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Something Real for Christmas (pt. 1)

AUTHORS NOTE:  While very loosely based on real events (the decision to switch to a fake tree after many years of having a fresh evergreen cut from the forest behind our house & my learning about Santa) the story shared here is a work of fiction for the purposes of a contest.  Any resemblance to people who I actually know (my family) is intended as a homage and should not be considered biographical.  Additionally this is a first draft and changes are bound to happen to it before it’s finished.    

There comes a time in a child’s life when the concept of Christmas is forever changed. For many, it’s the point at which you realize that certain figures central to the American version of the holiday, aren’t exactly who we were told they were. Still for others it’s a gradual thing that happens over the course of many seasons, when toys and other gifts of pleasure give way to practical things of necessity. The season no longer bears a shine of wonder, but a burden of deadlines, tightened budgets, and waistlines.

When I look back on my own childhood and review those years in which the wonder hadn’t yet dulled, few things stand out to me more than the iconic Christmas Tree. That evergreen fir of the north decked out in the glass bulbs and handmade trinkets that my mother had collected over the years. It’s twinkling lights and glittering tinsel would shine on long after we’d turned out all other lights for the night.  In those quiet hours, my sister and I would slip out to our bedroom door to stare at it until our heads were heavy with weariness. To my mind the many trees we had over the years had came to be a symbol of not just the season, but of the best things in my family. Regardless of the number of gifts under it, the tree held a history of who we were, and the best my mother hoped that we could be.

“Be careful on the top step!” Mother called out from behind us. “It’s covered in ice!”

“I’m making the boxes.” I declared as we trudged across the snow packed walk and up to the door. “I wrap the nicest.”

“Dibs on decorating sugar cookies!” My sister laughed, running past me.

“YOU CAN’T CALL DIBS ON SUGAR COOKIES, WE ALL GET TO DO THEM!” I petulantly whine, but we both know that already.

Remembering what night it is, my sister dropped her bag and dashed to the TV.  “Rudolf is on!”  She squealed snapping on the old RCA and turning the dial to channel 11.  It was one of four channels that on a clear night we were able to get so far out in the country where we lived.

“Can we stay up late, Mom?” I plead, pulling out the components for making my mother’s famous ‘Christmas Boxes’ – tiny foil lined and gift wrapped cardboard boxes packed so full of homemade cookies and candies that you’d be on a sugar buzz until late February, if you happened to be the happy recipients of one of them. Mom was well known in our family and among the kids on our school bus for her baking skills.  It wasn’t out of the ordinary for her to be baking almost non-stop from Thanksgiving right up until Christmas morning. I had no idea until many years later that these manic bouts of cooking frenzy weren’t actually a good thing, but instead a symptom of something doctors wouldn’t be able to diagnose for many years to come.

“I don’t know…” She began, a smile on her lips. That, was usually followed by ‘ask your dad’ and that usually resulted in a yes.  With dad not home tonight, this night would be no exception. My sister was twelve back then, our brother just a very small boy, and at sixteen I was in that strange place between young woman and a child. I watched the cartoon as much as my younger siblings, but prided myself on the skill with which I helped my mother in the kitchen.  It was something that no child really could have done. And when my siblings were falling asleep on the floor together, long after the Christmas specials had ended, I would still be up with my mother who would be thanklessly baking for several more hours after sleep finally took me.

Bing Crosby and Burl Ives filled the room, played back on vinyl records which were still used by some people and not yet seen as hip or retro. We sang along and worked together, as my younger mind likened it to, elves in Santa’s shop… though I’d long ago put such thoughts aside. The incident of my tragic discovery of “the truth” still haunted me after all those years; perhaps that’s why I still clung to the other traditions of Christmas so violently.

“Mom, Santa’s real… isn’t he?” I had asked her. A split lip and blood on my powder pink jacket, tears in my eyes. I had stood up to no less than three other little children to defend my mother’s honor and Santa’s existence, “Please – just tell me the truth.”

The tone of her voice still lingers with me, even though I am grown and now have a child of my own.  “St. Nicholas,” she began as carefully as she could – a solid lump in her throat for the way that my innocence had been and now would be by her words, shattered. It was clear to me, at least now, that she must have thought that the beauty of the holiday had died for me that day.

However, working with her in that kitchen while my siblings slept – the spirit of the holiday had remained in my heart as bright and powerful as it was that day I stood up to those childhood bullies. I had a spiritual wisdom far beyond my years even then, enough to empathize with my mother as she told me the difficult ‘truth’ about the man in red. Her story inspired in me a need to hang onto Santa, the spirit of him and Christmas, more fiercely because of the wrong that those children had done to me and to my mother. They hadn’t just hurt my body that day at school – they had tried to rob us of one of the few and truly beautiful things our family had. So far as I was concerned, we were poor enough without them liberating us of that as well.

“So, when are we going to get the tree?” I asked her as I laid foil down in the bottom of the box.

Most families go to a store to purchase a tree – whether it be plastic or fresh from the farm. We, however, lived on nearly 40 acres of land which ran along the Huron National Forrest in Northern Lower Michigan. Since there was no shortage of trees in our possession, but a shortage of money, each year my mother would bundle us up in two layers or more of our warmest clothing. With bread bags over our shoes to keep the water out and several socks layered onto our small hands, we’d hike out into the wild and locate the prettiest evergreen in the forest to bring home. My mother would then spend the better part of an hour with an axe and hacksaw cutting down the tree and then the three of us would drag it the long distance home through the sometimes waist deep snow.

Now, let’s not be romantic about that.  It was cold and hard work. Nine times out of ten we usually got to the house covered in sweat, ice, and tree sap – hating the tree we thought was so pretty in it’s place a mile out in the woods. We’d try to get it through the door, nearly trampling someone or blinding them with limbs thrashed into eyes, only to learn that the damn thing was just too big to stand up inside.

Because the bottom was so thick and it would take forever to cut it down to size … and because we were already exhausted, my mother would cut off the top instead.  Inevitably this left us with a bowl topped tree that scrapped the top of the ceiling. And while it sounds terribly beautiful to have a fresh tree right out of the woods, the fact of trees in the forest is this: they don’t grow limbs all nicely spaced together. There are giant holes, and sometimes those dead spaces were filled with needless twigs that never could be covered with enough garland to hide their nakedness.

For these, and so many other reasons, I had long considered the wisdom of an investment into a plastic tree like the ones we would see every year at Kmart. Imagine the annoyance we’d be spared! Imagine how pretty it would look! Imagine not cleaning up the damn needles all month long… but money was never there, before.

My mother replied simply, “I’m thinking about picking up an artificial tree this year.”

(( To Be Continued – Come Back Tomorrow & Thanks for Reading!  Remember Comments & Likes = Love! ))

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