Christmas in the Shadowlands

I distinctly remember the year when my parents first switched to an artificial Christmas tree. We were living in a small farmhouse at the time, and the only display space afforded our preeminent yuletide decoration was in a room that also contained a wood stove. Despite my father’s dogged determination to beat back the pervasive climes of Old Man Winter and simultaneously maintain the hydration of our felled fir, the former feat was almost only ever accomplished at the expense of the latter. The dry, crackling heat from the old iron stove maintained even the peripheral recesses of our home at a balmy sweater-and-slippers temperature while, alas, our living room floor near the tree began to more and more resemble the prickly forest floor with every passing day of December. We just couldn’t water any Christmas tree enough.

After valiant efforts over several years, my parents finally acquiesced to the way of things and made alternate arrangements. We three children were notified of the decision late one November. In somber tones and with more than one hand being held, we were told that there would be no “real” Christmas tree this year. We didn’t understand what that meant, but it sounded unpleasant. It seemed out of place for a modifier like “real” to suddenly be placed before a term where it had never stood before. They continued the parent-child conference. The benefits of the artificial tree were presented with the winsomeness of a Home Shopping Network pitch and expounded with the reasoned sobriety of a Presbyterian sermon. The practicality was certainly appealing but the modernity of it all sounded like something that the prophet Schulz had warned us against. I remained forlorn at the ease and apparent eagerness with which the future was being given a foothold in our home–and with something as sacred as Christmas!

But the artificial Christmas tree arrived and crossed our threshold in that least romantic (yet also endearingly unmodern) of all packaging–a long cardboard box. Whether it was ordered from a JC Penny catalog or brought home from the main street hardware store in town, I don’t remember. But the sales team at the tree factory was apparently at least as dubious about the contents of the box as I was. They had plastered “Holiday Tree” on all exterior sides of the box in an effort to convince the skeptics and/or proselytize the agnostics—good thing, because there was a mixed company of five such unbelievers in the manse that morning. With a box cutter in my father’s hand and a deep breath braced in our collective lungs, my family and I came face to face with the marvel of our new Christmas tree.

If first impressions are indeed lasting and the most important, then it is a wonder that we ever even granted our new tree a second season. The disparity between the display images on the outside of the box and the condition of its contents (as shipped) could not have been greater. The prospects and possibility of a family’s Christmas joy could not have been in more peril. The outside of the box had promised symmetry, lush color, and (the deal clincher) needle-free cheer. The inside of the box, however, contained what appeared to be the seven tiers of anti-Christmas with a sturdy plastic base and a green aluminum pole. The branches, so called, were either collapsed like paper fans or mangled like a nose tackle’s pinky fingers. The polyester needles were abhorrently artificial and crinkled and wrinkled with every slight movement. It was a downgrade from a real fir tree in every imaginable aspect.

I think we had all expected the tree to emerge from its cardboard cocoon resembling a near-finished product. I don’t think my dad expected anything close to the amount of Assembly Required that now stood between him a happy Norman Rockwell scene. But he dug through the box and produced the instructions (“Christmas tree assembly instructions, can you believe it!” he laughed). We discovered which end of the pole was North and which end fixed into the base. We deciphered the scheme of the branch arrangements and their corresponding color tags. We sorted them into piles and began attaching the branches to the would-be trunk. We followed Dad’s lead and put a bold face on it.

If you have never arranged the branches of an artificial Christmas tree, then perhaps you cannot adequately appreciate the mighty learning curve that faced our young family of five that morning. Still, with the enthusiasm of the season and the unbridled energy of the unlearned, we set to work bending and shaping each branch. We straightened each knuckled twig and smoothed each wrinkled needle as if aspiring to the approval of Kris Kringle himself. Each of us grabbed branch after branch. We arranged each wire-and-polyester twig with fervor and care, branch after branch. Arrange, Attach, Repeat. Arrange, Attach, Repeat.

Long before we reached what should have been the final steps of Admire and Adorn, we realized that we were horribly off course. With a mere two or three rings of branches completed, each of us could now see that our new tree looked worse than just artificial—it looked abominable. Why didn’t our branches look like branches? Why did this product which was designed to look like a proud douglas fir more closely resemble a skewered sea urchin? Instead of full and bristling, our tree looked sparse and lifeless–like a Joe Biden rally. It was if some unseen forces were sabotaging our efforts. Perhaps the tree had been absorbing our doubts and disbelief and manifesting them as poorly-shaped twigs. Perhaps our hearts were each two sizes too small. Whatever the reason, we were off to a bad start. We were obviously going about things the wrong way.

