“Look at the Christmas cards we got today,” Mom called from the doorway. There was quite a display. There were cards from our aunt in faraway California, next door neighbors, acquaintances, and from stores trying to keep our business. Those cards were spread out on the table. But in Mom’s hand was the most beautiful card we had ever seen. It had a picture of a beautiful Christmas tree decorated with candles and a great shining star on top.
“It’s from the Governor,” she said proudly. Dad edged over to her side and peeked at the card. “Guess that work we did in the Democratic primaries was appreciated,” he said somberly.
Mom gathered up the cards and she began taping them around the doorways next to others already posted. The Governor’s card was hung on the tree so any visitors would be sure to see it.
“We’re going into town today to buy gifts,” Dad announced a few days later. “But first I want you all to come here. You have a decision to make.” Christmas was a time for giving and in order to be in the proper spirit we had to think past our own wants and needs. “Do you want me to give you gifts or do you want money to spend so that you can give presents to each other? I don’t have enough money for both.”
We looked at each other and it was decided instantly without a word being spoken. “We want to get each other gifts,” Sue Ann said hastily while we all nodded in assent.
“O.K., If that’s your decision,” Dad said as he doled out the money according to age. “Willis, Sue Ann, you each get ten dollars. Twins, you each get eight dollars. Danny, Billy, each of you gets five dollars.”
Christmas comes but once a year and it was a lot of money for us during those dark days. As we rode the eight miles into town over the gravel road that sliced through the hills, we thought about the gifts we could buy.
“Over four thousand people live here,” Willis told me as we neared town. “You’ll see a lot of stores.”
In town we decided to split up so that we could make our selections in private. Before he left Willis took me aside. “Danny, you watch out for Billy,” he warned. “And don’t leave Woolworth’s until I return.”
“Why would I leave?” I thought. “This store has everything.”
Everywhere I looked there were aisles and aisles of fancy things. I saw prices marked and slashed. Everything was on sale but I knew I didn’t have enough money to buy something for everybody. Still, I had to decide. I talked the situation over with Billy. “If we put our money together, we can probably buy a present for everyone.” Billy looked around, still awed by the displays. “Sure,” he said quietly. “I think that would be better.”
The previous year I spent almost all of my money on Mom so I thought we should wait before we bought her a gift. We walked down the aisles looking, afraid to touch anything, with the clerk eyeing us suspiciously. We decided on a grooming kit for Willis, and two packages of hair ribbons for Sue Ann. Dad got handkerchiefs. One half hour later we still hadn’t agreed on anything for the twins and Mom.
In order to find gifts for them we went farther into the store and paused at the Christmas tree decorations. I could see Billy’s eyes twinkling. “Isn’t that star beautiful?” he asked, pointing at a shiny star wrapped in tissue paper. Its four points were silver and the red interior seemed like glowing embers.
Billy reached out to touch it but a rough voice stopped him. “Don’t touch, little boy.” I turned and saw the red-faced clerk behind me. I started to go but I turned and asked quickly, “How much is it?”
Haughtily he grumbled, “Two-fifty. Too much for the likes of you.”
Billy and I whispered together for a few seconds. I drew myself up and said, “We’ll take it.”
The clerk eyed our money and recounted it several times. Finally he put everything in a bag and rushed us towards the door and into the cold. We found ourselves standing next to a woman ringing a bell. “Who are you?” I questioned. “I’m raising money for the Salvation Army,” she replied. “Whenever there is a disaster the Salvation Army goes there and helps families.”
Billy and I looked at each other. I pulled out the remaining two dollars and put it into the kettle. The woman looked surprised but managed to say, “Why thank you, boys. God bless you.”
Later, while we waited outside Woolworth’s, we were torn between guilt feelings of not getting everyone something, giving away some of the money, and keeping the star for the tree. “We do need the star,” I told Billy. “It will make the tree beautiful.” We talked for awhile and agreed to give the star to Betsy and Kathy. Everybody had gifts except for Mom. I worried about that but had no answers.
