“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.