This year my family decided to forgo the traditional, natural Christmas tree we put up every year in December. It didn’t seem to make sense to pay what would feed a Lebanese family for a month over a plant we would put up for two weeks. It also didn’t make sense to place it right next to our broken cabinet. After the explosion this summer, we’d just about put back our windows in time for Christmas but some of the furniture was still broken. As were our hearts.
So much has happened this year. As Lebanese, we battled an unknown, invisible yet powerful enemy with the rest of the world, but we also battled with our own. Our beautiful country, which had started a slow, downward spiral since its inception, continued on a steeper slope in 2020 as more and more people were separated from their dreams, their livelihoods, their loved ones and in August, from their homes. The August explosion was, in the words of a dear friend, just the watermelon on the cake.
So it seemed wrong to celebrate. Wrong to bring back the tree as if nothing had happened. Wrong to spend what would feed a family for a month on a plant. And yet, not having a tree of my own to admire made me notice and appreciate all the others. In the darkness of the country, the few lights on the trees shone even brighter. In the absence of traffic lights, the Santas hanging on the street poles lit the way.
My mother did not put up a tree either. We usually buy them together. She didn’t put up a tree because she was not having the huge family gathering she traditionally has on Christmas Eve. No children, no grandchildren and no Christmas photos. But she still made and distributed Christmas cake and has offered to make and stuff a turkey for each of her children celebrating alone, or in smaller gatherings.
It felt wrong to buy a tree on my own.
I almost lost my eldest son in the August explosion. Miraculously he wasn’t even hurt. He was in the wrong place at the right time. Many whom I know were not so lucky. Many whom I know lost loved ones or are now having to tend to their injuries.
It felt wrong to buy a tree when so many were hurt and others were mourning.
And yet, in the absence of a tree, I have felt Christmas more than ever this year. This may not be a time for loud celebration but it was a time for gratitude. Gratitude for being in good health, gratitude to be surrounded by loved ones, even if virtually in some cases. Gratitude for having choices. Gratitude for being able to admire other Christmas trees. Our gifts this year are not under the Christmas tree, they are all around and they have come in many shapes and sizes.
For years, worried about the material trumping the spiritual, I have been trying to explain to my boys that Christmas was not about gifts and stress and running around, it was not about parties and clothes, but about togetherness, music, love and taking care of one another. I think now they understand. The use of trees for decoration apparently started in pagan times with Europeans bringing in branches of fir and holly and mistletoe to decorate their homes and brighten their spirits during the bleak winter. In Lebanon, despite the surrounding gloom, the sun still shines quite brightly. Maybe this year, to celebrate, we’ll buy a lemon tree after Christmas.