The Longest Night and the Smallest Tree

We have this three-foot Christmas tree, a wimpy little thing we got on a whim during our first Christmas as a married couple. We found it small and cheap in a local market here. The week before Christmas, the store had set out the most dismal holiday display with dusty boxes of these tabletop artificial trees, kitschy ornaments, and a Santa hat (bless ‘em). Surprised to find Christmas decorations in a country that didn’t formally recognize the holiday, we bought the whole display.

But it wasn’t a long-term investment; we weren’t thinking one year down the road…let alone six.

And now that little tree with its cheap ornament counterparts has become an annual reminder of our wish to be anywhere but here, tangled with the reality that we are still here.

My daughter shakes with pent-up anticipation as I carefully slide the tree from its box. But an unnamable heaviness begins to settle on my chest. Here it is again. This sad little thing. Year number six. Another Christmas. I set it upright in the middle of the living room, fluffing out its branches and brushing away its fallen plastic needles.

The tree, so small in stature, barely clears the top of my daughter’s head as she stands next to it, carefully examining each ornament. She tries out the new, unfamiliar word—or-na-ment—on her lips as I thread a string of lights around the tree branches. A miniature clay pitcher is declared her favorite, and I make a mental note to keep it forever, to hang on whatever tree we’ll have, in whatever part of the world we’ll be. 

The sun has already begun to set this time of the afternoon, spreading like a purple bruise across the sky and casting stretched-out shadows along the wall. Since June, the earth itself has continued to grow darker, where dawn takes her time and dusk makes haste.

Darkness seems to always crowd its way in. 

Once we’ve finished decorating the tree, my daughter lets out an exhaled wow, and I can’t help but laugh, squinting hard to try to understand what she sees.

I stand the tree up on a side table to give the illusion of height, fluffing out its branches again as if that will make it grow. The living room is now shrouded in darkness, the sun hidden behind the foothills. The battery-operated string lights winding around the branches blink and fade, blink and fade, casting pinpricks of tiny yellow light into the darkened room. 

There’s a Persian holiday called Yalda Night, a celebration of the winter solstice on December 21st—the longest night of the year. Once the sun sets, celebrators gather together, typically at the eldest family member’s home, to eat pomegranates, watermelon, and nuts, drink tea, read poems, and dance into the early morning hours. 

Yalda Night is a way to pay tribute to the longest night because celebrators know the next day will begin the slow walk to a longer daylight.

A neighbor boy comes over to our house the next day and announces that this is the tiniest tree he has ever seen and he didn’t even know Christmas trees came this small and, really, where did we get such a ­tiny tree?

I actually feel the need to defend the old broad. Sheesh, kid. She’s at least a step or two up from Charlie Brown’s. The teacher in me almost launches into a lesson about how our lived experiences are not always the same as others, and we don’t all celebrate holidays in the same way. 

But I don’t have it in me to explain to a seven-year-old all this tree holds: six years of grief, loss, hope-filled longing, and defiance in darkness. So, instead, I give a diplomatic response (“Mmm, yes. Where ever did we get that tiny tree?”) and hand him a cup of hot chocolate.

In a time where so many of us are feeling world-weary, spiritually slumped, and more than a little cynical, it’s easy to think things will only get darker, only get worse, that the shimmer of light will keep drifting just out of reach. I’m preaching to the choir when I say we’re all limping into the holiday season. We only have to read the headlines or sit with neighbors or look at our own lives to see that grief needles its way among the parties, the baking, and the gift wrapping.

We shoulder displacement and disappointment and the wish for tyrants to disappear. We wait for visas, plane tickets, and word from relatives living through a revolution. We tiptoe over this place that has become a precarious home for us, all the while knowing this is the only spot on earth where we can be together as a family. 

The tightrope we so delicately balance on, one foot in front of the other, seems to keep growing, extending out the window, past the ridges, and into the hazy wall of clouds. 

How unnerving it is to have our future hinge on such fragile threads. 

But the longest night of the year tells us something different. To recognize and even celebrate the longest night means that this isn’t the end of the story. Light is near.

This year, as we wait for the longest, darkest night to come, we will reach for good food, poetry, music, and dancing. And we will reach for each other, even if it’s through a screen, even if it’s halfway across the world because when daylight does eventually come, it will stretch just a bit longer than the night before.

We don’t have a big fancy tree or a fireplace to adorn with garlands and stockings. We don’t have the freedom to think, dream, or plan. We only have this ordinary tree—and the three of us under one roof. It isn’t Instagram-worthy, but it represents something more than just the snarled mess of a dream not yet come true.

This little plastic tree, surviving year after year, stands in front of the window, looking out over a land that will always be foreign, as a symbol of hope for a future beyond here, strength to endure the unknown, and peace while we wait for the light to come.

And if I try to see with the eyes of a toddler, well then, I think there’s some magic here, too.