Silver Tree of Christmases Past

Harold and Margaret 1922A story, one of the few, of family. It was written a while ago–my week has been hectic–and I pray you will enjoy it again.

My grandparents were born in 1896 and 1901. Their families immigrated to Detroit when they were teenagers. She had planned to become a nun, and he had graduated from Michigan State College (now MSU) in dairy science. Not a very avant-garde image. But it was the roaring twenties when they met, and things were about to become radical.

He was a Protestant from Ireland and she Italian and loyal to The Pope. In that decade mixed marriages of this type were scandalous! Unheard of! Doomed. I remember my grandmother laughing as she told the story of meeting her mother-in-law for the first time and overhearing her say “Aye Harold, she ‘tis a lovely girl, but did ja have ta go ‘n marry a Catholic!?”

They bought a shanty of a house located off Woodward Avenue near 8 Mile Road outside Detroit. The four room, wooden shingled house sat at the back of the lot. It was the only house they ever owned. Through the Great Depression they found creative ways to expand and remodel: salvaging wood from rail-road crates, removing cabinets and doors from condemned houses, scavenging a local business for discarded ceramic tiles, digging a basement by hand.

My grandmother loved sunlight, lots of sunlight. And my grandfather loved pleasing his wife. So a key feature added in the 1950s was a 5′ x 8′ picture window. I imagined that to the neighbors we all appeared like fish in a bowl.

This same picture window from Thanksgiving until the Epiphany displayed a modern 1960s aluminum Christmas tree. The silver tree was minimally decorated with clear lights, electric-blue satin ornaments, and white candy canes…saved from year to year and beyond being edible. The crowning glory was a matching mercury glass tree finial. To enhance the affect of radiance, a light with a rotating disc of blue and clear sat exactly one yard-stick-measure away. I remember as a child running my hands along the soft aluminum “needles” and feeling the smoothness of the satin ornaments. I was often gently scolded for petting the tree.

Grandmother’s home parish was St. James and only a block away. Grandfather, a Protestant by birth and Freemason by choice, never enter the church but often escorted his wife to and from Mass on Saturday nights.

I remember Christmases and quiet winter nights walking home with grandmother after Midnight Mass. Her steps were always matched to mine so that I walked steadily beside her…but never clumsily trying to keep pace. Her hat, a Betmar black wool cloche, custom trimmed with pheasant feathers from grandfather, sat perfectly over her brow. I mimicked her impeccable posture, even while walking through ice and snow as I held her kid-gloved hand.

When we turned off the sidewalk and up the long drive to the house, my grandfather would have already pulled open the picture-window curtains and plugged in the lights of the silver tree. It brightened our walk to the house, tossing rays across the yard and making the snow a glistening blue; giving light to what was love. My grandfather stood to the side of the tree, and looking to my grandmother would smile at the delight on her face. She, releasing my hand, would place hers on her chest in reply.

This is what I remember most about the silver tree, how it illuminated love in the night and for a moment in time alleviated the darkness of childhood. Christmas for me was about love in contrasts. In the home of Harold and Margaret, Irish gaiety blended with Italian faithfulness. And the results? Two no greater gifts to a child: fidelity and the joy of life.

Eternal rest grant unto them Oh Lord.


Doubt in the Family

On the cover of the 2012 July issue of Magnificat is a painting of Anne and Joachim, Mary’s parents. In looking at this image it occurred to me that there may have been a lot of doubts in this nuclear family.

The elderly Anne and Joachim were childless. Legend tells us that on one particular day the sadness of this situation overwhelmed Joachim. He left the temple and set off to the mountains to be alone with God. He wandered and lamented, doubting he would ever know the joy of playing with a child that he and Anne had conceived.

Anne heard about her husband’s tears. As his wife she would have spoken of her barrenness with him, and her doubt that in their advanced years they would ever have a son or daughter. Anne too went off by herself to pray. Would God answer her plea this time? Would he bring her beloved Joachim down from the mountains and into her empty arms? She doubted that her husband could endure the shame of childlessness much longer.

I can imagine their despair and hope colliding as they prayed. Hopelessness and trust were equally present in their hearts; reality nurturing one and faith the other.

That day God sent an angel to each of them. Anne was told she would conceive and the fruit of her womb would bless the world. A similar promise was made to Joachim. Did an angel really say they would have a child? They each had to see the other to share what they had been told. Falling into each other’s arms they knew by the joy in the other’s face that a miracle would take place and a child like no other would be born.

Anne bore a daughter and named her Mary. She and Joachim reared their beautiful child with awe and wonder at her grace and ability to grasp the roots of their Jewish faith.

Then one day their daughter, now a young woman, stood before them flushed with apprehension. How could they believe her fanciful story—that she was pregnant, but not by Joseph, her betrothed, not by a man; that she was impregnated by God?

This was their daughter and they knew her heart. God had whispered into this child a purity of soul. Very soon Anne and Joachim understood the magnitude of Mary’s claim.

Soon Joseph learned his young bride was pregnant. What would he have thought? How could he focus on his work? Imagine that poor man wandering the countryside looking for building materials and stopping to sit under a shade tree weeping about the sexual betrayal of his beloved. If there had been violence against her he would have known. To sleep with another man was so far beyond what this young woman would do. It was an action wholly incongruent with Mary’s nature, and yet there was proof. She was with child and it wasn’t his.

Anne and Joachim knew that Joseph needed to believe in a truth that they could not explain. He would have to come to know on his own terms with God a truth that never existed before. There was nothing they could say to remove the apprehension in Joseph. But they could give him time to nurture the seed of faith.

During this time Joseph wrestled with his doubts and prayed with an aching and weary heart. In his despair God came to him. God enlightened him of a truth so preposterous and outrageous that only God could have created it. So, too, did Joseph come to understand the magnitude of Mary’s claim. Joachim and Anne rejoiced knowing Joseph believed what they had known for months.

All of Mary and Joseph’s relatives heard of the child Jesus. How many of them counted the months from marriage to birth? Did they have faith enough to believe that the angels had repeatedly come to Mary and Joseph—of the immense star—of the premonition to flee to Egypt—and stories of Jesus as a young man and his miracles?

Not all of the family accepted what they heard. A seed of growing disbelief prevailed among the relatives. They knew Joseph, the carpenter, and Mary had grown-up like any of the other girls. The seeds of doubt grew so much that Jesus was blocked from sharing his gift of healing with them.

It is hard to imagine a woman bearing a normal healthy child when she is in her 70’s as Anne might have been. It is hard to imagine talking with angels and not suspect mental illness, and yet many times across three generations, the angels did speak.

If there is anything we can learn from this bit of history is that doubt is a part of human nature. We must and will wrestle with it because a seed of doubt is the same size as a seed of faith, the greater growth is in which we nurture. God entrusted us to nurture faith.


(Originally published at, July 2012.)