By Tom Ehrich

On the Sunday before Christmas, my wife and I decorated the douglas fir we cut at Bell’s Christmas Tree Farm.

I started with the unbreakable ornaments, hung at toddler level. My wife put breakables up higher. Each one has a story. Other than the glass pear from our first Christmas 38 years ago, I don’t think we have purchased a single ornament. They are children’s school projects, gifts from friends, a homely collection if beauty were our goal, but an annual reminder that we have lived and loved.

Last up was the sheepskin angel that my wife made many trees ago. It’s always the crown.

My wife hung the stockings – eleven of them this year, including a green one for our oldest son’s dog, Olivia. These handmade stockings have hung in 13 homes, and each time they signaled what we are becoming as a family.

While my wife knitted a teddy-bear ornament for our grandson, I started a fire. The room glowed with the colors of Christmas. With children and grandchildren starting to arrive in three days, this was the calm before the commotion of family.

For the first 28 years of our marriage, Christmas centered around my church duties. Family often had to wait, as I had once waited for my father during his busy Christmas selling rush.

Church made the season complicated. People collapsed under stress, depression and loneliness. Leaders fought over money and control. One vestry chose the week before Christmas to launch an attack on my leadership. It didn’t occur to them that I might need my full attention for parishioners who would fill the pews on Christmas Eve, their expectations high. Like children, church leaders often want what they want when they want it.

I would come home late, long after children were snug in their beds. One year I pulled onto our street at 2:00am to find that the neighborhood luminaries were still flickering, guiding me home. Another year I walked home through a snowstorm that was making Central Park a place of magic. I was surprised to discover that, long past midnight, I wasn’t the only one in this winter wonderland.

Once home, I would wonder if I had anything left for my family on Christmas morning. But the familiar magic occurred. The excitement of children erased my weariness.

This year, I have no church duties, no choirs to join, no sermons to give, no pastoral calls to make, no expectations to carry. I am glad for that. I want to give my all to children and grandchildren.

I am fully engaged in this holy season. In fact, I will write and pray this week with special intensity, not because someone is pressing me, but because I feel God beckoning. Three weeks ago I gave myself permission to listen to Christmas music during Advent. Bursts of freedom feel good.

I also began laying out my next book. Life extends beyond the wrapping and unwrapping, decorating and undecorating, calendar-concluding and calendar beginning. God beckons us onward.