In 1966, Noma, the largest Christmas tree light company in the world, filed for bankruptcy as the domestic Christmas light industry struggled with foreign competition and the introduction of the much smaller, foreign-made string-lights.
In the industry flux, some companies changed the shape of the larger decorative lightbulbs. The new replacement bulbs came to a sharper point, emulating the shape of a candle flame. This was a marketing ploy for the elderly, who could still remember a time when tree lights were actually candles.
Being only a child, I received this change as a heresy. Each year more of the older, classically convex bulbs burned out and were replaced with these fake flames. The magic memories of my first Christmases seemed to burn out with the convex bulbs.
One older style light unaccountably continued to burn atop of the family tree for a decade. It symbolized what became only the memory of a joyous religious longing. In 2001, when my own son reached the age of six, he complained of the same widespread, religious experience:
“Daddy, this Christmas tree is not giving me any warmth.”
This is like the experience of the Jewish people when they returned home from seventy years of slavery. They began rebuilding a Temple, but those who had seen the previous Temple as young children were grief-stricken. It was just not the same. The mysterious glory which filled Solomon’s Temple did not re-fill the new one. The glory had departed. They were back in Jerusalem, but somehow it did not seem like home.
I fear most people experience something akin to this homesickness at Christmas. They cannot wring a departed joy out of all the festivities. In my boy’s words, Christmas trees no longer “give them “warmth.”
“Yes,” I told my son, “for it was never really the trees that gave the warmth.” Christmas is not so much about the trimmings as it is about being homesick for a place we’ve never been. It’s about the burning glory of the eternal city returning to us. Heaven comes to reassure us our earliest experiences of that true home were no lie.