Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

Each year for over 40 years, my suburban church has held a joint Thanksgiving service with a nearby Jewish congregation. The tradition was upended in 2020 by Covid. A joint Zoom service was held instead. But in 2021 we gathered together again. In masks and socially distancing, the joint service was held again.

A few days before the service was scheduled, another member and I came to the church to decorate the communion table. We came prepared with gourds and pumpkins. A cornucopia, fall leaves, and bittersweet garlands were used to signal the harvest and God’s bounty. And when the evening service began I was in my pew ready to give thanks with our two faith communities.

The service proceeded as it always had. The pastor welcomed all who attended. The combined choirs sang. The rabbi gave us her sermon. It was all very wonderful I’m sure. I think. Because, well, I was somewhat distracted. You see as I looked at the Thanksgiving decorations on the communion table I thought I saw something strange.

For there between the fall leaves, alongside the brimming cornucopia was something, I couldn’t quite make out. I squinted in an attempt to see just what was the thing that was nestled in the decorations. Had one of those little jack-o’-lantern flowers somehow turned upside down, and from my somewhat distant pew, make me think it was more than just a flower?

It looked like, a small orange, tiny, toy tiger.

I was sure I was mistaken. Sure, that what I was looking at was just a play of light and color and the need to have my eyeglass prescription checked. Certainly no tiger lurked in the flora and fauna.

The service ended and I waited until the coast was clear before approaching the table for a closer look. Once I was close enough to tuck the bitter sweet garland a little more securely to the table for the next days service, I could see exactly what caused my eyes to play such a trick on me. Up close I could see that, it was, a tiger. A tiny, orange, toy, tiger. There on the be decked communion table this tiger had stood proudly if not too tall, all during the worship service. And it would seem I was the only one who saw him.

The minister was clueless, the rabbi seemed unaware, just me, I was the only one who knew or saw him there. The minister laughed when I told her. We talked about how he probably got up there on the table with the fruit and the vegetables. She thanked me for the decorations. I suggested she retire the tiger before the memorial service scheduled for the next morning.

Thanksgiving is weeks in the rearview mirror now. Christmas is straightahead. But that tiger. I can’t get him out of my mind. Here at my church, we’ve deck the halls with boughs of holly. There are candles and wreaths in our windows. The crèche is on display. But what about the tiger?

Yes my church is decorated, my home is a wash with Christmas sparkle. Maybe your home and house of worship are also dressed in holiday finery. But what about the tiger?

As we worship in face coverings to protect each other, as we scale back or cancel holiday activities we’ve continued to decorate our surroundings. We’re trying to establish that our traditions matter, our holidays are important and they will continue. But what about the tiger?

Sometimes we have to sit in our pew and look really hard, stare if you will, to see the things we must see and recognize. To me that little piece plastic and whimsy is also a reminder. A reminder to look past the decorations and just try to see beyond them. A reminder that the meaning of any holiday can be lost. Thanksgiving itself is often lost in the rush to Christmas. The true gifts of Christmas are easily overlooked in the shopping, the hustle and the bustle that happens even in a worldwide pandemic. Sometimes we have to sit in our pew and look really hard, stare if you will, to see the things we must see and recognize to truly discern Christmas.

A few weeks later the children of the congregation presented their Christmas pageant. Unable to sing due to the Covid protocols, they wore their holiday best and offered their Christmas truth.

Wearing masks they performed as a bell choir. They presented readings about Christmas. And the clever choir Director even had them play percussion instruments in a wonderful rendition of Joy to the World . But to me the true gift of Christmas was this. With only the piano quietly playing and the voices of three adults in the background, the children presented the classic Christmas carol Silent Night in American Sign Language.

Just perfection. A tiger burning bright indeed. I’m just Say’n.

The Empty Bough

Have you decorated for the holidays yet? Do you have favorite ornaments? One of my favorite looked to be spun of pure threads of glass. It was heart shaped, its only embellishment a narrow pink ribbon. It was quite beautiful in its simplicity. But more important to me was its provenance. The ornament wasn’t mine. Rather, it was a gift to my then, eight month old daughter on the occasion of her christening. A dear friend and neighbor so special she served as another grandparent to my older son was the gift giver. It was perfectly beautiful as we hung it on the tree each year over the next 20 years.
And then I broke it.
The ornament simply slipped out of my fingers onto the unforgiving newly refinished floor. The carpet was gone and now the ornament was shattered. I was reminded of that broken ornament again recently when another close friend called to comment on my recent Facebook post. One where I shared the surprise gift of a trip to Chicago to take in the holiday decorations and the Nutcracker ballet all provided by our adult children.
My friend wanted to say how wonderful she thought the gift and the day looked. She did. And then she began to cry. Our day of holiday fun reminded my friend of similar trips she and her late mother had made over the years to celebrate her own December birthday. And it made her sad, Missing her mom, the times they shared before Alzheimer’s took her mother away, years before death parted them. She apologized for her tears not wanting to sadden me too. I told her those tears were well earned and valuable. Just as important as anything else the holidays have to offer.
You see, to my way of thinking (and this is after all my blog) Christmas is complicated. It’s a beautiful time of sparkle and fun. But it also is full of poignant moments. They catch us unaware and can stop us in our tracks.
I was buzzing about busily at my own Christmas party this year. Filling the punch bowl, passing the appetizers when one of my guests caught me off guard with a hug and these words. “I’m so happy to be at your wonderful party again this year. But I’m also thinking of the people who’ve been here in the past who are no longer here for you, and it makes me a little sad.”
Zing. Wow. How did she channel that huge bold truth? It was there in the house with me amid the tree and the decorations and the candles shining brightly. Yes, there were spaces left where beloved folks had been. An older neighbor who always entered with a booming laugh and a giant hug for me. My mother in law sitting quietly, shyly near the tree, my son’s godfather early to arrive and always one of the last to leave.Usually he would be one of several friends at evening’s end sitting, talking eating the last remaining Christmas cookies. Sweet memories.
My friend’s tears for the holidays with her mother, my absent party guests, they are part of Christmas too. Remembering the people who we have loved and who have loved us gives Christmas its depth of color beneath the shiny sparkle. The empty spaces between the boughs are filled with no small amount of longing for what we can no longer see; a parent, a friend, a sibling, a child, a spouse.
They give our tree, our life a dimension, a counter point to the busy rush of the holidays.

In my mind my beautiful Christmas tree will always be missing one special ornament. The space it filled within the branches will always be empty. Not because it was such a lovely ornament but because the love it came with was so dear.
I will miss it forever.
But, I will continue decorating my tree and home each Christmas. Knowing that sometimes the most beautiful decorations shine only in my memory. But shine they do.
And they warm the winter night.
I’m just say’n.