brayden walked into our room with a full tray of freshly baked cookies. “Hey,” Julie said in mock surprise. “Who’s been in here messing around with my tree decorations?”
But before either Avery or I could answer, her brother Brayden shouted in excitement. “Look Nana,” he said. “They’ve moved our special ornaments to the top so we can be closer to Jesus. But look what else! There’s not as much room at the top of our tree, so the further we move up and toward Jesus’s star, the closer we move together!”
Suddenly the words my mother had spoken all those years ago seemed to convey a deeper and more powerful message than ever before. If as a group, whether it be as a family or as a church, we truly seek to draw closer to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we will most certainly grow closer to one another in the process. And perhaps that’s the most accurate meaning of Christmas.
I’ve come to believe that whenever and wherever we as believers seek to know Jesus Christ, whether it be the wise men and shepherds of old, or the generations of families that have followed, the shared love for Jesus will continue to bring us together in the light of His love, just as it had done on that Holy night in Bethlehem.
Merry Christmas Brayden and Avery Grace.
And Merry Christmas to those everywhere who continue to seek Jesus.