Look what I got,” I exclaimed to my mom and brother as I climbed into the backseat of our car. I held up a red-colored bag, decorated with a tinseled bow, that was filled with goodies from my classroom’s Christmas party.
Mom had come to pick me up from school the last day before Christmas break. I was thrilled to share all the bounty from the first-grade party. I dropped my books in the seat beside me and began to show the treasures from the gift bag that my teacher had given me.
“Jim,” Mom instructed, “close the car door, and then you can tell us all about it on the drive home.”
I closed the door, still chattering as she pulled out of the school parking lot. I proceeded to draw the gifts from the bag one by one as I gave my mom and brother a verbal tour. “She gave us each a new pencil, but not just a regular yellow pencil. Look, mine matches my bag—it’s sparkling red!” I leaned forward, reaching my arm into the front seat so Mom and Rick could see the pencil.
I went through all the items in the bag, but I saved the teacher’s greatest gift for the grand finale. “She made us each a giant Christmas tree cookie!” I held it up with both hands, hoping Mom could catch a glimpse of it in the mirror. “She had all these cookies up front on a big table, and each one had our name in white icing with colored candies for ornaments. Then one by one we each went to the front of the class and shared something special about how we celebrate Christmas at our house. It made me excited to have Christmas again!”
I continued my recital of the day’s exciting events: “I told the class about Christmas at our house last year—tables full of food, and gifts stacked up the wall. I told them about the Christmas tree covered with icicles that lit up the room at night so that it seemed like the sun had just risen.”
Then I paused. “So when are we going to put up the tree this year, Mom? Don’t we usually buy it earlier than this? Many of my friends already have their trees up.”
I waited for Mom’s answer from the front seat, but it didn’t come. I couldn’t see her expression, and I wondered whether she’d heard me. Sometimes I would talk so much that she tuned me out, so I repeated the question: “Mom, when do we put up the Christmas tree?” But still there was an awkward silence that told me I had asked a touchy question.
That summer we had moved to an old house on the wrong side of the tracks in Yakima, Washington. Dad had left service station work and started a new business—a wrecking yard. He also got a job out at the Hanford atomic energy plant while he tried to build enough inventory to attract customers to his new business. Every spare dollar had gone into setting it up. Then Dad’s employer laid him off early for the winter. For weeks, we had tightened our belts until we were at the last notch. Mom swallowed her pride and went to get government commodities from the food bank. However, in my young mind it never registered that we now, officially, could be classified as “poor.”
“Mom, is something wrong?” I tried to arrange myself in the backseat so I could get a glimpse of her face in the rearview mirror.
“Honey, Christmas may not be the same this year.” Her voice trembled as she spoke. “The wrecking yard really hasn’t started paying yet and—”
“Oh, Mom,” I interrupted, “It’s OK. We’ll all be together.” I didn’t want her to feel bad, so I assured her that none of it mattered to me. But the truth was that a part of me wanted to stop her before she said something that was too big for my young mind to handle. She had said that Christmas would “not be the same.” I wondered what “not the same” meant.
I noticed “not the same” in the days that followed in the wrinkled forehead and worry lines my mom wore as she searched through the cupboards trying to decide what to fix us for lunch. She scoured the shelves for something besides the same biscuits and gravy that we’d already had three of the last four meals. I witnessed “not the same” as the usual bounce in my dad’s step slowed and then ceased. A slow, purposeful step replaced it, and his shoulders stooped. His walking seemed labored, and I observed firsthand the meaning of the expression “He has the weight of the world on his shoulders.” At times, he would sit with a blank stare, lost in the workings of his mind, as if he were trying to figure out how to construct a better future for his family.
In a sense, I didn’t notice the real impact. Mom baked cookies, and it was a lot of fun to have Dad at home to play Chinese checkers and have snowball fights outside with my brothers and me. We sang songs in the living room with Dad playing his guitar.
Yet one thing was conspicuously missing from the holiday décor. Yes, Mom’s Santa candles, which we never burned but had put up every year as decorations, were on the ledge of the big picture window. Gold and silver Christmas bulbs accented them along with sprigs from branches off a bush in our front yard. Three homemade angels crafted from folded pages from Reader’s Digest magazines graced the stand right by the entryway. Aunt Betty had sent us a Christmas merry-go-round made of gold tin that turned when the heat rose from lit candles.
And in the corner lay a little pile of wrapped gifts, but they were nothing compared to the mountains of presents in years gone by. Even the gifts’ wrapping displayed our humble circumstances. Some were from used Christmas paper that my frugal mother had saved from the previous year, but most were in the drab brown of cut up grocery bags with yarn for ribbons. A couple of them added contrast in make-do wrapping paper from the Sunday comics.
