By L. Milton Hankins © 1985
Issue: December, 1985
"You'll probably think it silly of me," I said to my wife, Anne, on the eve of our first Christmas together, "but this year I'd like to decorate our tree just like we did at home when I was a kid."
"How's that?" she inquired, somewhat amused. "Was it something out of the ordinary?"
"Oh, very special," I countered.
"I thought we'd get a nice artificial tree," she went on. "They are very realistic nowadays, and my folks have agreed to let us have some of their ornaments."
"No. No, it has to be a real tree," I insisted. "Artificial will never do. Perhaps someday, but not this Christmas!"
"But, honey, don't you think it's a terrible thing to cut down a living tree?" she hedged. "It seems such a shame."
"We'll get one we can set out after the holidays," I assured her. "But this is a special Christmas, our very first, and for some reason I really want a live tree decorated just like I remember back home."
The scene of my childhood Christmases was a small, weather-boarded country house which passed out of our family trust a few months after my mother died, my father desperately needing the money to see us children properly cared for. I'll never forget the old homeplace, nor the day we were packed up to leave it forever, each one of us leaving behind some very pleasant memories. Mine were the Christmas Eve family festivities and, especially, our Christmas tree. In the ensuing years it came to symbolize the happiest moments of my childhood, the years before tragedy intervened and we became a divided family.
In those days, in the late afternoon of a crisp, early December day, my father, my brother and sister, and I would go scouting down in the pine grove for our Christmas tree. It was always a happy expedition with much laughter as we would roam among the long-needle pines, tree after tree, considering the merits of each until we had settled upon the right one. We would check out its height and the fullness of its branches with a practiced eye. Then, and only then, when we had all agreed upon a particular tree, my father would mark it with a band of red ribbon so we could be sure to find it again come Christmas Eve.
"Are you quite sure this tree is perfect?" my father would ask each of us in turn, and each would nod affirmatively, and if there were a minor defect we would, in our mind's eye, discount it.
"We can always turn that skimpy side to the wall where no one can see it," my sister would say. She was the one who found it so hard to reject any tree at all.
"I'm sure the trunk can be whittled down a bit to fit the stand," my father would assure us if there were suggestions that the trunk was too fat.
"Make sure there's a nice straight top for the angel!" my little brother would unfailingly insist. "Can I put the angel on this year, Dad?"
"We'll see if you've grown tall enough, son," my father would promise.
Racing back home through the crunchy, snow-covered meadow, we could anticipate that our mother would be standing just inside the doorway.
"Well, do we have a Christmas tree this year?" she would say, and the first one of us to burst through the door would receive the honor of describing the chosen tree.
"It's the finest one we saw!" my father would add, and we all knew that once it was cut, brought in, and decorated we would proclaim it "the prettiest tree we've ever had!" And it was always true, the last Christmas tree was always the prettiest.
So, that first year of our marriage, Anne and I selected our tree with utmost care and brought it home to be decorated in the same way my family had done when I was a boy.
On Christmas Eve that same year I had a sudden, whimsical notion that we could drive the forty miles into the country to look over the old house of my earliest Christmases. Our own tree was decorated, all our gifts were lovingly wrapped and placed under its laden branches, and then, we got into the car and headed for the country. As the miles began to fade behind us, I thought more and more of that last, special Christmas our family had spent together and the incredible thing that had happened and I decided it was an appropriate time to share the story with Anne.
It was a sad Christmas that year, for, you see, my mother was buried on that Christmas Eve. As we drove along, I told Anne all about our family Christmas customs and about the extraordinary event that had taken place on that last Christmas Eve.
A few days before Christmas every year, Mother would send Father up to the attic to bring down boxes of tree ornaments which had been so carefully packed away the previous year. Together they would check out the strands of lights while we children rediscovered the fragile, exquisitely colorful balls and tinkly silver bells which had become annual favorites.
"Be very careful you don't drop any of them," Mother would caution as we passed each treasure hand to hand until all had a renewed acquaintance with it. Each of us always selected our favorite and staked a claim for placing it on the tree when the proper time came.
Day by day as the moment approached, the intensity of our excitement would swell. It seemed we were not so much intoxicated by the promise of gifts as we were by the atmosphere of the season and the activities we shared as a family; more so at this time than any other, as I recall.
Then the day would arrive, and a hundred times we would ask Mother how soon our father would be coming home from work, and she would answer patiently, "It won't be long now," but for us children the minutes drifted by so, so slowly. Long toward late afternoon I, being the oldest, would go out to the woodshed and bring my father's broad-axe and his work gloves to the back porch. As we did not have a tractor or a wagon, it was also my honor, being the strongest, to help my father carry the newly-cut tree home. Then, soon after everything was in order, my father came home, and while Mother prepared a sumptuous dinner for the occasion we would walk over to the pine grove and cut our tree.
While the dinner table was cleared and the dishes put away, my father would carefully trim away the lowest limbs, cut the trunk to size, and mount the tree in its metal stand. Next, he and I would carry it into the living room where it was to be installed and decorated. The remainder of the evening in our household would be entirely given over to our trimming and celebrations. After the lights and garland were meticulously draped around the branches, each of us busied ourselves with the ornaments. While we worked, we sang the old-fashioned carols, talked about Santa Claus for my younger brother's benefit, and shared memories of Christmases past.
Later, when the tree stood shimmering with icicles, glowing with every color of the rainbow, Mother would bring from the kitchen popcorn balls and hot chocolate. Then, either Mother or Father would recite "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and the other one would read to us the story of Jesus' birth from the New Testament. Always too soon the festivities would be over and bedtime came around and we would be tucked wide-eyed into our beds to lie thinking about what we might find beneath the tree come morning.
As that last Christmas had neared and we had become mired down so by our mother's illness, no one had given much thought to Christmas trees or celebration. So, we had driven home in mute sadness, acutely aware that never again would we be a complete family and never again would our mother be a part of our Christmases. Neither Father nor us children mentioned it, of course, but all of us felt the bitter sting of our mother's absence, and all of us dreaded coming into the bleak and lonely coldness of a home that had always been warm and lovely at Christmas time.
I remember how slowly my father opened the front door on that Christmas Eve. Than I remember how we all stood open-mouthed, aghast. We were stunned! To say the least, we were enormously surprised at what we saw, for there in its customary place stood the most beautifully-decorated Christmas tree we had ever had, truly! My father had not decorated it, nor had we children, but there it was, in all its radiant splendor, glittering brightly, and we knew instantly that something marvelous and magical had brought us together once more.
The years passed and there were other Christmases in other homes and they were nice times with family and friends, but never a Christmas Eve passed that I didn't think about Christmas in our home when I was growing up, and never a yuletide season came that I didn't wonder about the last Christmas tree.
When I had finished my story, I glanced across the front seat of the car to catch a tear trickling down Anne's cheek.
"You never told me that story before," she whispered. "No," I said. "It's a story for an occasion like this."
"Did you ever discover who had brought in the tree?" she asked.
"No, we never did," I said. "As a matter of fact, I don't think we ever really tried too hard to find out. It was always just the last Christmas tree', the tree our mother presented to us."
"I see," Anne said, and we drove on in silence.