Frost covered the window panes as an old man rose, his bare feet chilled at the touch of the cold, wooden floor. He had set the alarm later than usual but still awoke at the normal time and lay listening to the ticking of the ancient wooden clock down the hall. He didn’t usually stay in bed once he was awake, but today he hadn’t wanted to wake. It was Christmas day, and he was alone.
The summer before, his wife of fifty years had passed on. He had survived by managing to fill most of his days with something. But today, Christmas Day, was hard to fill. His family, children, and grandchildren, and now even great-grandchildren, were scattered around the country each with their own families celebrating Christmas and making memories that would one day warm their hearts when their turn came to sit alone at a quiet table in an empty house.
The problem with those heart-warming memories was they didn’t just warm the heart; they also caused it to ache, especially at the moment. For the last few days, the old man had been struggling with a decision. In the attic of the house in an old Sears cardboard box held together with gray duct tape laid a Christmas tree. As he dragged it out and started to put it together, it seemed every branch, every strand of tinsel, every ceramic angel and old, glass bulb held a memory. The old tree sagged with memories.
The man remembered how when he purchased it forty-eight years before, it had been a source of contention. His family had always decorated a real tree. Hers had always put up an artificial one. Besides that, his wife claimed that with a real tree, she had to clean up the pine needles, which were a fire hazard. Finally, he had given in, very reluctantly and always intending to replace the tree with a larger, more life-like one when the money came in. It never did. He disliked the tree so much that he had written on the box, “Bought 1945, Mary’s idea.”
One year he got his way. They bought a live tree. They even had it halfway up when they discovered a poor, single-parent family in their church had no tree at all. So, the live tree had been given to the family, and the artificial tree was brought out once again.
Eventually, the tree became a part of Christmas. They had hung decorations on it that had turned into memories with each passing year. Now the man faced the tattered tinsel and tarnished balls once again, but this time it was almost too much to bear.
In a moment of barren desperation, he bought another tree. It was one of those little ones, the kind you could get for under ten dollars, the kind made for lonely people on fixed incomes to stare at on Christmas day. Everybody knew it was for people spending Christmas alone because you couldn’t get a lot of presents around it and little girls couldn’t stare with awe into its lofty glittery branches. He bought it and sat it beside the old cardboard box. Then he sat in the thread-bare recliner and looked at the corner where the tree that sagged with memories should be.
A knock at the door roused him. As he arose to answer it, his heart leaped. They did remember him! The kids were here! They wouldn’t let him face this Christmas alone. Their cards had been nice, and each child had asked him to come and spend Christmas with them, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Christmas was always here with her, but now she was gone, and it seemed she had taken Christmas with her. But with the knock on the door, hope burst from him. They had come. They had been able to pack up all the grandchildren and come! He swung open the door with a cheer on his lips, only to have it die in his throat.
A huddled stranger stood at the door. He needed directions to neighbors that lived a block or two away. The old man swallowed the lump in his throat and gave the man directions. He closed the door unaware of the tears that rolled down his cheeks. He walked back to his chair, but just as he sat on the shabby edge jumped back up. “I’m not going to wallow in this,” he said to himself.
He found his old coat, wrapped his tattered muffler around his neck, and even grabbed his cane as much as he despised it. The sidewalk was icy, and rather the cane and a bruised ego, than a fall and a broken bone. Once his ancient truck sputtered to life, he backed out of his garage and headed for an old friend’s house. But as he drove insight of his friend’s home, he noticed several cars with out-of-state tags parked in the driveway. It reminded him of his own yard a few years before when his own family’s cars lined his drive. This year, it was his friend’s family who had come and brought his friend’s Christmas with them. He decided to pass on by and not disturb them. He didn’t want to be a burden.
Christmas was for family. If you didn’t have one, then you shouldn’t barge in on someone who did. He’d just go to another friend’s house. He did, only to discover it was packed with people too. So finally, he just decided to just go home.
As he pulled into his own driveway, he noticed something sifting in the snowdrift next to his house. The old man could see the tracks it had made as it traipsed through the snow toward his door. “It must be a little thing to have gotten stuck in a drift,” he thought. Soon he saw how little as he stooped over to pick up a shivering, half-starved mutt puppy. “You’re so ugly, you’re cute.” He told the pup. A lick on the face and a wag of its cold tail told him it thought he wasn’t so bad either. “Well, come with me. I bet you can cause me enough trouble to make me forget my miseries today,” he laughed.
