By Rev. Josh Pawelek and the UUS:E Youth Group, With Poems by Molly Vigeant
“I don’t want to have a tree this year,” said Mom. “I just don’t.”
And that was the end of it. No more discussion. “No whining, no moaning, no complaining. Please respect my wishes,” she said, her voice shaking slightly around the edges.
Emily and Emry understood. They’d just learned that their dad’s tour of duty had been extended. Four more months in Afghanistan. They still didn’t know why, though they knew it had happened to other families over the years. The bottom line was Dad would not be home for Christmas.
Emry had burst into tears when mom shared the news. When Emily tried to comfort him he yelled at her and ran down the hall to his room, slamming the door behind him. Then he did something that made him feel even worse. He smashed his prized possession, a fully in-tact turtle shell—sun-bleached white—which he had found in a pond two years ago on a camping trip with Dad. He smashed it into so many tiny pieces he’d never be able to glue it back together.
Emily stared at Mom. Mom stared back with that “don’t stare at me” look on her face.
“I’m sorry honey. Not this year. I can’t do it. Don’t worry. Santa won’t forget you. You’ll get your presents. But I can’t do Christmas without your father. I’m just not there. I don’t have the energy.” Then she started to cry. “I’m sorry honey.”
Emily felt a knot forming in her stomach. She walked down the hall to Emry’s room and knocked gently on the door.
“Go away,” said Emry angrily.
“Alright, fine,” said Emily, matching his tone.
Emily left the house. It was cold. She could see her breath. She walked, heading more or less over to her friend Jocelyn’s house. She liked to walk when she felt sad. Walking helped clear her mind. It made her feel a little more balanced. She told herself she didn’t really care if there were no tree. She knew it took a lot of effort and, at least in their family, getting the tree was something Dad did. He made it fun. If Mom didn’t want to do it this year, it was understandable.
But the tree was the least of her worries. Four more months in a war zone. Anything could happen in four months. And Dad had already had some close calls. Two actually. Mom hadn’t told Emry, but she had confided in Emily. Dad’s camp had been shelled twice—once in July, once just a month ago in late October. All she wanted was for Dad to make it home safely. She wasn’t sure she could endure four more months of worrying. In addition to the knot in her stomach, she felt a lump in her throat. She was glad to be alone for a little while.
Poem “Four Months”
I guess I’ll be strong
Even if it feels wrong.
I guess I’ll take care of everyone else
Just like you,
Because it’s all I can do
With Christmas alone.
Not even a tree
To make it feel like home
One week before Christmas Mom was still serious about no tree and no decorations. “If we put up a tree, it will just make us more sad that Dad isn’t here,” she’d told Emry fourteen times already. Emily didn’t see it that way—she thought a tree would make them happier. But she had stopped trying to convince Mom otherwise. She was missing Dad, and she was anxious. They all were. So, she also didn’t have the energy to argue about a Christmas tree. She was resigned to having a very non-traditional holiday season.
“Maybe Mom’s right,” she said one day after school, while she was watching Emry before Mom came home from work.
“She isn’t right. She’s dead wrong,” said Emry.
“Try to see it her way,” said Emily, but she knew she didn’t sound very convincing. Emry looked like he was about to cry. Sometimes it made Emily mad when Emry cried, but today she felt really sorry for him. She wanted to do something for him, like pick him up and cuddle him, the way she used to when he was younger, but he was a little big for that now.
Then suddenly Emry’s look changed. Some new idea was percolating around in his head.“Maybe we should pray,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Because it might work.”
“Well, it might make Christmas work . . . for us.”
“Ummm, OK,” said Emily. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Let’s pray.”
They were silent for a moment. Emily looked at Emry. Emry looked at Emily.
“Well? Go,” Emry finally said to his sister.
“Go? Go what?”
“I thought you were gonna do it. I don’t know how? What should I say?”
“I don’t know, you’re the teenager.”
Emily was stumped for a moment.
“You mean like ‘Now I lay me down to sleep?’”
“No, that’s a bed-time prayer. That’s not what I had in mind.”
“Well, that’s the only prayer I know. I don’t know any afternoon prayers. And I don’t know any Christmas prayers. I don’t even know who I’m praying to.”
“How about God?”
Emily thought about this for a moment. She was a pretty hardcore atheist. Helping her brother had its limits. “Emry, I don’t know if I can do that.”
“It’s easy, just say, ‘Dear God’ and then ask for what you want.”
“I’m pretty sure that won’t work.”
“It works for me. That’s how we got turkey on Thanksgiving.”
“You prayed for turkey on Thanksgiving?”
“Yep. It was good, too. Didn’t ya think?”
“But we were already going to have turkey.”
“That’s because I prayed for it last July.”
“Oh. Hmm. Did you pray for candy on Halloween?”
“That’s a great idea. I shoulda thought of that.”
“But you got all sorts of candy on Halloween without praying for it.”
“But I coulda got more. Mr. Henderson probably would’ve been less stingy.”
“I’m really not sure that’s how prayer is supposed to work.”
“Sure it is.”
“Ok, well,” said Emily, changing her tone, “I pray for all the leaves to fall off the trees.”
“They already did,” said Emry, smiling.
