When I first read Eugene Peterson’s “The Treeless Christmas of 1939” in The Pastor, I immediately knew it was one of my favorite Christmas essays. As a young boy, Peterson lived in a house with a religious zealot. Of course, he didn’t use those words to describe his mother — only, “an intense woman capable of fierce convictions.” Though loving and well-intentioned and all the things a mother should be, she was also unafraid to take any stand necessary to live a holy life of spiritual growth.
Spiritual growth at the sake of a Douglas fir
In the winter of 1939, zeal for God’s Word consumed the Peterson Christmas tree, after Eugene’s mother read a fateful morning devotional from Jeremiah 10:
Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens Because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false. A tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. Men deck it with silver and gold; They fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.”
There it was in plain sight. The God of the universe, speaking some 2,600 years earlier through the prophet Jeremiah, addressed the 20th century custom of putting up a Douglas fir in the living room, decked out with metallic tinsel. It was all a heinous evil. Even if it wasn’t clear why, it was clear what had to be done. Hours later, the family Christmas tree was removed from the premises. Dragged down the driveway and left for dead on the side of the road, so the whole neighborhood could see. The boy Peterson was humiliated. He was mortified. He stopped inviting friends to his house for fear he would have no way to answer their snide remarks. He hoped no one would notice that his family was the only one on the block without a light-draped tree in the window. All this embarrassment because “Jeremiah had preached his Christmas-tree sermon.” The entire event was so painful, Peterson could not even bring himself to talk about it for many years. And it was only years later that Eugene’s mother would sometimes reference the “silliness” of that Christmas. Long after she had come to her senses, she was able to smile and tease herself over her misguided religious fervor.
Authentic Christmas feelings and the original Christmas story
But an older and wiser Peterson, the biblical scholar who penned The Message translation of the Bible, saw something much different than mere silliness in his mother’s purging of the tree. His experience of Christmas as a 7-year old held for him profound echoes of another time:
The feelings I had that Christmas when I was seven years old may have been the most authentically Christmas feelings I have ever had, or will have: the experience of humiliation, of being misunderstood, of being an outsider.
Authentic Christmas feelings? What is Peterson talking about? We remember the story — you know, all the stuff before the bright star and angels singing and shepherds bowing down.
- When Mary and Joseph must have suffered the humiliation of cultural judgment for her pregnancy out of wedlock. And the sneers when Joseph still had the nerve to marry her.
- When Mary and Joseph faced the isolation and rejection of being told there wasn’t a warm, clean space to have her baby, but only a cold space where cows did their eating.
- In the times that would follow, when they faced the terrifying prospect of going on the run as refugees, like Israel hundreds of years before, fleeing a psychotic, evil ruler.
You know, all those warm Christmas feelings. This year, we are surrounded by a similar story. And just as the visit from the shepherds and the music from the angels would eventually come, we hope joy and peace might come again. But for now, there are many other experiences. Not for everyone, everywhere, but for many people, in most places.
Loneliness. “You’re not allowed to come in here to see your grandmother.” Humiliation. “You need to pack up and leave — you haven’t paid your rent.” Rejection. “I’m sorry, we just aren’t hiring right now.” Fear. “We don’t know if we’ll have work for you in the coming months.” And at times, despair. “We’re so sorry, your father didn’t make it.”
Wrapped in light, clothed with the strength to love us
Jesus understands these feelings well — they enwrapped the first Christmas like lights on a tree. This side of 0 A.D., we also remember, if at times only like a faint whisper, that the Christ child who arrived in humiliation and rejection and as an outsider, also came to bear our shame, and wear it like a swaddle — not warming and securing his life, but enveloping him with vicarious death. When Jesus made his first appearance in a dirty, animal’s feeding trough, we were reminded that our isolation and humiliation and fear and rejection, and yes, even our death, did not have the final word. He came on a mission with the strength to love us. These brutal realities have no lasting sting.