The old man fed the puppy till its belly rounded, and he wondered if it might pop. With the dog in hand, he nestled down in his old recliner for a mid-morning nap when another rap at the door woke him. No hope sprang up this time, just simple curiosity that was soon answered by the friendly face of the friend whose house he had passed by earlier.
“I saw you drive by Bill, and thought you might like to join us. We’d love to have you. Sue’s got a turkey baking that’s about to drive us wild. Why don’t you come and join us?” The old man tried to beg out of it, but in spite of his excuses, his friend prevailed.
Together they entered the warm house to handshakes and hugs from members of the family the old man had known for years. It was noisy, and the laughter of children filled the air with a joy that felt good even as it hurt for the absence of his own grandchildren. Everything was fine until the gifts were passed out. He pretended interest in everyone’s gift and was actually amazed at a gift of glow-in-the-dark-singing-reindeer boxer drawers that his friend’s daughter-in-law gave him.
He didn’t expect a present and wasn’t disappointed that he didn’t get one. It just reminded him again of that the still-boxed tree that sagged with memories and of his own living room floor covered year after year with his own family’s Christmas wrappings.
After the celebration, the old man drove his battered old truck down icy, snow-driven roads when he came to a stop sign and noticed the decorations of a nearby home. The lawn was a clutter of Christmas images: candy canes, reindeer, elves and a great big Santa whose arm moved back and forth waving to the people passing by. As he slowly surveyed it, he noticed in a corner of the yard was a plastic baby Jesus, nestled in pine straw, alone, probably even placed there as an afterthought and lying in a quickly stapled, pressed-wood manger.
“It doesn’t fit,” the old man thought. “Christmas has come and He is all alone, just like me, except this isn’t His first Christmas alone, is it? I wish I could do something about that,” he said aloud.
The sudden honk of a car behind him startled him out of his daze. He shifted gears, and the truck crept down the road. As he continued to think, it occurred to him that he could do something. He could share his Christmas with Christ, so he began to pray.
“Father, I have looked inward and focused on my own hurt and loss. I’m tired of it. As of this minute, I choose to look upward. Lord, spend Christmas with me. Not as a ceramic nativity on a dusty piano top, but as a person. Watch ball games with me, laugh with me, be near me. The desire of my heart is simply to be with you. Also, will you forgive me? For as I think about it, I realize I’ve left you in the cold more Christmases than not. Forgive me, Lord.”
As the old man prayed, the hurt moved out, and the presence of Jesus, the very person of Christmas, moved in. He started singing at the top of his lungs, and as he did, his joy became complete. Tears rolled down his wind-chapped cheeks as his husky voice croaked through “Joy to the World” and whispered “Silent Night.” Time had not changed, circumstances had not changed; he was still a widower facing his first Christmas alone, but He had changed the old man.
As the old man turned the corner around the block that led to his house, he noticed cars parked out front of his drive. He saw people standing in a shivering huddle outside his door. The sputtering old truck backfired to a stop, and a wave of laughing, great-grandchildren surrounded him. One of his young granddaughters called out “Where have you been, Papa? We’re locked out. We’ve been waiting for an hour!”
The old man laughed inside and out as grandchildren grabbed his legs and demanded to be held. He nestled them close and their hugs and kisses warmed his heart, but in the middle of it all, he made a promise, “Now when this is over, I am not going to forget you, Lord. You’re not going to be left out of the crowd this time, I promise.”
His oldest daughter took the keys from his child-filled hands and opened the door. Her first exclamation was, “Dad, where’s the tree?!”
He turned an embarrassed face toward her and quietly said, “I didn’t want to be reminded of . . .” He paused and then tried again, “It’s just that that old tree sags with memories, and I didn’t want to remember.”
His daughter held him close and said, “Oh Daddy! I know it hurts, but there’s a reason for that. The pain of those memories only marks the presence of the people who made them. People are attached to that pain, and as long as we can feel it we’re somehow still close to them. It hurts because we love. Without that ache, there would be no love; without love, there would be no blessing. Put it up dad and we’ll remember, and we’ll cry together, and then we’ll make some more memories.”
So, the old man sat in his threadbare recliner as the puppy barked and licked the faces of his grandchildren that crawled over him and tore into the packages under the old tree that sagged with memories.