Every Black Friday my family has a tradition of getting together and doing family-ish things. This means ushering fall to the exit and welcoming in the Christmas season by gobbling up the Thanksgiving leftovers (and then packing up the leftover-leftovers for my brother and I to take home), getting a tree, setting it up and decorating it.
Now, decorating our tree does not mean simply adorning it with generic store-bought orbs and candy canes which have about as much sentimental value as a handout from one of those petitioners on the sidewalk. Each Christmas morning, my brother and I must go to the tree and find that year’s ornament. It’s getting harder and harder the older we get, as there are more places for it to hide and blend in among the overflow of decor.
Each year’s ornament has something to do with a big event which happened in our lives that year.
Each year, we take our memories and hang them on the tree.
I pulled from my ornament box a little hammer and looked at the bottom of it. In Sharpie:
I must have started my first job that year at ACE Hardware. I remember the miserable nights vacuuming all over the old shop on Cape Cod and my boss who was wrinklier than I thought a human being could be. I took that year and hung it on the tree.
The next ornaments I pulled out were a papier-mâché elephant and a miniature globe. Oddly, they both had the same thing scrawled across their bottoms:
Of course that was the first year I was with the missions organization YWAM and hit up Australia, India, New Zealand and rode elephants through the jungles of Thailand. I vaguely remember my mother saying something about how she couldn’t decide so she just bought me two that year.
I think about the adventures of that year as I hang them on the tree.
Then there was ’07—a car—for the year I got my driver’s license. And I hang it too on the tree.
I find two Batman’s in my box, because for a while I was reallllly into comic books. I make the one flap his cape with the little pull cord, then hang them on the tree.
There is the construction paper star, slopped with glitter and a round polaroid picture of me in the middle from Sunday School.
I hang Ethan ’92 on the tree as I think about those innocent years so long ago.
It’s fascinating to have each one of these years summed up in a single object, light enough to hang from the branch of an evergreen. So much happens over the course of 365 days, yet it seems like every year my mother and father were able to sum them all up perfectly in these ornaments.
You all can guess it. My mom had been struggling to find one for me until December 13th of that year. I hold that year’s ornament in my hand: It’s a laminated photo the size of a baseball card with a silver cord looping from the two top corners. The bottom says “Shirtless running guy. Internet sensation!” and the photo is a still of me in the rain talking to a newscaster.
“Good thing that happened because I couldn’t figure out what to do for your ornament!” she had said.
Today as I piled these little objects packed with so many memories onto the tree, I marveled at how incredible it is that each year, rather than diminishing, my connection with them seems to grow. Each year, I open up the same cardboard box filled with my little handfuls of memorabilia. One (or two) for each year of my life. I slide backward and forward through time.
In some ways, it’s one of the best and most consistent documentations of my life.
I take these reminders, hold them in my hands, and hang them on the tree.
If I let my mind wander too much into the fog of nostalgia while adorning the tree, I begin to recall more about each year.
The moves across the country,
the friends gained and lost,
the introduction of a new addiction or insecurity,
the spark of a new hobby,
and I hang them on the tree.
It’s a way of remembering and recognizing the past. The American version of an Ebenezer or cairn.
Just as God instructed the Israelites throughout scripture to make altars so that they would remember the past, my family’s Christmas tree serves as a reminder to me of His faithfulness to us over the years.
Because each year was marked with just as much bad as it was good. Each year contained some events we’d be better off forgetting, but haven’t been able to shake. Sins and pains. Deaths and illnesses. And as I adorn the tree, I symbolically hang those events on the tree just as much as the happy ones.
“Remember,” God says to the Israelites, “what I’ve done here this day. Tell it to your children and their children.”
But, like us, the Israelites often forget. They lose faith and wander astray from the One who brought them out of Egypt and worked wonders for them.
They sin and chase other lovers. Just like we do.
So, roughly 2,000 years ago, God came down to set things straight. To help us remember and to take the events of the past, the good and the bad,
and hang them on a tree.
Moving into this season, we remember the One who descended to us so that we may ascend to Him.
We remember the One who forgets our pasts.
He takes not only our bad and wicked deeds, but even the good ones we do to try to impress Him,
and hangs them on a tree.
And as we progress forward in time, to future Christmases and Thanksgivings and Halloweens, He has already hung them on the tree as well.
He takes Ethan 2008 (the year I taught myself guitar, marked by a miniature version of the instrument…but also the year we moved from Massachusetts to Colorado and I had to end the romance of an adolescence because of it), and hang it on His tree. All the pain of that year, along with all the sins and twisted desires, are now hung on a tree outside Jerusalem.
Because somewhere along the line, God decided that it wasn’t good enough for us to simply remember His faithfulness, but He wanted to take action. To get some skin in the game.
So He took our entire lives. The good, the bad, and the ugly,
and He hung them on a tree.
And they are still there, but He’s not. This God of ours is big enough to take ours pasts and crucify them, to destroy them and leave them there on that tree after taking them into Himself. But He didn’t stay there with them. He left them in His divine rearview mirror and forgot about them.
So as we move into this Advent season, when God entered our physical reality, let’s not only remember our own pasts, the good and the bad. The things we miss and the things which bring us down. As we decorate our own evergreens, let’s remember the One who traded places with us and hung on a tree in our place.