St. Patrick’s Christmas Tree

I think maybe it’s time I explain why my Christmas tree is still up. In March.

Believe it or not, I have a reason beyond just my usual inability to adapt to real, adult responsibilities, like folding my towels or emptying my trash instead of just starting a new bag and letting the full ones pile up in the corner (the key to making this work is to use decorative bags – if it doesn’t look like trash anymore, what’s the harm?).

But in order to explain why my Christmas tree is still standing atop my accordion case, I first have to tell you three short stories.

The first story is about the day I should have taken my tree down. The second story is about the day I tried to take my tree down. And the third story is about St. Patrick’s Day.

*The First Story*

January 5, 2015

It wasn’t snowing anymore, but the moisture in the air made the earth seem colder than it probably was as we waited at the bus stop. Jerry had agreed to take Sarah to the airport because I had to teach, but she wanted to walk me down to my bus to say ‘goodbye.’ Sarah is one of the few people in the world who knows the bulk of my fears and insecurities, and still chooses to associate with me in public. She knows that I have a paranoia about odd-numbered years and ‘people grease’ (don’t ask) and she knew that the year looming in front of us was currently winning the Mary v. Adult Life war. But she didn’t chide or even console. She just stood there in her pretty red coat, keeping my mind off the cold and the worries of tomorrow with her quiet, comforting presence.

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I waited for Sarah to come to Prague for a year. We first started planning the Christmas before when I was home for Deborah’s wedding. One night we drove to the beach, armed with a thermos of hot chocolate and pockets full of jelly beans (my idea), and I said she just needed to come visit me already. We decided December would work best, so I began my 12-month vigil. Sarah didn’t just come for Christmas – she was Christmas. She was a slice of home, a piece of something I’m sure about: that there will always be people I love waiting for me somewhere.

So when I boarded the bus and watched her fade away in the foggy back window, I mentally set ‘Christmas’ on my calendar to whenever I next get to see that pretty face.

When I got home that evening, tired and lonely, I found my room spotless and one last Christmas gift on my bed with a handwritten note (I wasn’t able to find any of my pens for several weeks after this, but being able to see the floor again was kind of cool).

I decided then that I couldn’t take down my tree just yet. It was the last piece of Sarah that I had left, the last piece of Christmas and 2014 and home – the last promise of everything being ‘alright’ for just a moment.

*The Second Story*

January 18, 2015

This was the day I meant to take the tree down. I ripped down just about everything else in my room. In my defense, it had been a tough week. It seems that I get in trouble as much as (if not more than) my students. Our extremely intimidating Vice Head had to come into my class to tell me we were being too loud. I forgot to update my public transit pass and rode as a černý pasažér – “black passenger” – for three days without knowing it, followed by an hour wait in a freezing metro to get a new pass. I came face-to-face with the fact that distance puts strain on relationships and (finally) with the fact that when this school year ends, I have to leave Prague (I’m now reminded of that on a weekly basis from teary-eyed fourth graders begging me to stay. Talk about a guilt-trip). Feeling haunted by my odd-numbered year and my complete void of plans for my return home, I broke down and binged on cheap Czech candy and popcorn because I’m still unable to handle life like a grown-up.

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Adult life was kicking this poor expat in the shins and it hurt. So on Sunday afternoon, down came my paper lanterns and my picture posters. My seashells and bottles found themselves shoved onto a shelf out of the way in my desperate attempt to ‘start fresh.’ But the tree I could not take down. I tried. I thought about it for about two seconds. But with the lights on and all my earrings, beads and bobbles mailed to me from folks back home, and the handmade Czech ornaments (gifts from friends over the past two years here), it didn’t look like a tree as much as it looked like a piece of dry land to climb up on. A little piece of safety decorated with my past, my present and tiny promises of my future. It was both the home I have begun to long for immensely and the home I’ve been creating here in Prague. But mostly it was the reminder of the hope I clung to: somewhere in the world, there will always be people I love waiting for me.

So as I made plans to burn my paper lanterns, I let the tree stay up.

*The Third Story*

March 17, 2015

Today was the day I planned to put the tree away. Valentine’s came and went, and even though I did put hearts on my window, I couldn’t bring myself to take down the tree. It had to be today. It had to be St. Patrick’s Day.

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As you may have noticed by now, the tree has become a lot more than just a piece of plastic strung with lights and cheap jewelry. I’ve been trying to figure out myself why this darn tree means so much to me.

I found the answer in cookies.

No, this is not another story where Mary makes bad food choices. It’s about our St. Patrick’s Day party for the Girl’s Club our church puts on. We played Irish folk music, decked everything out in green and made rainbow cookies. Fittingly, we told the story of Noah during our devotional – another story of a rainbow, but one much more valuable than a pot of gold. The first rainbow was a promise from God to Noah, I explained to the girls. It was a sign of God’s faithfulness.

