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"JOY - 1977" Tree Ornament

An ornament I received the Christmas my mother died, that I hang on my tree every year.

Ah, Christmas! Bright lights, hustle and bustle, joyous music and celebrations….

Yet, hidden behind all the glitter, many people feel the pangs of sadness and loneliness more acutely during the Christmas season. If you have ever experienced a great loss at Christmastime, the holiday season awakens that grief again each year.

I know. My mother died on December 19, 1977. My father was the pastor of a loving church at the time, and the people were sweet to us, though they also grieved the death of their beloved pastor’s wife. Our family found comfort in togetherness—my husband and I with our two toddlers, my sister, and our dad. After the funeral, we stayed and spent Christmas in our parents’ home, with everything around us to remind us of Mother. … But no mother. She was not there and would never be again.

At a time when we celebrated the birth of Jesus who brought new life, we learned first-hand the awful separation and finality of death. The first night after she died, I lay awake in the guest bedroom listening to Daddy sobbing his heart out in the next room.

She was too young to die—in her forties. But she was gone.

We wanted the children—still toddlers—to have fun, not just sadness, so we borrowed little sleds and took them out to play in the snowy woods. In the fresh, crisp air we all laughed like children, a wonderful relief, and exactly what Mother would want for us. Maybe she saw us. Maybe she was laughing for joy with us.

Mother always infused Christmas with music, anticipation, beauty, delicious tastes and scents, warmth and surprises. She loved decorating the house and the church, preparing special music and programs for Christmas Sunday, often sewing new dresses for my sister and me, baking cookies, taking us Christmas shopping, and finding time to care for people who were sad and lonely.


Christmas Carolers, figurines that belonged to my mother.

I love Christmas, too, but everything about it reminds me of Mother and of my loss. Even after many years, the bright lights, the biting scent of pine and cinnamon, the taste of frosted sugar cookies and cider, the making of fudge and fruitcake, the singing of carols, the ringing of Christmas bells, the decorating of the tree, the excitement of gift giving—all is sweet sorrow.

Did sadness mix with joy for Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she carried her baby to the temple and heard Simeon prophesy her child’s death? He said, “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Mary didn’t understand yet that Jesus’ death as well as his life would bring eternal joy in the heavens and cause his birth to be celebrated for centuries to come. But she would certainly experience heart-piercing sorrow and separation.


A paper nativity scene I treasure, that my mother used to display every Christmas when I was a child. – C.Lawton

Years later, as Mary watched Jesus die a tragic, painful death, did she despair? Or did the memory of the miracles surrounding his birth and life give her hope? Life won out. His death brought our spiritual birth.

Now we know, because of his birth, life and death, we can live—and celebrate Christmas—in the certainty that death will not have the final victory.

That Christmas day, six days after Mother died, our bereaved family celebrated together with gifts and festive food, scripture and prayer. Then we drove up a snowy hillside to a flower-covered grave site. The contrast of the red-rose-and-holly-covered grave to the icy, brown hills spoke to my warring emotions.

There, feeling the pain of death’s separation, I looked up into the evening sky and noticed the first star twinkling. Yes! Our hope still shown! The realities of pain, suffering, and death are inescapable. But they will be dissolved into everlasting life and joy because of the hope of Christmas.

~ Catherine Lawton