A Christmas Tree at Easter?

Her family had a long tradition of celebrating the holiday whenever their military men came home.

by
- Posted on Oct 25, 2019

ILLUSTRATION BY BECCA STADTLANDER

“Welcome to our home!” I was always happy to greet people at the bed-and-breakfast my husband, Larry, and I had run for years in Phoenix, but this weekend I was especially cheerful. The couple in front of me—our only guests at the moment—could tell, I was sure of it.

“The place is beautiful,” the woman said. She let her eyes wander around the foyer. When she got to the Christmas tree in the corner, she frowned in confusion. “Is that…?” There was nothing unusual about our tree. Just a sturdy pine strung with lights. Ornaments hanging from the branches. Our special 25-year-old silver angel in a blue dress with silver stars at the top. Piles of wrapped presents around the bottom.

Well, maybe there was one thing that was unusual about the Christmas tree in our house. This couple had arrived the week before Easter. “We’re having Christmas late this year,” I explained. “My son David’s been deployed to Iraq. He’s coming home this weekend. We didn’t want to celebrate Christmas without him.”

Once they understood, our guests agreed that the tree made perfect sense. They’d made their reservations way in advance, and I couldn’t cancel when we got the news about David. I just hoped they wouldn’t mind sharing our attention with him. While the couple got settled in their room, I gave the tree a good onceover. The presents underneath were scattered among needles that had dropped over the past four months. I didn’t sweep them up. I wanted to remember every day we’d waited. Just as I’d waited all those years ago.

My own father had been in the military. The year I was eight he was stationed in England for nine months. My mother, brother and sister, and I remained at home in California. I would never forget the early December day when Mom sat us down and told us Daddy wouldn’t be home for Christmas. “We should all be together for Christmas,” my sister argued.

“I know,” Mom said, adjusting my baby brother on her lap. “Families should be together at Christmas—if they can. That’s why our Christmas is going to wait until he gets home.”

“Huh?” I said. How could Christmas wait?

“We’re not going to have Christmas dinner, and we’re not going to open our presents. We’re going to leave the tree just the way it is until he walks through that door. What do you girls think?” My brother squirmed on Mom’s lap. I imagined my father coming home to the surprise, and could hardly wait to see his face. We were all in on Mom’s plan.

All these years later my husband and I had had the same talk with our six-year-old granddaughter, Shelby. I told her the story of how I once waited for her great-grandfather to come home. “I want to wait too!” Shelby declared. Christmas had passed without a new doll or baby carriage, but she remained resolute. My mother and two daughters came over to help us set up. We rented a helium tank to make an arc of balloons and unrolled 150 yards of yellow ribbon to decorate the trees on our property. “We’ll decorate every one!” Shelby said.

“Can’t have too many decorated trees at Christmas,” Larry said.

Just then I noticed our guests on the sidelines. “We want to help,” the woman said. It seemed the couple considered themselves lucky to be here to welcome home a soldier. They tied more yellow bows on the trees than I did!

The next day Shelby, Larry and I drove to the airport to pick up David. Shelby threw herself into his arms. When we arrived home, he got out of the car and gazed in amazement.

“The ribbons are for you, Daddy!”

Shelby said, pointing out the ones she had tied herself. Finally she took his hand and pulled him toward the house. Long ago my family had all been gathered around the brittle, brown Christmas tree when my own dad walked in, dressed in his uniform, his B-4 bag slung over his shoulder. He saw the tree, dropped his bag and fell to one knee. I ran to hug him and saw that he was crying. “Surprise!” I’d said. “We waited for you for Christmas!”

Now I opened the front door to my own home. Shelby led the way to the tree. My son stared at it and gathered his daughter in his arms. “You waited,” he said to me. “Like you waited for Grandpa.”

Of all the Christmases of my childhood, it was the one we waited for the longest that I remembered best. I knew Shelby would have her own homecoming memory to carry with her forever. The year God’s Christmas promise came true at Easter.

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