“As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”
Genesis 8:22

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When the girls went home and the last of the cookie dough scraps had been cleaned up, I made myself a cup of tea (okay, okay, it turned into three cups, but just because I haven’t mastered portion control yet) and watched the rain trickle down the window pane as the last few Irish folk songs played out on the CD.

God has been faithful to me. Looking back over the short span of my existence, even in the darkest, most unsure moments, he has been there holding me fast. But he knows that my anxious heart is prone to wander. He knows that humans are weak and walk easily away from what they cannot see. So he gave us rainbows. He gave us a visible reminder of his love for us and of his faithfulness.

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My Christmas tree, I think, is an important reminder for me. It’s a visible promise of a hope for a future that isn’t as dark and lonely as it can sometimes feel. No matter where I am in the world, there is a God who loves me.

And as long as God’s faithfulness stands, so will my Christmas tree.

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Chasing leprechauns

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Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin. Our tour guide exerting all his Irish enthusiasm to talk about how one many ripped off an entire city of poor people in a brilliant business move by erecting this bridge and standing in the middle, charging people for passage. They’re all pretty proud of the story, it sounds like.

I know I promised I was done with my Ireland stories, but I forgot to write my list of stereotypes, confirmed and disproved – per tradition! So wet the tea and get ready for some craic!

  1. Yes, the Irish drink a lot.

Although it should be noted that most of the not-sober individuals I met in Dublin were tourists, I can personally attest, after a week of traveling through every corner of the country, that the Irish can throw back a pint like a kid tosses a juice box. While pubbing in west Ireland in the middle of the afternoon, I saw five Irishmen between the ages of 29-71, down 16 pints of ale and beer – and that was just for the hour and a half that I sat there trying to finish my own drink.
“Does this town have an industry?” I asked the gentleman to my right. “What do you do?”
“Drink,” he responded with a pleasant smile.
Cheers, and another round was poured.

  1. No, the Guinness is not the king of beer.

I don’t actually think I saw a single Irishman drinking Guinness during the total duration of my stay (though our Dublin tour guide did say with some pride that he only dates girls who can handle a Guinness properly). I had several and they are good – very strong, slightly bitter. The stouts were better; smoother and sweeter. Most of the natives I noticed drank Smithwick’s, a red ale from Kilkenny. It’s gorgeous. It fizzles like a cider but has a fuller taste. By my last day in Dublin, I had given up the touristy instinct to order Guinness and settled for the much friendlier ale. My only regret was knowing that our tour guide would probably never date me for it.

  1. Yes, the Irish are hilarious.

The Irish are a bunch of jokers. The gullible and insecure should refrain from spending too much time in this country because you will find yourself the butt of every joke. I should mention that complimenting an Irishman is not wise, either. He will laugh at and / or insult you for it. I don’t think the Irish ever really grow up (at least not the men), which probably accounts for both their charm and their tendency to behave like eleven-year old boys (and I teach enough eleven-year olds to recognize the signs).
On that note, maybe don’t mention to the Irish that they’re funny because they’re Irish.
“Why can’t I be funny just because I’m actually a funny guy?” asked our tour guide with a smile, half playful, half indignant. I insisted it was the Blarney. He insisted I walk in the back of the line.

  1. No, they don’t “hate” the English.

I was told multiple times that the British are “alright.” Anyone in a position to comment, though dispatching a few well-aimed jabs at their tumultuous history with the Brits, insisted that it was all water under the bridge.

  1. Yes, they do basically hate the English.

“Do you know T’hatcher?” asked a very drunk little Irishman in a thick brogue. I shook my head. “T’haaaatcher,” he said again. “Margaret T’hatcher, the bloody woman from England.”
Ah. That Thatcher.
The little Irishman looked me in the eye as straightly as his sobriety levels would allow. “If I were in Northern Ireland right now, do you know what I’d do?” He took a sip off the top of his pint. “I’d blow up a car.”

  1. No, they are not all red-heads.

They do drink and they do sing, but the Irish are actually pretty dark-complexioned. Dark, brooding hair and thick eyebrows. Not all of them are exceptionally pale, either – though some of that may just be weather-wear. Only their eyes are light. Crisp, clear, cutting eyes that are full of merriment, mischief and magic. If you want to find a rainbow in Ireland, look someone in the eyes.

  1. Yes, leprechauns do exist.

It took four days before Ireland finally showed its true colors and gave me a real rainy day (and then that’s all it gave me for the rest of my trip). It took six days for me to finally catch a rainbow. I never did get to see a fairy or a will-o’-the-wisp. But I saw a Leprechaun my very first evening. A short little man with eyes that danced and jokes that could curdle milk. He laughed a lot (at us, mostly – and at the British, and the Irish government, and the weather). And he sang. If he wasn’t talking to one of us, he was humming a tune from this song or that. Skipping along the street, he had all the mirth of a school boy. So yes. If there are leprechauns still in Ireland, our Dublin tour guide is one of them. And I saw him with my own eyes.