And above it all stretched giant strings of multicolored lights hung from a nail that Dad had driven three quarters of the way up the wall. The wires stretched out like an A-frame. Mom had taken the Christmas cards we’d received that year and taped them to the wire to fill in “the tree.” I never said it out loud, but really—a nail and wires for a Christmas tree? Were we now so poor that we could only afford a nail and wires?
The night before Christmas Eve our part of Washington State was blessed with a huge snowstorm. My dad seemed happy about it, rising bright and early the next morning. He thought he might earn some extra money by putting the boom back on his one-ton truck and using it like a tow truck to pull people out of the snow. But first he had to dump the load of branches and garbage off the back. I volunteered to go with him, and he welcomed me along. We went out to the community dump and backed up to the pile of trash beside a pickup.
“Look,” I exclaimed to my dad. I pointed to the man next to us, who was in the process of throwing a flocked Christmas tree off the bed of his pickup. There’d been three trees on his pickup along with some painting and flocking equipment, and he was throwing out the white-flocked tree as we arrived. There were two others in the pickup—a pure pink-flocked tree and another one that had pink flocking under white flocking that made it look like snow had fallen on a fairytale pink tree. The thick flocking looked like waxed snow, and it sparkled like diamonds. Hardly any green showed through the plasticlike coating.
In my young mind, these were the Cadillac of Christmas trees—more beautiful than any I’d ever seen. When Dad asked the man why he was tossing the trees, he explained that he had been selling trees at one of the lots in town, and flocking pink and white trees was something new this year. He explained that the trees he was abandoning were his display trees, because he’d run out of the white flocking, which was his big seller, and so he had decided to close up for the year. And his deal with the lot owner was that he would remove his display trees before he left town.
The branches on the white display tree were broken, but there were still two perfectly good pink-flocked trees left. My dad asked whether he minded if we took them, and he said, “No, go at it!”
We quickly cleared out the back of our truck and joyfully loaded our new trees.
Something had changed when we got back in the truck. My dad was grinning from ear to ear, and a gleam sparkled from his eyes. He looked at me, and in a voice mixed with joy and reverence, he praised God. “Son,” he said, “it looks like the Man upstairs is answering our prayers after all. He’s looking out for us. We’re going to have a Christmas tree tonight, and I just have a sense that everything will turn out all right. We’re going to make it through!”
I think, other than in song, it was the first reference my dad had ever made to his relationship with God. It also made me think that maybe some of my dad’s empty stares were desperate inner prayers.
Dad asked me which tree I liked the best. The white snow-flocked pink tree took my fancy. On the way home we stopped by my uncle Delbert’s place and presented the pure pink tree to him as a Christmas gift, because he also hadn’t been able to afford a tree that year. At first Uncle Delbert refused to take the tree, protesting to my dad, “Jim, you can’t afford something like this!”
Dad, with a big smile and watering eyes, explained, “Delbert, the good Lord just dropped these in my lap, and I knew instantly that He wanted one of them for you. So just consider me the delivery boy.” With that the older man reached out and shook Dad’s hand. We hustled the tree into his house and left.
Upon arriving home, Dad rushed into the house and called, “Babe, you and the kids get your coats on. You won’t believe what I’ve got for you!”
Mom put her hand over her mouth in awe when she saw the pink tree, and she chided my dad. “What did you go and do?” she exclaimed. “You know we can’t afford anything like this!”
And my dad, happy as a little kid having just opened his first bike for Christmas, explained, “Babe, it didn’t cost us a thing. It came from the dump. But I tell you, there’s no doubt in my mind that the good Lord gave it to us so we would have a merry Christmas.” Mom and Dad hugged each other, and the gloom of poverty lifted from our Christmas.
We all started laughing. My brothers and I jumped up and down in a spontaneous dance of delight, and we all pitched in to take the miracle Christmas tree into the house and set
it up. When we sang around the tree that night, our Christmas songs echoed the praise we felt in our hearts for a loving, caring God.
Today, Christmastime at our house gleams with decorations. My wife, a talented decorator, has our home looking like something from a home and garden magazine. And I love it all. But honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about a Christmas tree in my life than that day as a kid.
We kept the tree up until my older brother’s birthday on New Year’s Day. And then, when my parents went to take it down, I begged them to leave it up. The tree with its pink undertones and white flocking over the top had stayed preserved as if it were petrified. I don’t think a single needle had fallen off! On my birthday that year, January 16, I opened my birthday presents under a pink-flocked Christmas tree.
However, the miracle of the pink tree was not its longevity but that it put the smile back on the face of a father who wanted to provide for his family. And it told of a Father who had not