The day before Christmas the sky had a gray overcast. I put on my coat and pulled my wool cap over my ears as I stepped outside. In the distance I thought I saw a glimmer of lights, and that piqued my curiosity. The lights led me across the gravel road and down to the store. Displayed in the store window was a odd looking tree with tiny twinkling lights and I stood there for several minutes staring at it. It was nothing like a real tree. It was metallic and was shaped perfectly, not like our three sided scrub tree. I pressed my nose against the glass, hoping for a better look.
A voice boomed, “Would you like to come inside and see the tree? I had it shipped from Chicago.” Mr. Bradley, the storekeeper, stood at the door. “I’ll have Dora make you some hot chocolate.”
“No, thank you. I’ve got to get back. I was just curious when I saw the lights blinking.” I didn’t want to go in. I was afraid that I’d slip and say I thought the metal tree was ugly. So I just waved and started back.
I came to the schoolyard fence and climbed up the stile. I stood on top and surveyed the scene like a king surveying his kingdom. Something wet fell on my shoulder. I reached out my hand. It was starting to snow. For a few minutes I raced around catching snowflakes with my tongue. Then I realized I wanted to share the moment. I ran home and pounded on the door. “It’s snowing. We’re going to have a white Christmas after all.”
With the snow putting a white blanket over houses, rocks, and trees, everyone seemed to be in a better mood. Mom was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on a gingerbread house. Most of us stayed nearby, watching her work or helping decorate when she would let us. As a final touch she sprinkled sugar over the orange-sliced roof and the gingerbread forest.
“It’s finished,” she said. “Sunday we’ll take it to church and let everyone eat it.” The thought of eating the gingerbread house gave me extra energy. We were all aglow with the Christmas spirit. We had presents, a tree, and snow. What more could we want?
Christmas Eve passed ever so slowly and the afternoon was unbearably long. Billy and I spent some time studying the tree and looking at the gifts under the tree. The gifts were spread out over a sheet which covered the rock filled tub. The tub held the water which kept the tree fresh.
Most of the presents were easy to figure out. The shapes of underwear packages and homemade shirts stood out. They were always there at Christmas. But there were other presents we weren’t sure about. We wanted to shake them and see what sounds they made but we were afraid to overstep any forbidden rules. Finally Dad said, “You two go into the other room and play Monopoly or something.”
We celebrated the giving of gifts on Christmas Eve because Dad and Mom did not believe in promoting Santa Claus. They wanted Christmas to be celebrated for the birth of Jesus. So after supper the family gathered by the Christmas tree. Dad read the story of Bethlehem while the rest of the family listened silently. When he finished, Dad said a prayer of thanksgiving for another year. Then he raised his head and said, “Let’s open presents.”
As head of the household Dad handed out the gifts as he came to them. Gradually he worked his way around the tree. When he read, “To Kathy and Betsy, from Danny and Billy,” I held my breath.
Eagerly they tore open the package. I could hear them gasp as they saw the star inside. They whispered together while they held it. I could see no indication whether they liked it or not. As for Mom’s present, we still felt guilty. We had not gotten her a present but when we explained that we had given our last money to the Salvation Army, we were surprised. Mom cried and said we had given her the best present ever.
Billy and I shot marbles, using our new Christmas agates and steelies, until Dad sent us to bed. No visions of sugar plums or Saint Nick danced in my head because I fell fast asleep.
The aroma of pies and turkey woke me. Mom and Sue Ann were busily scurrying around to keep up with the Christmas day schedule. Mom wiped perspiration from her forehead. “We’ve got Cream of Wheat on the stove. Help yourself. We’ve got company coming today and I can’t stop to help you.”
After finishing breakfast I stepped into the living room. Kathy was sitting on the floor facing the tree. I noticed the tears in her eyes as I sat down beside her. “Thanks for the star,” she said. “It makes all the difference in the world. It turned the scrub tree into a very special Christmas tree.”
