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A Christmas Story

December 24, 2010

To say that money was tight that year was an understatement if ever there was one.  With the birth of my youngest brother, his numerous operations, and his long stay in the hospital, my parents were feeling the financial pinch.  Then the crops did poorly, and my dad had to move us near a big city so that he could find work.   We stored most of our belongings at my grandparents’ some 200 miles away from our new place.  Our new place was a two bedroom mobile home.   It wasn’t that we weren’t happy, all seven of us crammed into that tiny house, we were just crowded. 

I suppose that my sister, Amy, and I, ages 8 and 10, didn’t understand what it meant to be poor.  After all, we always had food to eat and clothes to wear; and more importantly, our home was happy.  With two older brothers and parents who sheltered us from financial worries, we were oblivious as to why mom would only take us to the library if she had an errand on the way so that she could save gasoline, or why she’d decided to learn to make her own yogurt and cottage cheese.  We didn’t know that she turned the heat off in the house as soon as we left for school and only turned it back on minutes before we arrived home. 

That Christmas was to be our first lesson in denial, and it was a hard one.  When all of our friends began to put up their Christmas trees, my sister and I asked mom when we could put up our tree.  “Oh, I don’t think we’ll put up a tree this year,” she replied.

“What?  But we have to mom.”  Surely she was only teasing.

“We’ll be going to Grandma’s for Christmas; and we can look at hers.”

“Mom,” we whined, “Grandma’s is made out of aluminum.  It’s not a tree, and what about all of the days before Christmas?”

Finally mom said, “I’m sorry girls.  We can’t afford a tree, and besides all of our ornaments are in storage at Grandma’s house.  It would be too expensive to buy a tree and ornaments.  We simply can’t afford it.”

There was no use in continuing to pester, but we were sorely disappointed. 

That night Amy and I tried to figure out how we could have a tree anyway, but for the first time we realized that when mom and dad had asked if they could borrow the money we’d earned picking rocks from Grandpa’s field last summer, it really was because they had no other money.

The next morning, we got up and went to church, just as we always did on Sunday; and life continued.  All week, we looked longingly at the tree lots, but we did not ask again for a tree.

That Friday evening, we heard a car pulling up outside of our house, and we rushed to the window to see who it could be giving us a surprise visit.  Climbing out of the car was a newly married couple from our church, Jim and Jackie.  They’d taken a liking to our family, and Jackie was Amy’s Sunday School teacher.  It looked like they’d been buying their Christmas tree because one was tied to the top of their little car.  “How fun for them to stop in and see us on their way home,” I thought to myself.

But what was this?  They were untying the tree and dragging it to the front door.  All business, Jim was telling my dad that we’d need a bucket or something to keep it standing in our living room.  All of the boys scurried off to figure out how to rig up a stand for the tree. 

Meanwhile, Jackie was bringing in boxes of construction paper, glitter, pipe cleaner, ribbon, and popcorn.    “We’re going to make ornaments,” she said.  “Won’t that be fun?  It’ll be a homemade tree.”

I remember that evening with clarity.  Dad’s Vinyl records played their Christmas songs in the background as Jackie popped corn and showed us how to string it into a long strand of garland.  Our little fingers got sticky with Elmer’s glue as we made paper chains and then fancy construction paper ornaments covered in glitter.  The hours were filled with laughter and storytelling, and at last we decorated the tree with our newly made ornaments.

Jackie eventually admitted that she’d asked my sister during Sunday School if we’d put up a tree yet, and Amy had told her that we were too poor to buy a tree.  My mother blushed in embarrassment but understood how important the tree was to us children.  How easy it would have been for Jim and Jackie to say, “Oh we don’t want to make the parents uncomfortable.  We’d best leave well enough alone,” but they knew why money was tight for us, and they risked the potential discomfort in order to make our Christmas special.

Nearly 30 years have passed since Jim and Jackie surprised us with a Christmas tree, but I can still remember the feeling of joy that they gave to us.  I close my eyes, and I can feel Amy’s hand in mine as we creep down the hallway early in the morning.  We tip toe through the kitchen and into the living room.  There she stands, beautiful and regal, our Christmas tree.

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