When I was a teenager, I was a member of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. As with all churches, the highlight of the year was the Christmas celebration. For us, this included the annual decorating of the tree.
The congregation planned for months. The format was always the same. Our priest read the Christmas story – from Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, to arriving at the stable filled with animals, to the birth of Jesus, to the arrival of the Three Wise Men. As the story progressed, we listened for our cues and, when it was our turn, we proceeded to the massive tree by the altar to hang homemade ornaments. Once the story was over and the tree was bedecked in all its glory, we sang hymns and rejoiced in our shared fellowship.
In 1976, the year Lori attended this beloved service with my mother and me, we were asked to make two angels and the crown jewel, the baby Jesus. My mother took this honor seriously. To the craft store we went, up and down the aisles, hunting and searching. Mom was on a mission, and she’d be damned if anything would stop her from displaying her strong religious faith and her artistic talents. We arrived home; our arms were laden with heavy cardstock, colored pencils, markers of varying thickness, new scissors, feathers, glitter, and a sheet of gold leaf.
Mom looked through old books and children’s Christmas stories, hunting for models for her designs. No, she wouldn’t copy or trace or rip off anyone else’s creations. She was too much of a purist for that. This was the woman who handmade every Halloween costume I’d ever worn. This was the woman who had baked and decorated every one of my birthday cakes. She doodled while on the telephone; she crafted stained glass treasures for gifts; and, she created magnificent bouquets of flowers, each petal made of twisted wire dipped in liquid plastic, dried, then assembled into lilies, roses, and orchids. My baton twirling outfits were of crushed velvet and bedazzled with rhinestones and pearls. Hell, no. This year’s Christmas ornaments were going to be showstoppers, she determined.
The patterns were drawn, nearly a foot high, and laid carefully to the cardstock. The new, razor-sharp scissors precisely hugged every turn and sharply snipped each corner. With a pencil, Mom sketched in the details of the angels’ faces, with wide eyes and rosebud lips, then colored brilliantly with markers. The plump, baby Jesus was in a manger, a crown angled impossibly on his head.
The finished products were magnificent. Scraps of shimmery white gossamer, leftover from an old project, had become angelic robes. Feathers crafted wings. Long, acrylic hair, cut from discarded dolls – one blond, one dark – had been attached to their cardboard heads, parted in the middle in front and flowing nearly to their feet in back.
And, little Jesus – what a triumph! Real hay had been glued inside the manger and, on his head, the crown shimmered with gold leaf. He was pink-cheeked and cherubic, a nod to the Gerber baby. Crafted in loving detail, you could almost hear him gurgle with joy as the angels sang.
Lori and I could barely contain ourselves as we waited for the big day. We filed into church, proudly holding Mom’s masterpieces, but we couldn’t help noticing what the others had made. Skimpy hand-drawn images on paper – colored only on one side, some curling at the bottom – were so pathetic that we found it difficult to hide our ridicule. But, we were in church, after all, so we smiled graciously to the others, reveling in their naked envy.
Entering the nave, we gasped when we saw this year’s tree. It rose higher and higher, reaching toward Heaven in the rafters of the cathedral ceiling. We took our seats, jittery with anticipation for the service to begin. As the priest read the Christmas story, families and friends rose to walk down the center aisle toward the towering tree to hang their ornaments. We followed along in the program, waiting for our turn. At last, it came.
Mom, Lori, and I rose as one, paused as we entered the aisle to allow everyone the chance to see our extraordinary ornaments. A sprinkle of glitter from my dark-haired angel fell like fairy dust as I held her high for those in the back to admire. Lori, with the blond angel, did a similar sweep. But, Mom took the lead as she was carrying the most precious of all. Like a bride approaching her awaiting groom, Mom proceeded reverently toward the front of the church. There were whispers and smiles of appreciation for the gold-crowned baby she held delicately in her hands. Lori and I followed at a respectful distance, our angels reaping equal admiration.
When we reached the front of the church, we turned to face the congregation and, once more, raised our ornaments high for all to see. Then, Lori went to one side of the tree to hang hers while I went to the other. Mom, holding the heart of the entire event, moved to place hers front and center. I struggled to secure my angel to the branch I’d chosen and began searching for a new one. As I reached to loop my angel’s hanger over the pine needles, it moved away from me and, simultaneously, I heard someone from the back of the room yell, “Timber!”
I watched in mixed horror and fascination as that colossal tree tipped, almost in slow motion, toward the congregation. Suddenly, Lori was staring at me, wide-eyed and mouth gaping, over the branches of the fallen tree. I think my face must have mirrored her shock, but then she began laughing. Lori has an infectious laugh that makes it impossible not to join in. Plus, we were fourteen. We found everything funny at that age. We were nearly doubled-over in hysterics.
The priest rushed forward to help Mom out from underneath. She crawled from where she’d been trapped, pine needles sticking at all angles from her hair, a sprinkling of glitter across her fiery red face. Lori and I looked at each in momentary panic as Mom was helped to her feet. But, when she yelled, “Goddammit, Lori! You pushed the tree over!” we pressed our hands to our mouths to hold the laughter back.
The entire church was silent except for the echo of Mom’s words. As we slunk back toward our pew, I glanced left and right from beneath my lowered lashes to see that no one was admiring us now. In fact, they deliberately avoided looking in our direction. As some helpful people at the front of the church worked furiously to right the tree, we kept right on going past our seat and headed out the back door. That was the last time we participated in the yearly Christmas story tradition at our church.