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The tree is decorated with ornaments from years past. Now the waiting begins for the holidays, and, as Danny Heitman writes, for the kids to come home.

In my early days as a father, I’d sometimes point out a red dot blinking across the dark winter sky and tell our two children that Santa was making a practice run before Christmas Eve.

“That’s Rudolph lighting his way,” I’d mention matter-of-factly. “Santa wants to make sure he can find our house when he’s ready to visit.”

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A naysayer might have argued that the bright point of light winking back at us was really the beacon of a plane nearing the airport at the edge of the city. But for our children, who grew up watching their dad get lost on family drives, the thought that a male authority figure might have to double-check his route made perfect sense.

Noting Santa’s rehearsal for Dec. 24, I was trying to share with our daughter and son the best and hardest part of Christmas — waiting for it.

Danny Heitman's 'At Random': Christmas comes earlier with each passing year

In a culture conditioned by instant gratification, Christmas is a rare treasure available in its own time, not merely when we want it. Its origins as a religious holiday advanced by the lengthy season of Advent are grounded in the idea that extended vigils create spaces for reflection. Maybe the far horizon of Yuletide compels us to look much farther, perhaps even into eternity. For believers, the promise of the season is life without end.

These days, while wheeling our garbage can to the curb, I still see the occasional red dot plodding through the black heavens of December. In middle age, my thoughts now turn to the airliners sometimes needed to get our children home for Christmas. They’re both grown and living out of state.

After all those years teaching my daughter and son to wait for Christmas, I must now teach myself to wait for them. Mostly, we wait by keeping busy.

A couple of Sundays ago, we opened the wooden chest where we keep our holiday things, and like a genie rubbed from its lamp, Christmas floated out to fill the living room. There was the little manger made of Popsicle sticks my daughter had fashioned as a youngster. Among the ornaments was one marked by my son’s tiny handprint when he was in day care. We hung from a branch a plaster snowman fashioned in first grade.

Trimming the tree took longer than expected. As Christmases past came into view through some sorcery only Dickens could imagine, I had to stop a lot to tend the lump in my throat.

Like stars emerging at dusk, the tree slowly brightened into a constellation of memory, every branch bearing some chapter of lives shared over decades of Decembers.

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“I want it to look like Christmas when they get home,” my wife said as I plugged in the lights. But we knew it wouldn’t really look like Christmas until they were back with us — as they are, blessedly, right now.


Email Danny Heitman at dheitman@theadvocate.com.