Season of Light
How a little tree brings big joy
It’s late afternoon. The sun is already down. But there is light.
I drive slowly into my driveway and stop the car. To my right, planted nearly six years ago, along the walkway to the door of our house is a tiny tree, now leafless in the early days of December. Leafless, but not lifeless. It is dormant for the season, but alive, quite alive.
The tree is a dwarf sergeant, a crab apple. It stands no more than six feet tall. In the spring, when it is at its most naturally spectacular, it is adorned in white flowers. But now, in the waning days of autumn, it has another kind of beauty, the kind that may hold far more meaning.
On its pendulous branches, draped and twisted through its woody nest, are tiny colored lights. Simple illuminations symbolizing the time of the year. Besides spotlighting the wreath on our front entrance, this is the only outside sign that our home recognizes the season of light. However, there is more here than mere decoration. The diminutive tree, its barren brown bark radiating under red, green, yellow, and blue lights holds a chest full of memories.
Thomas Edison created the first strand of electric lights. It was the holiday season of 1880. His invention was strung around the outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory, and those traveling by train along the tracks nearby got the first look at the incredible display. It was remarkable. Still, it would be forty years for the idea of lighting the outside of a home with bright electric lights for the holiday season to become a tradition, and to hold the moments of our collective past. Psychologists say the lights of the season can bring joy, make us happy, and not only because they may be lovely to view. What experts believe is that those lights spark the memories other times. They evoke the past emotions, happy or sad and all the ones in between. Emotion is what comes from those lights, a wide range of feelings. Even ones filled with melancholy are a kind of misunderstood joy.
I am keenly aware of this as I sit in my car and stare at the lights out the passenger window. That tiny tree on this night opens up my past, both the recent and the distant.
When we first decorated the tree and neighbors would stop and stare at its simplicity, we thought maybe we had created a sad, sorry sight. It was not the traditional demonstrative display found at other homes on our street. But then one neighbor who frequently walked from the village train station to his home after a day of work in the city revealed to my wife that he had always looked forward to passing our tree as he made his way in the dark back to his family. It made him smile, he said. It gave him joy. It’s like the Charlie Brown tree, he told her. The way it looked after all the Peanuts characters gave it so much holiday love. And on the nights when we had forgotten to turn on the power and the tree was without its lights, he was sad.
We tried never again to forget.
When I was a kid, my father would climb a tall ladder every Christmas to toss bright bulbs across the giant evergreens that grew at the top of hill in the front of our home. He never complained about the tedious and precarious job, doing it every season to bring happiness to my Christmas-obsessed mother who wished each December that she had been living in the time of Charles Dickens.
The tree also triggers a memory of my older son who found deep joy in the art of holiday decorating, helping his mother design the lights that would showcase the front of his boyhood house, meticulously considering just the right colors and display that would evoke the best of the holiday spirit. He now finds the same comfort in decorating his own home.
And then there is me and my own connection to that simple tree. I dug the hole where it lives. I lifted the root ball into place. I tossed in the dirt and the fertilizer around its base. And I tied wire to its trunk, to a stake in the ground, and pulled it taut, to keep it growing straight, even if it did always lean to the left and still does.
For six years the tree has shined over the holiday season. And it shines again. In yet another December. Another illumination of the heart, rediscovering all those memories. But only the good ones will do tonight. Forget the pandemic, the rage of our current politics, the heartbreaking school shootings, the racial divides, the lack of compassion and kindness. None of that matters.
The lights on the little tree are twinkling tonight, and for the moment, all is right with the world.