Few things in our lives are so deeply steeped in tradition as our observance of Christmas. At a very young age, we become accustomed to Christmas practices which will tug at our hearts and memories for years to come.
So it was in the home in which I was raised. Though our Christmases were meager materially, they were rich in love, warmth and tradition.
The early ’60s were not good financial years for my parents. Medical bills, job changes and six hungry kids strained Dad’s hard-earned paycheck. Though Mom worked miracles in stretching a dollar, there was little left over for things beyond the necessities.
Things were particularly tough in 1965, so I was not shocked when Mom took me, the oldest, aside in December and explained that we would not have a Christmas tree that year. Money was tight, she said, and she wanted to be sure that each child got a gift. A tree really wasn’t necessary.
Though the news didn’t bother me at first, I soon began to feel that it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a decorated tree in the living room.
My own finances weren’t of much help. During the winter there were no jobs for teenagers in our little farm town and I had all I could do to keep my old Chevy’s gas tank full. As the days went by, I futilely considered ways to acquire a Christmas tree for the family.
On the Saturday before Christmas, my cousin and her husband from Cedar Falls came to visit. Vern and I decided to go rabbit hunting and headed for the timber a few miles west of town.
Hiking through a clearing, I spotted a little pine tree which, I thought, would make a suitable Christmas tree.
“I wish I’d brought along a saw,” I mumbled to Vern.
When he asked why, I explained my dilemma and noted that this little tree could serve our family’s holiday needs.
“You don’t need a saw for that,” Vern said boldly.
With that he put the barrel of his shotgun close to the base of the little tree and pulled the trigger. As the blast echoed across the valley, the tree tipped to the ground with several strands of wood and bark still connected to the shredded stump. Aiming at the freshly exposed wood, Vern squeezed the trigger again. A few twists and turns freed the tree from its stump and we carried it to the car.
My mother was surprised when we returned home with a tree and a bit perturbed when she learned how we had acquired it. After a few minutes, however, she agreed that it would serve the purpose.
Some trimming here and there and the tree was ready for the living room. Later in the day, after it was adorned with our well-worn lights, garland and ornaments, I determined that it was a most lovely Christmas tree.
My memories of that Christmas are among the most vivid and cherished of all my youthful holidays. I was a budding young photographer at the time and have several black and white photos of the family from that Christmas. Unfortunately (well, maybe fortunately) I have no photographs of that Christmas tree. More than 50 years later, I must admit the tree wasn’t all that beautiful. In fact, it was little more than a scrub bush.
If, by chance, a Hamilton County farmer discovered that winter that some fools had shot a tree on his (or her) property, he should know that the tree was well used and admired and that it helped keep alive an important Christmas tradition for a family that was down on its luck.
He should also know that the homely little tree is fondly remembered by one of those fools. He might even be pleased to know that the tree eventually helped that fool understand the significance of Christmas. Because of Christmas, the most plain and ordinary of us — even the most wretched and vile — can become perfect and beautiful in the eyes of God, the One who gave us Christmas. That, after all, is the true gift of Christmas!
Perhaps that scrub tree — felled by a shotgun — was the most beautiful Christmas tree I have ever seen.
Arvid Huisman began writing Country Roads 32 years ago, and today the column appears in several Iowa newspapers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.