The Christmas Cardinal

By Raelyn Pracht

Growing up, we always decorated the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. My father would string the lights on the tree and wrap it in shiny, silver garland. Then my brothers and sisters and I would add strands of matching tinsel. Since I was no more than five at the time, my tinsel hung in clumps at my eye level. No one seemed to care, though; tree decorating was a family event enjoyed by all of us, despite our age differences.

Once we had finished the tinsel, it was time for my father to place the first ornament on the tree. I watched with the eyes and heart of a young child as he opened a special box and took out the only ornament inside: a white dove with glimmers of light blue on its wings with the faintest shades of gray on its underbelly.

My father, who always seemed stoic and strong, held the dove gently, almost tenderly. The bird’s tail, tinted with blues and grays, stretched out and over my father’s large, rough hands.

That year, my father turned to us and said, “This dove is for your Aunt Connie … my sister.”  As he reached near the top of the tree and clipped the solitary dove to a high branch, he told us the story. When his sister passed, she was only sixteen. Father wanted something to remember her by, so he took this dove off one of the funeral arrangements. And now it perched in our Christmas tree, strong and peaceful, atop strands of silver tinsel and garland.

Every year after, that dove was the first ornament on the tree and the last ornament to be removed. Many Christmases passed and life moved on, just as other relatives did, too. So we added more doves to the branches of our tree. Each ornament held unique memories of people we loved. More than that, it was almost as if our loved ones were there, celebrating Christmas with us somehow, as those doves watched our celebrations from the boughs of our evergreen.

The kids all knew we would continue this tradition, started by my father, into our own families. After I got married, I was blessed to spend the first twenty Christmases without any doves upon our tree.  Every year, I would decorate the tree with my husband and daughter the day after Thanksgiving; every year I would be grateful for a tree without doves.

Who could have known that the first person to be represented on our Christmas tree would be the person who actually started the tradition?

It snowed heavily the January before my dad died. When the storm finally stopped, my mom and dad stepped outside in the cold to take it all in. Fresh snow covered the evergreens that lined their driveway. Fresh snow draped the hills in their yard. They stood in awe, soaking of the bright, glistening landscape. They looked up at the branches of one of the evergreens and saw eight cardinals on one branch, sitting in striking red against the dazzling white.

After my father died unexpectedly the following July, I walked the same yard that had been covered in deep snow months earlier. I stopped in front of the evergreen and imagined how beautiful the scene must have been.

The day after Thanksgiving, once the lights were all on the tree, I took out a small box that contained a single ornament. I chose a cardinal with contrasting shades of deep reds on its wings and the faintest shades of black on its underbelly. Its tail, tinted with the same colors, stretched out and over my hand.

Holding that cardinal for the first time, I was brought right back to 1978, standing beside the family Christmas tree, watching my dad run his rough fingers softly along the dove.

I placed the redbird on the highest branch, making sure it looked back out on my family. Then I whispered gently to my daughter, “This is for your grandfather . . . my father.”

That cardinal is the first ornament I put on the tree every year, and the last one to come off. Thanks, dad.

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