In 1939 Eugene was 7 years old. And his mother decided they would not get a Christmas tree.
She was a woman of conviction and had seen a passage from the biblical book of Jeremiah in a new way:
“Learn not the way of the nations… for the customs of the people are false. A tree from the forest is cut down… Men deck it with silver and gold…”
Eugene’s mom felt this applied directly to their celebration of Christmas—which she thought was divinely displeasing. From too much blending-in, to a national holiday that had lost much of its Christian heritage, to cutting down the tree, to putting up shiny ornaments and glittery what-nots.
Sum it up to distraction.
For Eugene this meant no jumping in to the old Model A pickup with his dad. No 10-mile ride to Lake Blaine to get the perfect Douglas Fir. To Eugene, without a tree, it just didn’t feel like Christmas.
He was embarrassed. Would others think they couldn’t afford a tree? His family already went to church when many others didn’t—so would he now stand out even more? He started to make excuses about why their tree wasn’t in the front window where it always was:
- “My sister has a contagious disease…
- My mother is really mad…
- My dad is too busy…”
Anything to avoid talking about the real reason, a religious reason!—His mom taking a 2600 year-old prophecy and applying it to their modern Christmas with the hope of it becoming more authentic.
His neighbourhood friends Alva and Alan smelled something fishy. But the biggest protest came from his uncle Ernie (who, by the way, said he was an atheist). He really wanted the tree and asked why the family (himself included) had been deprived of their iconic family monument. Eugene’s mother replied calmly:
“No tree this year, brother. Just Jesus.”
But for some reason the next year was different. Back it came.
When the snow flew, Eugene and his dad jumped in the truck and made the 10-mile ride to Lake Blaine to get the perfect Douglas Fir. Order had been restored to his world. Phew.
Eugene has now celebrated over 70 Christmases since then. His mother died 33 years ago, but he wishes he could ask her about her strong convictions in the winter of ‘39. Whatever the particulars, he honours her attempt to keep December “free from the secularizing contamination of a trivializing culture.”
And as Eugene thinks about it now—seasoned with life experience and a mature faith—he senses that those feelings he had as a 7-year old boy were probably the most authentic Christmas feelings he ever had:
- of humiliation
- of being misunderstood
- of being an outsider
After all, Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. Jesus was born into near poverty. There was no room for then in the Inn. The journey goes that direction all the way through. Friendship with “outsiders.” Hating enemies. Generosity beyond reason.
People just didn’t get it. How God acts is often against the stream. What you wouldn’t expect. And for those who follow Jesus, this can make us go against the stream too.
And we feel it.
Eugene calls the Christmas of ’39 “Jesus without tinsel.” I like that.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love tinsel. I also love the smell of Christmas trees, those big multi-coloured lights that you can probably see from heaven, slow-motion snowfall and the internal hug of eggnog.
But I know they’re to help me remember what it’s all about—not hide it.
Have you noticed that in our time having a faith-based celebration makes you stand out more and more? I have. But I don’t consider that a problem. It’s a privilege. Join me in thinking about it that way.
In our standout-ish-ness I feel closer to the holy family—stripping away shallow jovialism, jingly bells, and the centrality of Boxing Day sales, and turning again to a profound simplicity. God getting close in a place we wouldn’t expect to change our lives in ways we wouldn’t expect.
For the healing of the world. On earth as it is in heaven.
The God of the galaxies manifesting in the womb of a girl—showing the path back to the Father’s heart. There’s something worth celebrating.
The story of 7-year old Eugene is from Eugene Peterson’s memoirs called The Pastor.