She started humming “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and I joined in. In the kitchen Billy’s voice lifted in song. Other voices chipped in behind us and gradually everyone drifted into the living room singing.
That’s how I remember Christmas, all of us together, singing around the Christmas scrub tree. That Christmas our family bonds were stronger than ever. It was a great ending for one year and a good way to begin a new one. The scrub tree became a symbol of transformation. It reminded me that something common could be changed into something regal.
As I walked through a Christmas tree lot I couldn’t help but notice a scrawny tree lying on its side and it reminded me of a poor country Christmas long ago. Perhaps it was a glimmer of light through the fog, or wind moving the branches but at that moment I could smell the scent of crushed cedar and I could see a Christmas season long lost except in warm memories.
From my childhood I could recall another scrawny tree, a cedar, one that was transformed by a gift which answered my sister’s dreams.
It was a cold, wet winter in the Ouachita Mountains. The trees were beautiful in summer but now, except for the tall pines and the straggly, dwarfed cedars, the trees were almost bare. The cottonwoods with their parasitic crowns of mistletoe, the oaks, the walnuts, and the hickorys stood stark against the sky.
Like most of the area’s residents, our family struggled through the first eleven months of the year. December, with Christmas, was a special month. It was a time for beautiful thoughts and a beautiful world covered with snow. My family was ready to give up its daily rations of beans, fried potatoes, and cornbread. It was the time to fatten the old red rooster for Christmas. It was also a time to forget harsh realities, to dream and to expect better things. To that extent, the Christmas was a symbol of those dreams.
My parents had planned the day we were to get the Christmas tree long in advance of the event. Fortunately, the weather was dry but very cold. Frost striped the windows with silvery tentacles and the cold nippy air forced me deeper into the covers. Willis, my older brother, had already slopped the pigs and fed the chickens at daybreak. Now he burst into the room.
“Hey, day’s abreakin! Possum’s on the limb and his tail’s ashakin!” He was shouting in his usual fashion because it was his duty to get me up. This morning he sounded even more excited because today was a special family outing to get the yearly Christmas tree. Seeing no response to his greeting, he pulled the covers from my inert form.
“Get up. Get up, you sleepy head. Today we go get the Christmas tree. Are you going to stay in bed all day? The sun’s already up.”
As I studied his muscular frame, I thought of kicking at him but groggily decided to hold back the impulse. “No,” I reasoned. “He’s got a temper, too.”
Silently I slid out of bed and pulled on my jeans. Already I could hear the sounds of chairs scraping on the floor as the family gathered. I shuffled to my seat. We were all there, stationed at the rectangular table. Willis was across from me while my three older sisters sat on my side of the table. My younger brother, Billy, on the same side as Willis, leaned against Dad. Dad and Mom sat at the ends of the table, directly across from each other.
Dad began with a prayer and Mom followed by reading the Daily Bible reading. Then it was Dad’s turn again. “We’ll go above the old Morse farm today. I saw some nice trees there a couple of weeks ago.”
We split steaming hot biscuits and ladled hot milk gravy over them. While my parents sipped coffee, my brothers and sisters and I drank the warm Jersey milk Dad had strained and skimmed earlier. The biscuits became dessert too, with butter and blackberry jam.
“Didn’t we get the wild plums at the Morse place last year?” I asked. My oldest sister, Sue Ann, shook her head. “Nope. Just the blackberries.” I looked at the last biscuit and hesitated when I saw my mother’s face. “That’s for your Daddy,” she asserted.
Right after breakfast my older brother, sisters, and I piled into the back of our blue pickup truck while Dad, Mom, and Billy climbed into the cab. We readied for the cold trip by bundling up with a patchwork quilt made from old jeans. The pickup sputtered and coughed and gradually began to drone monotonously.
