Riley’s two-year old face lit up in delight, as brilliant as the Christmas tree in front of it.
“Oh-kay-kay!” she declared, bestowing her highest compliment.
And with that, the slightly worn plastic tree with its strings of carefully untangled colored lights went from “nice” to “magical.”
The march to Christmas had officially begun.
It’s not the first time we’ve had one of our nieces or nephews nearby as the season got underway. Our nephew Gil was born 10 days before Christmas, after all. But it is the first time we’ve been around one of them at an age where they can begin to notice the change around them, and to start getting excited by it.
I’m not saying the rest of us had become Ebenezer Scrooge, in need of a wallop by four spirits and the crutch of Tiny Tim. Heather and I still love the lights, the music, the people who have clearly not attempted to drive since last December. (OK, maybe not that last one so much.)
But for years, we’ve been the magicians as much as the audience. We’ve got a trick to pull off, and by gosh, we’re going to do it right!
Maybe especially when it comes to lights.
My wife Heather comes by her obsession with Christmas tree lights honestly. It was her father who taught her the importance of making a tree “glow from within,” with the strings of lights carefully balanced and arranged. I don’t know if he also taught her the, ah, special incantations used in achieving this effect, or the ritual invocation of “Next year, we’re getting a pre-lit tree!” but they also seem to be a mandatory part of the experience.
And so, it was with mounting horror that she realized string no. 3 was longer and larger than the first two. So were the others. In the chaos of getting everything untangled, we’d plugged in our two “reserve strands” first, the shorter ones used to finish a tree off without holes.
Apparently this is a sin on the level of ordering Fat Tire at a five-star French restaurant.
“Now it’s going to look all weird!”
“Honey … “
“There are gaps in the lights!”
Oh, yes. I had forgotten the gaps. My failure to pay attention to proper spacing on a rare Christmas when I lit the tree had resulted in an immediate re-decoration that year. (I usually figure that throwing a barrage of ornaments into the branches is enough to paper over any errors, like a freshman pulling his bookshelf over a hole in the wall.)
“It’s going to have too many lights on top and not enough on the bottom,” Heather declared, reviewing it with an artists’ eye. “I’d better unplug that last strand.”
As she reached to unwind the string, Riley protested.
Bring the pretty colors down? Even for a few minutes? No way!
Which, when you think about it, is what this time of year’s about anyway.
Sure, we’ve collectively made it a race to a brightly-wrapped finish line. But that’s not its true heritage. It’s a time set apart, for expectation, for watching, for joy and love and peace of spirit.
And maybe, just for a little while, to stand in wonder and realize the beauty we’re helping to create.
The tree’s lights are still up, gaps and all. Maybe it’s not perfect. But it is magic. A two-year-old told us so.
The same two-year-old who was pressing lights into the carpet as they were plugged in, watching them “glow from within.”
Oh, boy. We may have another artist coming.
But for now, everything is oh-kay-kay.