The Tumbleweed Christmas

By Paul Joiner

It's not the extravagance of a holiday
but the significance of the holiday that makes it special!


The turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving had barely been devoured when my mother gathered my brother and sisters together for a little holiday planning meeting.


"Guess what, kids?" Mom started. "This year we are going to have a Southwestern Christmas!"


We cheered with delight even though none of us had a clue what a Southwestern Christmas entailed. Mom had a way of getting you excited about a concept you had never imagined. We knew that if Mom planned it, it would have a theme, it would be special, and it would include vast amounts of glitter.


Before Mom could even share her plans for the Southwestern Christmas, we were bubbling with questions.


         "Will there be food involved?"          

         "Do kids in the Southwest get presents?"

         "Can we decorate the house?"

         "Can we get a horse?"

         "How much glitter?"

         "Can I be an Indian?" I asked.


(TMI - I went through an “I want to be an Indian” stage. Don't know why. I just did. Perhaps it was permission to have long hair, wear cool beads and feathers, paint your face, dance to a pounding drum beat, and ride a wild horse through the desert wearing nothing but a loincloth. Seemed pretty freeing compared to my conservative upbringing. I am glad to report that I outgrew the loincloth stage . . .  probably due to the fervent prayers of my parents.)


Mom assured us it would be the best Christmas ever and presented her vision for the Joiner's Southwestern Christmas.


Though my father looked a little perplexed, my siblings and I bought into her idea and couldn't wait to get started. Out came the craft boxes and in came a Christmas season that none of us would ever forget.


"Now, in the desert," our mother started, "you can't find an evergreen tree to chop down for a Christmas tree! So, we are going to make a Southwest Christmas tree!"


Ten minutes later we crossed the street into the Arizona desert that stretched out before us. "Okay kids," Mom directed, "we want to find the biggest and sturdiest tumbleweed we can find.  It will need to hold lots of decorations. Got it?"


"Got it!" we squealed. "Go!" Mom shouted.


On that warm December day you couldn't have found five more excited children anywhere on the planet. We began searching for the tumbleweed that would be our Christmas tree with the same zeal a family in New England has when searching for the "perfect tree" in a snow-covered Christmas tree lot.


The dust rose from the desert floor as each of us kids scurried around the desert and chose a tumbleweed that we each thought would be right for the "Best Christmas-Tumbleweed Contest" ever! We lined them up and after much deliberation chose the biggest, sturdiest, and roundest tumbleweed of them all.


And then the Christmas magic began: transforming that tumbleweed into our Christmas tree. We sprayed the tumbleweed a metallic gold. Dusted it with glitter . . . lots of glitter. We placed it on a table in the family room and were now ready to decorate it.


Mom brought out colorful yarn she had stored in her sewing room and we made Ojo de Dios (Eyes of God) by stringing the yarn on cross-shaped dowels. We made tassels and created little characters from the yarn as well. Stars were constructed of tin foil. Then our handmade ornaments, along with last season's red, green, and gold Christmas balls, were put on the tumbleweed. A poinsettia bloom was placed on the top. A Mexican blanket was used as a tree skirt. And then, as a family, we stood back to look at our creation. With eyes wide open and  gushing "oohs" and "aahs" we giggled and danced with delight. The Joiner family had transformed a dusty tumbleweed into a brilliant Southwestern Christmas tree!


And we carried the Southwestern theme throughout everything we did that Christmas. Instead of putting lights up on the outside of our house, we made luminaries--brown paper lunch bags filled with sand and candles--and lined the porch and sidewalk with them in front of our house.


Mexican food replaced the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Our home smelled like a Mexican restaurant as Mom fixed enchiladas, tacos, tortillas, and tapioca pudding.


The most memorable part of our Christmas was the impromptu live nativity scene we staged for my visiting grandparents. Mom cast all of us kids as characters in the Christmas story.  However, not allowing us to break away from our theme, it was a Southwestern nativity. That’s right, you know the story.  The story of Maria, Jose’, and little bambino Jesús, along with the caballeros who watched their flocks by night, and a wealthy, Poinsettia-bearing el presidente who followed the Star to Bethlehem. (I begged to be an Indian at the nativity, but it was too cold outside to wear the loin cloth.)


We had a memorable Christmas that year; one my brother and sisters still look back on with great affection. 


But here is the beauty of the whole experience: my siblings and I had no idea that the Southwestern Christmas was created  because we couldn’t afford Christmas that year.  Simply put, our family did not have the money to celebrate the holiday. An expensive fresh-cut tree, lavish decorations, turkey and all the fixings with extravagant gifts could not be afforded that Christmas.


But we kids never knew.


It was years later when all of us children were adults that our parents told us the story behind the Southwestern Christmas. Who knew that one of our best holiday memories was rooted in the fact that we had little money.


Here we kids thought the creativity put into that Christmas celebration was due to the sheer joy of doing something "different."


The impact that our Southwestern Christmas had on us kids is proof of what I used to hear my mother say so often:


It's not the extravagance of the holiday but the significance of the holiday that makes it special.


You see it is not the newest toy or gadget your child will remember about Christmas, it is you. It is what you do with what you've been given. It is how you take a less-than-perfect situation and make it a ”one-we'll-never-forget" celebration. It's about you deciding to make something meaningful with what you have instead of focusing on what you do not have.


It's the family closeness you orchestrate.  It's the attitude in which you approach the holiday.  It is the love and togetherness you create in your home that will shape the memories of your children and the Christmases they give their children.


It's aligning your heart with God's and believing all that is needed to celebrate Christ's birth is a simple stable, a rickety manger, and a group of people who are poor in wealth but rich in spirit. Huddled together around a central meaning, the Christ child, you can make an indelible memory that lasts a lifetime and beyond in the hearts of all those who hear of it.


As time went on, and our family could afford more, the celebrations became bigger. Mom decorated for everything. And for every different season Mom had a warehouse of decorations, most of which she made.  Christmas was especially a blowout. As teenagers we couldn’t wait to come home after school when we knew Mom had been decorating.  The house had magically been transformed into an amazing winter wonderland. 


But as the expressions of our holidays grew, my mother never lost sight of their purpose. Yes, our celebrations became bigger, but never less meaningful. I don't know how she gracefully managed to do this. I am guessing the lessons she learned from our humble beginnings were never forgotten. 


Today, in the midst of grand holiday celebrations, how often my mind quietly wanders back to our quaint Southwestern Christmas. The brittle tumbleweed tree, the handmade Christmas ornaments, the smell of freshly fried tortillas, my brother and sisters wrapped in towels portraying the impoverished characters in the first Christmas story. Characters who didn't allow the things they didn't have to stop them from celebrating the Gift they had been given.


I wouldn't trade a Christmas of ten thousand sparkling lights, or a hundred-voice choir singing the "Hallelujah Chorus," or the biggest holiday parade, or all the gifts money could buy for that lowly Christmas we experienced together in Arizona that year.


That simple Christmas remains one of my greatest family memories.


It wasn't extravagant. It wasn't expensive. It was extraordinary. And it was out of this world!

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