Strange as it may sound, squinting at the Christmas lights has become one of my favorite Christmas traditions, one I repeat multiple times every year.
Each year, when I squint at the new tree, the lights blur, and so do the years. As the smudged lights melt from the present into the past, I hear and smell, taste and feel every emotion associated with past Christmases.
Suddenly I am five again, squinting at the Christmas tree. It was the year we decorated the tree entirely with homemade ornaments sugar cookie stars and bells, gingerbread men, and popcorn balls patted around candy canes. I can taste the slightly stale sugar cookie that I stole from the lower boughs--the contrast between the high notes of the sweet frosting and the more lower, more mellow cookie.
Or, I could be twelve, staring with great anxiety at the tree and wishing I were five again. I got in trouble the day before Christmas vacation and got sent to the vice-principal’s office. That had never happened before, and now, anxiety consumed me as I struggled to decide when and how to get my parents to sign the paper that detailed my infraction.
I’m back in our married student apartment at BYU, we had a tiny table-top tree on my wife’s large desk. Anticipation crackled through our apartment as finals approached. Just a few more days and we could enjoy several weeks of a break.
Then our two-year old son contracted a terrible virus that put his digestive system into a revolting flurry of constant activity 24/7. He had to go to the E.R. several times for dehydration, and he required very literal round-the-clock care. That’s all my wife and I did for many days. I had to miss my finals, most of which were intensive projects for theatre classes and had to take Incompletes in the classes. So, as everyone left for their vacations, I had a pile of work to do, even once he was better. Between his illness and the stress of my academics, it grew to be a fairly glum holiday.
And then, some neighbors, who had no more money than we did, bought us a tree and dropped it off. Our first real, live tree! We put in a mop bucket and held it upright with some wire attached to the hinges of our closet.
The lights on that tree lit the tiny apartment up as I stayed up late finishing my projects, and their kindness soothed our sore hearts.
Another blink and I’m in New York, typing furiously in an attempt to finish five or six thirty-page papers that serve as the final exams for some of the courses in my doctoral program.
Those blinks and squints transport me to the first Christmas my wife and I spent together, or the next year when we were joined by a colicky baby I rocked all night long singing “Away in a Manger” while wondering if Joseph might have done the same with the little Lord Jesus.
Or the year when a miraculous healing took me out of my wheelchair, gave my life back to me, and returned me to my family. Or the year when Santa showed up, dragging laundry baskets full of presents from kind people who worried that a sick father wouldn’t be able to provide much of a Christmas for his family.
Every year when I feel peaceful or happy and a have a moment I want to remember, I look at the try and squint, imprinting that memory in the queue, to be pulled out in Christmases yet to come.
Last year, I started looking at the reflection of the lights in the new flat-screenTV we got for Christmas—the first flatscreen for us ever, and the first new TV we’ve owned in about ten years. We waited in crazy lines on Black Friday to get it for our kids when the hand-me-down died.
One son was home from college, one was getting ready to graduate. It would be the last Christmas before they went on their missions and moved on with their lives. Watching movies with them over Christmas vacation on that TV became a treasured memory, and when I see the lights painting that screen, I think of them and remember a truly joyful Christmas last year and a very full house.
This year there is more room, as the colicky baby and the son at the E.R. are both out knocking on the doors of strangers, proclaiming the Savior’s birth. The house feels so much larger without them.
When I open my eyes, the lights are still blurry even though I’m no longer squinting. I blink and they are still smudged. The memories seem to have filled my eyes in liquid form, as I remember acts of kindness, and recall trials, and triumphs.
Each one of those blurry lights could represent a specific memory. Small and insignificant on their own, those memories are to my life as the lights are to the tree. Strung together, they push the darkness away, and create great beauty and peace.
Each those experiences, each of those memories, light my soul as surely as those lights illuminate the Christmas tree.
In this regard, I realize that they are not random. Just as there is a pattern to the lights, there is order and a pattern to my memories: loved ones; trials to stretch me; relief from those trials. Each of these is a precious gift from a King, and I realize it was he who strung them all together, creating the beauty that emerges. I understand more than ever the extent to which he walked alongside me on my journey thus far.
As I prepare to celebrate his birthday, I understand more than ever that he is not only the Light of the World. He is also the Light of my life.
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Braden Bell is a husband, father, teacher, and director. The author of The Road Show and The Middle School Magic series, his next book, Luminescence, will be released in March. He blogs at bradenbell.com