First Christmas tree bears lasting memories

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Married for all of six months, it was our first Christmas together, but with none of our customary surroundings of the season.

We were in our first year with the Peace Corps and were teaching school in southern Turkey. Family and friends with whom we would usually share the holiday were thousands of miles away.

Since then, we’ve had 44 more Christmases. Buried away in our photo albums are pictures of many gaily trimmed trees. Each brings forth a memory. There are photos of family and friends beside those trees, of colorful wrapped gift packages underneath, of trees that are well-remembered for various sentimental and humorous reasons.

When possible, amid all the activity that often surrounds Christmas, we like to find some quiet moments to sit by the fireplace, look over at the tree and reflect on the season — both current and past. But, there’s no picture of our first tree.

That year, Christmas was just another work day. Our first months together were spent adjusting to life and work in a different culture. In a predominately Muslim culture, there were no signs of Christmas. No lights, no holiday music, no family with which to share the season.

The walk home from teaching school was a pleasant experience on sunny days. Across an old Byzantine bridge, past a little bakery with its fresh-baked aroma, often a stop at a riverside tea garden and a view of the remains of a castle looking down on us from a distant hill.

But not that Christmas day. The weather was dreary, chilly and rainy. The students would rather have been somewhere else. And, truth be told, so would we.

As the cold rain poured down, the wind across the bridge brought more rain at an angle that our shared umbrella could not adequately deflect. We felt pretty much like the weather — miserable.

Our holiday plans were pretty limited. Get inside, get dry, light a fire in the stove to warm up. Figure out what to cook for dinner and review lesson plans for the next day. Somewhere in that mix were plans to exchange small gifts.

Peering ahead from under the umbrella, we saw a neighbor’s 10-year-old daughter by their front door. She, too, held an umbrella. But, in her other hand was a scrawny pine tree about 2 feet tall, with its roots dangling down. Throughout the tree were little tufts of cotton. As we approached, she ran up, handed us the tree with a huge smile, and said joyfully in well-rehearsed English “Happy Christmas.”

We didn’t notice the pouring rain any longer. Feeling warm no longer required a fire in the stove.

I don’t recall how we got that tree to stand upright. I do recall that dinner felt more festive, and that our gift exchange was around that tree. And, that our first Christmas together started with sitting by a fire, watching the Christmas tree and thinking about the season.

For many of us, Christmas is a special time to think about love and kindness, and to remember God’s love and grace in our lives.

As we’ve sat by the many Christmas trees that followed that first one, I’m often reminded that it was a little Muslim girl reaching out to a couple of strangers who first reminded us that Christmas resides in a loving and kind heart.

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