But what happened next was the moment that historians in the ensuing decades have come to describe as Ronald E. Pearce’s own tour de force in The Battle for Christmas—the moment that quickened an inanimate heap of wire and polyester strips into a new life as a respectable Christmas tree faster (and with more believability) than the Peanuts gang. My father, at the moment of our critical need, in the hour of our greatest despondency, enacted an unrehearsed and unplanned tactical maneuver that was surpassed in its oddness and unexpectedness by only its bold simplicity.

My dad went outside. He left us and left the room. He left the unfinished tree, he left the house, and he went outside with a hat and a pair of pruning shears. No instructions, no farewell, no explanation that I can recall. Through the front windows we watched him walk down along our gravel driveway. Where did Dad go? Why did he take those big scissors with him? What’s he going to do? Then all my father did for the next few minutes was stand next to one of the big douglas firs that lined our front drive. He scanned the grand branches of its evergreen glory, searching and studying. He stood in a painter’s posture, noting form and frame, design and detail. He stood there before a real, live tree—finally, at last—after his freelance attempt to assemble the artificial had failed. Then, just as we kids were losing interest in his mysterious mission, he snipped. My dad lopped off about an arm’s length of the end of one of the tree’s lower branches and brought it inside.

He was a new man upon re-entry—invigorated and inspired. With rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes, he revealed at last what genius stroke had struck and sent him outside. He pulled off his hat and gloves and laid aside the shears. He held out the branch of the fir tree for our own inspection. “This is what we need our branches to look like—here’s the real thing!” It was a marvelous moment. It was simple. And it was obvious! We had been following instructions, yes, but we hadn’t been following a template. We had diagrams and color codes on a page of instructions, but we didn’t have a model. We didn’t have the real thing. Yet all the while, ironically, a living, photosynthesizing template was growing not twenty yards outside of our house.

My father’s enthusiasm was infectious, and, before the red had dissipated from his rosy cheeks, we were all as enraptured with the fresh-cut specimen as he was. “Here’s where I think we were going wrong,” he said. “See how these twigs near the trunk actually stick straight up? They don’t point out at all…And do you notice how the tips of these outer twigs all bend up toward the sunlight at the very end? Isn’t that neat?” He led us through a study of each twig’s shape and relative arrangement as if marveling at a peacock’s fanned tail feathers or at a jeweled necklace in a museum. My dad brought us into his sense of wonder and we all examined the evergreen extract with excitement.

We re-tackled the tree with tenacity and renewed purpose. We who once were hopelessly lost and floundering were suddenly filled with purpose and passion. We started by standing the back twigs straight up—just like the real branch. We curved up the tips of the outer twigs as if to prepare them to receive the very beams of heaven. We busied ourselves with the bending and arranging of each twig on every branch until—wonder of wonders, and Maker be praised—we had assembled an artificial Christmas tree of which even Lucille Van Pelt would be proud. Christmas was saved—we would have a respectable Christmas tree after all.

Looking back on the drama of that day these many Christmas seasons later, I see clearly that my father’s great triumph wasn’t associated with inventing or innovating. He didn’t download an app or consult an expert to help with the tree. And he neither gave it up for impossible, nor did he pretend that there wasn’t a problem. He remained steadfast in his pursuit of excellence and achieved it when he had at last drawn himself and his family into the presence of that which was truly excellent. My father won the day and put us on a path to ultimate success by pointing us to the details of the natural world. He shifted our focus from our synthetic problem to its natural solution in God’s created order. Our project didn’t falter because we lacked an infallible guide—we floundered because we weren’t consulting it.

If my father has left any legacy in my life, it is a confidence in simple orthodoxy. He has instilled in me an assurance that there is Truth (“true truth” he would say, quoting Schaeffer), and that it can be known. There is “a way [we] should go” as children so that when we are old we do not depart from it. With the author of Hebrews, my father taught us that “at sundry times and in divers manners,” the living God has made himself known to the children of men—sometimes through prophets (Luke 16:29), sometimes through creation (Psalm 19:1), sometimes through creatures (Proverbs 6:6). In his love for us, my dad trained our ears and eyes to discern each story, scene, or sunrise as a song of our Savior. Every story whispers His name, as it were, and everything that has breath praises the Lord.

Our father’s instruction and principles have never been elaborate, and they are always simply stated. But they are firmly believed and persistently proved. They are lived out in the ordinary moments of ordinary days—even the day we set up an artificial Christmas tree in the shadowlands. Now when I set up my own tree with my own children, I am wont every November to remember my father and his pursuit of excellence. I stand every back twig straight up, and I bend each outer twig up ever so slightly—just like the branch he snipped off the douglas fir along the driveway at the manse. It’s a ritual rife with sentiment and it never fails to bring to mind that memorable Christmas years ago. Just the act of setting up an artificial tree draws me further up in my appreciation for my Father and further in to the wonders of His creation—just like the real thing.

December 2020

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