A Christmas Story of Firsts
Silent Night, By Carla M. Zwahlen, written December 2003, Published 2009, Won Honorable Mention 2011 Winning Writer’s International Competition
|Buying a Christmas tree, I reminded myself, was not going to get any easier no matter how long I procrastinated.|
I lost track of how many times I’d passed the tree lot without stopping. I could not miss the display. It stood next to the post office where I picked up my mail every day.
Six months ago, cancer stole my beautiful husband from me. As the cutting edge of loss clipped the threads that bound me to Werner, I isolated one of loss’s blatant characteristics: Firsts. Doing things for the first time without Werner.
As the minutes ticked away, these Firsts automatically laced themselves throughout my everyday steps. Even though some were easier than others to get through, I felt the jagged-edged hole that Werner’s death left in my life. Even the smallest things he did for me, the ones I took for granted, became a confrontation with loss.
Buying the Christmas tree was especially difficult; I feared the emotional encounter awaiting me at the tree lot. I worried and argued with myself, until a quiet voice in my head reminded me, Christmas Eve is nearly here. The thought of telling my family there would be no tree this year bothered me.
By itself, the evergreen was not special. But enveloping it was a thirty-three-year-old Swiss tradition that Werner and his sons, Stefan and Jurg, carried out – a ritual they anticipated. In all those years, I had never selected or bought the tree.
I drove to the lot.
I took a deep breath, stepped out of my car, and walked between the rows of balsam and spruce. The heavy, woodsy aroma caught me and lifted me to another time and another row of trees years earlier, when Stefan was only three.
Stefan had insisted on carrying the big shovel and struggled to hold the fat handle in his hands. He dragged it through tall field grass and into the forest. Every few steps, the shovel slipped from his tiny grasp and slid to the ground. He stopped, picked it up, and marched on toward his important mission – choosing a little balsam for his dad.
Stefan examined each tree, while I told him about the Christmases of Werner’s childhood in Switzerland. “Santa Claus does not visit the Swiss children’s homes.” Stefan frowned at the thought. “However, a week before Christmas, on Saint Nicholas day, the Swiss children receive chocolate and special cookies to eat. They save Christmas Eve just for the celebration of Jesus’s birth.” Stefan’s face brightened.
I told him how his dad’s family visited the forest to find their tree. When Christmas Eve arrived, they placed the little balsam in their living room and decorated it with oranges and homemade ornaments. They clipped candle holders onto the branch tips and placed short tapers into each one.
“After dinner they sang carols,” I told Stefan, “and each person helped light the candles. Once all the candles burned bright, they sang ‘Stille Nacht.’ It reminded them that Jesus is the true light and savior in a dark world.”
Stefan chose a three-foot balsam while he listened to my story. With help from me, he dug into the dirt and wrested the tree from the ground. We nestled the root-ball into the black nursery pot I carried. At home, we hid the tree behind the woodshed and hoped it remained a secret until Christmas Eve.
The day before Christmas, we waited until Werner went to work and, like two jolly conspirators, we decorated the tree. We looped red and white paper chains around the needles, hung the little white candles on the branch tips, and hid the tree again. Stefan worked hard to contain his excitement while he waited to present his dad with a “Swiss Christmas tree.”
That evening, Stefan and I slipped from the house and gathered the tree we had decorated in the colors of Switzerland. We placed it on the big granite step outside the front door, lit the candles – and hoped the wind did not snuff them out.
Candlelight danced against the darkness and illuminated the big smile on Stefan’s face. We pounded on the door and shouted, “Merry Christmas!”
Werner opened the door and gaped at the two of us standing there. When his eyes rested on the candlelit tree, a smile spread across his face and reached far into that holy Christmas night.
Every year after our first “Swiss Christmas Eve,” Werner, Stefan, and Jurg carried a tree from the forest and set it in our big solar greenhouse. On Christmas Eve, family and friends gathered for a special dinner and carols while we lit candles on the tree.
Candlelight danced up and down the long windows and spread across each smiling face. For a moment, when all the candles burned, the room hushed. And then the caroling began.
When the last strains of “O Tannenbaum” faded, Werner’s clear baritone lifted up the notes of “Stille Nacht”, his gift to us.
But now Werner was gone and I had to accomplish my task alone.
After some consideration, I chose a fat balsam. How will I ever lift this tree onto my car roof? I worried.
I hardly finished the thought when the owner of the tree lot approached. “You are not going to put this tree on your car. I will call my husband to have him deliver it to your house.”
It was a small town. People knew.
“Thank you,’ I said aloud, even as I sent a silent thanks to God for sheltering me from the experience of carrying the tree home alone.
Christmas Eve arrived with the tree in its place. Family and friends gathered for a special dinner. Later we sang as we lit the candles. We rejoiced and remembered the first still and holy night, when God sent his only Son to be our light in this dark world. The birth of Jesus centered us on our first Christmas celebration without Werner.
Candlelight flickered against glass and spread its glow across the faces of family and friends. The room hushed, but no one sang “Stille Nacht.” Instead, we stood for a moment of silence, each person not ready yet for that First.
Perhaps next year…..
Epilogue: Many years have passed since the year of my Firsts. Now my grandchildren sing for me in German, Oh Tannenbaum, and many other favorite Carols.
For many Christmas Eve’s I have had the privilege and joy to sit at the piano to play the music for all the people who gather in the sanctuary to celebrate.
Each year I see the magic and the mystery in the faces aglow in the candles they hold while the sound of their voices joined together sing Silent Night to remember the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes on that High and Holy Night. The First Christmas so long ago.