FARGO — For Judy Kubalak, this year’s Christmas planning came earlier than usual. While camping with her daughter Summer in October, she began thinking about how to make the holiday extra meaningful. Soon, the idea of visiting a tree farm emerged.
“I wanted to do something special,” Kubalak says, noting that Summer and her brother, Isaac, might be away studying next holiday season.
It had been 23 years since they’d had a real Christmas tree. Kubalak and her oldest daughter, Charity Mae, had gone together to pick one out at the same church lot as always. About a month later, at 16, Charity passed away unexpectedly.
“I had trouble watching that tree die,” Kubalak says. “When it was starting to turn brown and it was time to haul it out to the garage, I couldn’t believe how hard it was.”
The following Christmas, the pain of losing her daughter still fresh, she decided to start a new tradition, and invested in an artificial tree. But this year, Kubalak was ready for a return to the scent of evergreen.
After discovering Cupkie Christmas Village near Perham, Minn., the family plotted a pre-Thanksgiving excursion to find a tree. Though the usual carriage rides and hot cocoa weren’t offered this year, Kubalak says, the four enjoyed choosing and sawing down their own tree.
“When we got it into the house, the kids said, ‘Oh my gosh, the smell!’” says Kubalak, noting the newly cut tree’s aroma. Soon, the decorating commenced.
“We got the music going and decorated the tree together — with masks on,” says Kubalak, recalling their joy in finding ornaments her late mother, Donna, had given the kids over the years, and what a bright spot the day had been, ending a difficult year with gladness.
Lightening the loss
Likewise, Breanna Breidenbach couldn’t wait to get Christmas 2020 preparations rolling.
“Normally we wait until the day after Thanksgiving to put up our tree,” she says. But this year, along with the devastation felt worldwide, “Our family has dealt with lots of unexpected things — more than normal. And it just seemed like, if we could put that tree up, we could have something hopeful to look at.”
Breidenbach says she and her husband, Tim, chose a day before Thanksgiving to deck the halls, and their four children seemed especially willing to help.
“This year has seemed like a constant ‘No’ for them,” she says, referring to the many losses, including separation from friends. “This was, finally, a ‘Yes’!”
To brighten the atmosphere, “I told Alexa to ‘Play Christmas music,’ which felt funny to do before Thanksgiving,” Breidenbach says, “but it was really uplifting to sing along. And now the kids have started playing Christmas music on the piano. We kind of got them in the spirit.”
Christmas baking also started early, she says — for better or worse.
“Of course, now we’ll eat it early, too, but hey, if it brings a smile, we’ll do anything we can.”
Certainly, the season signals more than tree decorating and cookies, she affirms.
“Advent is about preparing our hearts. It’s about remembering the first Christmas, but also a time to prepare for the Second Coming,” Breidenbach says. “I’ve been thinking about that even more now, maybe because I’m longing for it a little bit more because, clearly, this (earthly life) is not our true home.”
Breidenbach says she wants to end the year on a hopeful note.
“I can’t wait until 2020 is over, but we’re going to milk as much joy out of this year as we can.”
A tree that tells of the Trinity
Angela Wambach and her family also started decorating early this year, trimming trees before the turkey.
“Normally I wait until the day after Thanksgiving to give that holiday its due, but this year I just felt like I needed the joy of the Christmas season earlier,” she says.
She revisited, in her mind, a book she’d read to her three daughters as little girls, she says, telling of the symbolism of the Christmas tree, with its triangular shape, and how it shines light on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
“The three points symbolize God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which brings more meaning to why we even have Christmas trees.”
Along with their decorated trees, Wambach rediscovered the Christmas-tree decoration made from jewelry by her late grandmother, now lit and hanging in their hallway.
“I received it after my mother passed away,” she says. “It needed a little bit of TLC and repair initially, but it’s a very special piece of Christmas every year.”
Despite the strangeness and stressors this year has brought, Wambach says, these holiday traditions and family rituals soothe the heart.
“It’s something we can control and find joy in in these times.”
‘The most wonderful time…’
Kimberly Kangas and her family didn’t start decorating earlier than usual — they’ve always gotten a jump on the season — but she’s been keenly aware of others who did.
“A lot of Facebook friends, even after Halloween, started commenting, ‘Is it bad I’m putting up Christmas stuff already?’” she observed. “It seemed like everyone went straight into Christmas this year.”
She’s not surprised.
“Christmas really is, just as the song goes, ‘The most wonderful time of the year.’ It’s a time where we reflect and are surrounded with the smells of good baking and Christmas trees, and all the softness of it. And I think people needed the comfort this year more than ever.”
Not only that, but “…it’s a change of scenery, too,” Kangas guesses.
“People have been staring at their walls this year, not going places, so it’s a sense of something new, and allowing them to see there are things to look forward to.”
Like others, she suggests many seem anxious for this year to be over. “When they see the tree up, they know it’s getting closer.”
For Kangas, it’s also a time to recall fond memories of growing up with four sisters, and how they’d decorate not just the tree but the whole house, Christmas music resounding from a record player.
“My sister Donna had this stupid bear that would be front and center, and we would hide each other’s ornaments — and that bear,” Kangas says. To this day, when they visit their mother in Iowa at Christmastime, “If the bear isn’t in front of the tree, it will be by the time Donna gets there,” she says, chuckling, “and I will put my Raggedy Ann doll in its place.”
She’s helped create new traditions with her own children, Katie, 12, and Joe, 8, including cutting out the “cookie” from the bottom of the Christmas tree trunk at year’s end, adding it to a collective, ever-growing centerpiece.
“Sometimes, when we get out the boxes of decorations, you can still smell the Christmas tree from the year before,” Kangas says. “Those scents come quickly back.”
The whole Christmas-decorating event also produces an additional bonus: a sparkling house.
“The cobwebs are knocked down, and even the windows get cleaned,” she says. “We’re getting ready for Jesus to come. And even as we’re preparing for our guests, hopefully we’re cleaning out our hearts, too.”
Kangas says Christmas should be a time of spiritual renewal, of returning to Christ.
“I hope churches are open and pews are as full as they can be, but who knows? This may be a year to either invite people or provide something in their homes to remind them,” she says.
Either way, she adds, “Looking at our tree, and even our silly little manger, we’re reminded that the Savior is born.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Dec. 11, 2020.]