Most Christmas stories people tell are tales of Christmas mornings gone by, of opening presents, of getting or giving the perfect gift, of going to church and singing in the choir, of basically everything you can think of that could happen on Christmas morn.
This Christmas story is not one of Christmas morn, but of Christmas preparations, of driving my mother crazy, and of the ingenuity to place a fifteen foot tree in a room with a twelve foot ceiling.
I grew up in an old Victorian house in Cincinnati, one with a large inviting foyer that opened into an even larger living room, a living room with a working fireplace on one wall, upon which all nine Christmas stockings hung, a grand piano on the opposite wall, around which we all gathered to sing the required Christmas songs, and a bay window that comprised the entire front wall, in front of which our Christmas tree stood every year, not only for our enjoyment, but for the admiration of all who walked by outside as well.
The room looked extremely large and was extremely large, partly because of the wall to wall dimensions, and partly because the ceilings were twelve feet high. Every so often at Christmas time, my dad would bring home a tree that the room dwarfed, a tree that looked pitiful, even with 20 years’ worth of collected Christmas ornaments adorning it. We children thought that an outrage; my mother never complained.
How could we brag to our friends about the size of our tree when, even though the one we had was the biggest and best, it appeared smaller in comparison merely because of the room that surrounded it? The year that Dad brought home a tree that had to be put on a table to make it tall enough for our liking was the last year we let him pick out the tree. My brother and I dubbed ourselves the Searchers of the Tree.
That next year, the year of our current story, the two of us borrowed our father’s Oldsmobile station wagon and left on our quest for the perfect tree, one that would fill the room and give it the tree it deserved. A magnificent room should have a magnificent tree.
My mother admonished us against getting carried away. They always look smaller in the great outdoors than they do inside, she said. Please keep that in mind, she said. Yes, Mother, of course, we replied, never really hearing what she had said.
We left the city for the nature and beauty of the county’s countryside. Tree farms abounded beyond the city limits, and we knew our most perfect tree awaited our arrival. As we pulled the car up to the forest of trees, the proprietor handed us a saw and told us to take our pick.
We perused the front of the farm, where the newest trees stood, newest also meaning smallest. On beyond the opening section, into the older, mature trees we ventured, pointing and judging, discussing and dismissing. Then we saw it, our most perfect tree!
The tree was beautiful, full all around with no holes or missing branches, a tree you’d find on the cover of a Christmas magazine, only not airbrushed into perfection. This tree had a perfection only God could create – here was the tree of our quest! David stood next to the tree to judge its height. We both agreed that Mother would be pleased, and we would finally have the tree the house required, the one tree that would make the holiday ornamentation complete and faultless.
And we forgot our Mother’s words of warning.
The first clue we missed that the tree was too tall was the fact that we could not carry it ourselves. Cutting it down had been no problem, we were old hats at that. With it lying on the ground, David positioned himself at the bottom end and I close to the top, yet it sagged so much in the middle, we had to have the owner of the tree farm give us hand. He stood in the middle and helped us lug it to the car.
The second clue we missed that the tree was too tall was the fact that it hung off both ends of the car, an Oldsmobile station wagon, a car of considerable length, used to transport a family of nine rather comfortably.
The third clue we missed that the tree was too tall was the proprietor asking us if we didn’t want him to trim some of the bottom off for us. It’ll be a mighty tall tree, he offered. Yes, won’t it be beautiful, we replied, not hearing the real meaning behind his question.
With the tree tied to the top of the wagon, we headed homeward, full of the happiness and pride that comes only from a fulfilled quest, from a job well done, from the ignorance of not knowing you’re riding to your doom.
As we drove up to the house, my siblings came out to greet us, and did so appropriately, with the expected oohs and aahs a tree this grand provokes. Our mother, too, came out to greet us, with the unexpected Oh Lord, David, didn’t I tell you, that flattened our chests and made us reconsider our job well done. We reassured her that this was in fact the tree of her dreams. Let us set it erect in the house, we said, and she would see what a brilliant job we had done.
But Mothers are always right, they have an uncanny way of knowing just where the errors will lie even before a task is undertaken. Of course, the tree would not only not stand upright inside the house, it barely fit through the front door.
Not to worry, my brother said, as my mother walked off in tears, crying, Just once, just once, I’d like someone to listen to my advice. Not to worry, Mom, everything will be alright, just give us an hour or so to make this right.
At the end of the hour, our mother returned, not to find a tree that was shortened to fit the room, but a tree that seemingly burst through the ceiling. Astounded, my mother gawked at a fifteen foot tree that stood upright in a twelve foot room. The first twelve feet of the tree, from the bottom up, stood in all its grandeur. The top of the tree could not be seen, and appeared to disappear into the second floor. Where’s the top of the tree, she asked, a natural enough question. In the ceiling, he answered, not at all relieving her of her confusion.
But when she went upstairs to her bedroom, the top of the tree seemed to be coming up from the room below. There, in my mother’s bedroom, stood the remaining three feet of tree, as if in continuation of the other twelve feet beneath it, decorated with lights and trimming.
And the family angel shining brightly from the topmost branch.