A fir tree should have been balancing in the corner–decorated with straw stars and red wooden ornaments. A grandfather should have been sitting on the couch–legs crossed and cold beer in hand. Instead, he passed away just days before the holiday, making this our year without a Christmas tree.
None of us felt like celebrating. Presents. Decorations. Merriment. It all seemed garish. Inappropriate. Disrespectful. And we were drowning in grief.
How could we rejoice when the the patriarch of our family had suffered for weeks? When the surgeons thought they could save him, but then they couldn’t?
How could we feel happiness when his chamois shirts hung limp in the closet, never to warm his arms again? When his hiking shoes–propped against the wall–would never again bear him on a daily jaunt?
Even the computer on his desk reminded us that he had fired it up for the last time to research his next travel adventure. How could anything possibly ever be merry and bright about this Christmas? Milling about, we muttered plans to go off in different directions–a obligation here, an obligation there.
But the impulse to gather remained strong. Like beads of mercury that are compelled to collide and coalesce, we still hungered for a coming together, a show of gratitude amid our sadness. We starved for healing.
Little gifts appeared–plainly wrapped. No ribbons. No frill. Then platters of smoked fish and Swedish meatballs. Just a few things. Then one call came in and another. More relatives decided to join us–their plans changed, or so they said. “If you’re gathering, then we should come.” More last-minute runs to the grocery store deepened the stash of groceries on the counter until a core of five family members swelled in just a few hours into a Christmas Eve for twelve.
We thought about one of his most beloved traditions: lighting real candles on a live Christmas tree. Throughout his own childhood, and then in raising his own boys, real flames would tremble in the branches. The dark room would reflect a silence and make space for memories of Christmases past. But there was no Christmas tree this year. The weeks spent at a hospital bedside ensured that no-one had the time or the inclination. The absence of a tree, the absence of its candles, the absence of its light, were felt most keenly. The darkness yawned in front of us like a bottomless dug well. The absence of the candlelit tree became synonymous with his absence and it was unacceptable.
So, maybe, we could use a living tree, an olive tree that provided precious shade for the stone patio out back? We could ring candles around it and dub her our honorary Christmas tree. Yes. In the afternoon, we arranged them around the olive tree. We looked at the dozens remaining in the IKEA package of 200 tea lights. What more could we do?
And so we eyed the stone steps that bridged the patio and the garden. We imagined a Christmas tree-shaped pattern of lights that would sprawl across them. So we spread out and began to space the tea lights across the stone steps–branches, a trunk, even a star of light at the top. We finished before sunset.
Once we had gathered, the simple smorgasbord satisfied us all. We nodded at the paper napkins on the table that he had purchased himself before the heart attack stole his breath, his voice, and his life. Gnomes with bright red hats–or tomtarna as the Swedes called them–graced the design. It was all about those red-hatted little elves for him. And so he was with us at the table after all.
He would have wanted this. Family. Gathering together and finding comfort in each other.
After decimating the smorgasbord, we all trundled out under the stars. There had been moments of laughter over pickled herring and lingonberry jam. But the commotion quieted as soon as we started lighting the little candles.
We lit dozens of them around the olive tree and dozens more in the pattern of the Christmas tree. We stood there and reflected on Christmas past, on those who were missing, and on our many gratitudes. We stood outside, together, in the darkness and thought healing thoughts. The flames flickered and the dark sky shimmered back.
And his tree-lighting tradition continued.
In a Dr. Suessian-Whoville kind of way, Christmas came for us even when we didn’t expect it. Even amid our year without a Christmas tree, a tree of candlelight burned brightly and helped us through a very long and dark night.
In memory of Jan Erikson. May he rest in peace.
Patricia Erikson blogs about Maine writers, travel, and science from a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, follow her on Instagram at @seashorewrite or subscribe to Peaks Island Press in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com
Categories: Travel & travel writing