The Three Wise Men: Balthasar, Melchior and Butkus

I believe that I’ll put my Christmas tree up, this year.

Until a few years ago, that would have been odd to write. I love Christmas trees. We put one up every year when I was a child, sometimes two. I continued the tradition into my adult years, although I am not blessed with children in my home making merry around it. I always went to the trouble of decorating the Christmas tree with do-dads, ornaments and twinkling light strands, anyway.

Until three years ago.

A combination of a lingering heartache, the fact that I was never home on Christmas and the residue of an endless home remodeling gave me little reason to go to the trouble of dragging the tree up from storage.

I didn’t turn my back on Christmas entirely. Close perhaps.

Regardless, I did manage to set up a little tabletop Christmas tree each year. I found a scraggly loblolly in a thrift store, and like the renowned Charlie Brown, I took it home because it shared my sense of holiday forsakenness.

This sorrowful spruce has served me well, but this year I want to put up the official “family” Christmas tree –– the big tree that stood sentry not too near the fireplace in the family room for decades of Christmases.

The tree, a traditional fresh-cut evergreen in the early years, was a big part of our family heritage. I remember standing in front of it each year, transfixed by the array of bubble lights percolating on the boughs.

It always had silver garland, because Mom disliked gold, and bore all the heirloom Christmas ornaments passed through the generations.

I had two favorite ornaments. The first was a ceramic ornament depicting a somewhat athletic Santa Claus riding a white and red rocket. Perhaps it was a nuclear missile, I don’t know. It was the height of the Cold War, but I preferred to think Santa was riding off to explore the galaxy rather than nuking a foreign adversary.

The other Christmas bauble that I cherished was a plastic ornament about the size of a deck of cards that depicted the Nativity scene. Mother picked it up while in Germany visiting Grandad, who was stationed there. The creche had a decided Bavarian theme, complete with giant Black Forest pine trees and a snowcapped chalet for a manger, neither of which would likely be found near Bethlehem.

That didn’t matter to me. I used to stare into the scene, and imagined myself a witness to the extraordinary birth. I envisioned myself as one of the wise men, a demonstration no doubt of my youthful hubris.

I was the wiseman, “Murry.” Since I had no idea what myrrh was, that’s the name I gave the wiseman who brought the spice to the baby. “Frank” brought frankincense; “Goldie” brought the gold. I made up pretend scenarios for each of the characters in the scene, including the arrival of King Herod one year, only to be trampled by the “watch camel” guarding the babe.

One year, while pulling the ornament out of the box, we noticed that Murry was missing–– probably at the hands (or paws) of our cat, Biscuit, who considered the Christmas tree his own personal playground. Gaspar, the wiseman from India was gone. Sheared off at the base; only his two buddies Balthasar and Melchior remaining to attend the baby.

That didn’t deter me, though. Earlier that fall I had saved enough cereal box tops, and –– along with my $1.50 in hard currency –– had sent away for a 1/60th scale replica of my favorite football player, Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears.

Much to my parents’ chagrin, Butkus was the perfect size, and I glued the middle linebacker right into Gaspar’s sandals. For years Butkus hovered over the stable daring anyone to challenge the infant in the crib.

Today, the creche exists as a mere shred of its original splendor. Even Butkus is gone, along with the camel, the star, and at least three pine trees. Yet, in looking back, I can’t help recognizing a metaphor: No matter how out of place you feel, there is always room for you under the Nativity tent . . . or Bavarian chalet, as the case may be.

John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media.