“Well, then I pray for all the leaves to be raked up.”
“We raked ‘em all last week.”
“Yeah, I guess that was a pretty good prayer I just said, wasn’t it?” She smiled. Emry started to giggle. He hadn’t giggled in so long.
“I pray for the pine trees to stay green all winter long!” He shouted out with joy!
“Nice,” said Emily. “That’s a good one. I pray for the ponds to freeze.”
“They’re already frozen!” shouted Emry with pure glee!
“That’s the power of prayer!” proclaimed Emily.
“Cheesy Christmas music!” shouted Emily.
“I pray to see cheesy Christmas lights and plastic Santas all over the neighborhood.” “And ridiculous plastic reindeers!”
“And ridiculous plastic snowmen with snow-globe bellies.”
“Ask and you shall receive,” laughed Emily.
“I pray for a Christmas Tree,” smiled Emry.
Emily was silent. She didn’t want his hopes to be dashed, but she didn’t feel very confident that a tree would be coming, no matter how hard they prayed. But she decided to continue with the game. “I pray for a tree too,” she said.
“I pray to keep feeling like I feel right now, full of joy,” Said Emry.
“Now that’s the best prayer I’ve heard yet,” said Emily.
“You have any more?” asked Emry.
“Yeah, I pray for Dad to be safe.”
“That’s a really good prayer. You know what else I pray for?” said Emry.
“I pray for Mom to be happy for the holidays.”
Mom came home soon after that. “What are you guys doing?”
“Praying,” said Emry.
“Oh, how’s that workin’ for ya?”
“Pretty good, actually,” smiled Emry.
“I’m gonna go for a walk,” said Emily. Before she left she gave Emry a big hug.
Poem, “One Week Before Christmas”
One week before Christmas
And still no tree
Only the memory
Of where it used to be
One week before Christmas
Without my dad
But I don’t feel alone
I miss my father,
But we’re family too
And you’ve got to do
What you’ve got to do,
Please just know
I love you so
I bet you already know how this story ends. Emry’s prayer worked. You saw that coming, right? They did get a Christmas tree. You see, Emry was a very talented artist. So, he painted a tree with water colors. A big one. And on Christmas Eve he tacked it to the wall in the living room near where their real Christmas tree usually went. He winked at his sister and said, under his breath, “that’s the power of prayer.” Emily winked back.
Mom loved it. It broke her heart in a good way. It made her smile, a real genuine mom smile—and she had a great smile. Emry could tell she loved the tree because he hadn’t seen her smile like that since before the night they learned Dad wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas.
On Christmas Eve they were scheduled to Skype with Dad at 10:00 PM. It was great to see him and talk to him. The connection was good that night. It was already Christmas Day in Afghanistan, and Dad was looking forward to a wonderful turkey dinner in a few hours.
“I think I prayed for that too,” whispered Emry to Emily. She nudged him in the ribs. They took the laptop over to Emry’s tree so Dad could see it. “That’s really great, Emry,” said Dad. “You’re an awesome artist. Don’t let Mom rip it down. Santa still needs to know where to put your presents…. Huh, what’s that light in the front yard?”
“What do you mean?” said Mom. It didn’t make any sense because the laptop wasn’t facing the window, so Dad couldn’t actually see the front yard. But, sure enough, there was a pale, red light shining through the window. Mom, Emily and Emry went to see what it was. Wouldn’t you know it? It was a Christmas tree. A real one. Someone, or someones, under the cover of darkness, had decorated the big pine tree in front of the house with hundreds of lights from bottom to top—red, green, blue, white. It was beautiful.
And then they heard singing. They went to the front door and out onto the porch. Standing in front of the tree seemed to be every neighbor and friend they had—Jocelyn was there; Mr. Henderson was there—singing at the top of their lungs, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Something beautiful was breaking through the sadness each of them carried in their hearts. The best word to name that something beautiful is joy.
“Merry Christmas. I love you guys,” said Dad when it was time to hang up.
“We love you too Daddy,” said Emry.
“Keep writing your poems Em.”
“I will Daddy.”
“Stay safe,” said Mom.
“I will. Good night.”
There are many things in our lives that will make us sad. Sadness is inescapable. And when it comes, it can be disruptive; it can be debilitating. It can lead us to not want to do what we might normally do. The message of this story is not that you shouldn’t be sad. There are times, when it is really important to be sad. The message of this story is that even when we are sad, if we stay open to the world, to family and friends, to hope, to whatever it is we long for, whatever it is we yearn for—if we stay open—moments of joy will come. Maybe they’ll feel like miracles. Maybe they’ll feel like the answers to prayers. And maybe not. But joy will come. Stay open friends. Joy will come.
Poem, “Joy Can Be Found”
Joy can be found
on the worst days,
in the waks of huricanes
and when you make a mistake
everyone makes mistakes
no matter the kind
you’ll be just fine.
that you look to the blue skies,
hiding behind the gray clouds,
there’s joy in this world,
and it’s deep down in every soul,
you are alive,
you have survived
everything this far,
even if some memories have left scars.
You are worth everything to someone
and I hope to yourself.
Joy is here.
in every laugh,
every blue sky
and ray of sunshine,
even the ones hiding behind clouds.
life goes on.