Christmas Carols

The techno tree stood on a maple table in the den.  An unlikely hero, it was less than two feet tall counting the motorized revolving base.  Forest green branches stuck out from its black metal trunk, short and spiky at the top, longer toward the bottom, giving it the approximate shape of a fir tree. A Christmas tree. Totally unadorned save for fiber-optic lights that, at the flip of a switch, glowed in changing colors from the tip of each branch.

My sister gave the tree to my parents in hopes it would brighten a holiday dimmed by Alzheimer’s. Dad had little faith anything could penetrate my mom’s darkness, and I had to agree. As I made daily trips from my home to theirs to help him care for her, I saw no signs this year would be better than last.

A year ago Dad and I made cookies, wrapped gifts, lit lights.  I draped a white sheet over a small table and there, on 250 thread count snow, I arranged the old figures around the shaggy stable.  But Mom had forgotten about the stable and the Baby, and though she ate most of the cookies, she professed to like “those regular ones” better.  The bright gifts evoked so many questions, repeated hour after hour, day after day, eventually I put them out of sight.

So this year, until the gift of the funky little tree, we made no Christmas preparations.  Twelve months had stolen so much more from Mom and filled the vacuum with new fears, more confusion.  The good days were rarer; the bad ones, worse.

Almost forgotten, the tree sat dark until late evening on one of those bad days.  As she sat at the kitchen table with Dad and me, Mom’s face still wore vestiges of the anger that had propelled her through the afternoon.  She perched crooked and stiff on the edge of the chair.  Her feet shuffled like children who couldn’t be still.  Our spirits were brittle with fatigue; the house, chill with despair.  Perhaps it was desperation that turned Dad’s gaze out of the kitchen, here, there, away from the heaviness that shrouded the table.  Then his feet followed his eyes into the den.

“Where are you going?  What are you doing?” Mom growled as he walked toward the tree.

Dad said nothing, only reached down to flip the switch on the plastic base.  From the fiber-optic branches tiny beams of color, delicate as starlight, ventured out across the room.  Green, blue, violet snowflakes floating into the grey air, across the brown carpet, dancing on the furniture.

With a tiny hum, the tree turned ever so slowly, and ever so slowly Mom relaxed.  Her feet were still.  Her shoulders sagged into the back of the chair.

“It’s a Christmas tree, honey,” Dad said, almost whispered, afraid, as I was, to break the sudden calm.  “Do you like it?  It’s a Christmas tree.”

Just as softly, I began to sing.  “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches….”

The old German carol.  My mother’s favorite.  In the time of my childhood when the first strains of Christmas music opened my heart like a jewelry box ready to receive all the bright treasures of the season, I waited each year with great anticipation for Mom to hear “her” carol playing on the radio.  Because when she did, she would stop what she was doing and sing along, while my sister and I watched and smiled in wonder at the change in her face.  Every feature would soften as she lifted her chin and raised her eyes to a long ago past.  I could feel the room grow warmer as she sang.  And then always the same ending: “We learned that song in school.”

It was like a story to us, Mom’s singing and her words, “We learned that song in school.”  Most of the story was told in the look on her face and the emotion in her voice, with the outcome always the same:  love for the fair fir tree.  Peace.  Happiness.

Apparently not even Alzheimer’s could steal that remembrance from Mom.  Somehow, evoked by the techno tree with its sweet hypnotic light, the melody of the old carol had survived in her memory, like a gift still wrapped in bright hope.

“O fir tree dark, O fir tree fair…” I sang on to her.  Then at the end, “You learned that song in school, right?”

And the gift unwrapped itself on Mom’s face.  Anxious lines opened into softness and, subtle as candlelight, her eyes flickered in recognition of…what?

Peace: the heart of the Christmas story.  A tree, a Gift.  The sweetest story.  The oldest, the eternal carol.

Glory in the highest.

Thank You, Father, for Your miracles of love, given at Christmas, given all year long. You gave us life, and You gave us Your Son. Your Son gave us new life, and He gave us His Spirit.

And when we cannot even imagine the magnitude of those gifts, You say, “Look here, Child. Look at Christmas. This Christmas. This evening. A tree that broke the hold of dementia. A song that opened a mind and a heart. Light and melody that brought peace and joy. That is how much I love you. Believe it: that is how much I love you.”

I believe, Father. Thank You.

“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….For the mighty One has done great things for me—holy is His name” (Luke 1:46-47,49  NIV).