“Over the hills and through the woods,” we sang as the pickup twisted up the muddy road. After “Silent Night” and a few other songs we felt the pickup slow down.
Dad pointed out of the window and shouted, “The river is rising. We don’t want to be gone too long today.”
From the pickup bed we could see where the swollen muddy water was lapping at the concrete bridge. For the past two days the Kiamichi River had been fed by rains that had drenched the surrounding hills. Now the sun was shining and the clouds had disappeared.
“I hope we get some Christmas weather,” Betsy said. “A couple of days of sunshine and then some snow.”
As the truck cautiously crossed the bridge over the swirling water we gazed at the trees on the bank ahead of us. We murmured over the mistletoe laced trees and bright splotches of scarlet Holly berries. “Remember where you saw them,” Willis said. “We’ll get some on our way back.”
We were stiff and cold when we arrived at the Morse place. The Morse house, its paint peeling and weatherworn, was really nothing more than a two room shack that had given up its last occupants years ago in the Depression. With its dark vacant windows I was sure it was another ghost house left to guard the mountainside. I steered clear of the broken picket fence as we walked by.
Dad led the way up a well used deer trail that twisted through the thick brush. We padded along on the moist spongy carpet of leaves. In the places where the ground was bare Dad stopped occasionally to show us where deer and rabbits had crossed.
Once he bent and said, “Look at the baby’s hand print.” As I studied it I could tell he was teasing. I had seen skunk tracks before.
Near the top of the ridge we came to a glade fringed with oak, persimmon, hickory, and dogwood. The glade itself was almost barren. The only plants thriving in the exposed rocky soil of the glade were prickly pear cactuses and stands of red cedar. It seemed evident that the cedar trees were gradually reclaiming the clearing.
We fanned out to look for a tree, not just any tree, but a tree that would fit in the corner or a small living room. “I wish someday we could buy a beautiful pine tree like I’ve seen in the magazines,” Betsy said wistfully. “I’m tired of these scrub trees.”
The tiny cedar trees were to her just scrub trees, but I thought they were special because they were hardy and fragrant. Of course I had no other trees to compare them with so the cedar trees won hands down. We selected and sawed the best tree on the hillside. The tree looked almost uniform on three sides, but one part looked very scraggly.
“The other side won’t show in the corner, anyway,” Mom said.
Willis dragged the cedar to the pickup and threw it in. Then off we went, slowly bouncing along the road. Returning to the bridge we could see the water had risen another foot. The water was washing over the roadway and we looked at the bridge dubiously.
Dad checked the water line from several angles. “I think we can make it. The water doesn’t seem to be rising too fast.” While we were waiting for his decision Willis skinnied up several trees and brought down large armfuls of mistletoe and branches of Holly. He tossed them into the pickup bed in front of our feet.
The truck launched into the water covering the concrete bridge and gave a little lurch as the rubber tires slipped and then grabbed solid ground. We felt the pickup slide momentarily but then the pickup was on the other side and back on the road. A few minutes later I could see our house nestled in the valley between the small two story brick school and the diminutive store with its signs proudly proclaiming opposing products, Pepsi-Cola and Coca Cola. As the pickup slid to a stop, I sang out, “Home again, home again, jiggidy jig.”
Later that day we backed the tree into the living room corner, took down the mouse chewed cardboard box of ornaments from the attic, and began decorating the tree. Pine cones and fir cones were placed on the branches. Paper children holding hands were cut out of catalogues and pasted in a long chain that curved gracefully around the tree. Christmas ornaments, their paint worn thin in spots, our whole collection, were taken from the box and hung in strategic locations. With needle and thread we laced popcorn and cranberries in a ratio of three to one. This tree rope was strung through the other decorations and gave the tree color. We stopped occasionally when the thread broke and sent red cranberries and white popcorn scattering across the floor. When the tree was decorated and finished, I stood back to admire it. Kathy, Betsy’s twin, would only say, “It’s still a scrub tree. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”