The year without a Christmas tree
David Hoenig will never forget the year he didn’t have a Christmas tree. He won’t let me forget it, either.
The first tree I ever really remember was referred to as the “Charlie Brown tree.” It was small, a little ragged and sat haphazardly in the bay widow of our dinning room. But it was a tree that, once decorated, exuded not only holiday cheer, but also an eternal love.
Mom bought the Charlie Brown tree in 1978. Earlier that year, Mom had moved back into her parents’ house following a divorce. But by Christmas she and my siblings, David and Jenny, were living in a small apartment in Carthage, Ill. And no matter how little money she had, she wanted to make sure her kids had a wonderful Christmas. So she went to one of the local merchants on the square in Carthage and purchased a tree and their first Christmas ornaments – a box set of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In order to save money, mom even crocheted garland for the tree that year.
Over the years, Mom would add an ornament here and there, mostly things the kids had made at school. But no matter, Snow and her seven friends sat front and center on the tree.
After she married my dad in 1980, David and Jenny started a new family tradition. Once December came, Dad would take my siblings into the timber where they would hike until they found the perfect tree. The Charlie Brown tree stayed tucked away in the attic while David and Jenny decorated the real, fresh tree with Snow White and her wide-eyed, felt lined pals.
That was until 1992. Per tradition, we had gone out into the timber and cut down a Christmas tree, cedar that year. Mom remembers 1992 as a cold, wet winter, which delayed us getting a tree. But when we did, we got the biggest one we could fit in the dining room. We brought it home and layered it with lights, garland and our slowly growing box of decorations. But on the eve of Christmas Eve, the tree began to thaw and I woke up with a tight chest and airways swollen. It seemed I was having an allergic reaction to our festive fern. Out went the tree, as did our tradition of finding a real tree together. That Christmas the presents laid aimlessly strung across the hardwood floor beneath the bay window. It felt as if there was nothing to tether our Christmas traditions together. No place to gather and unwrap presents or sing carols. Like the presents, we wandered aimless without our tree that year.
The following year, the Charlie Brown tree made its triumphant, lopsided reappearance.
A few years ago, when I was finally out on my own, I was pouring over boards on Pinterest trying to find ideas on how to decorate my very own Christmas tree. I was in awe of the elegantly decorated trees, trimmed with white lights, cascading ribbon and single hued glass balls. That was until I realized how much artificial trees cost.
I called my brother, crestfallen. Maybe I should just buy a real tree, I contemplated, they weren’t that expensive and besides, how wonderful would it be to start my own Christmas tradition.
“Ha!” David said, letting out a bark of a laugh. “Sure, go ahead and ruin your own Christmas.”
I was perplexed. What Christmas had I ruined?
Like most big brothers, David was more than happy to remind me of the time I ruined Christmas. “We had to get rid of the tree! There was nothing there,” he exclaimed.
“Well, maybe I just won’t have a tree this year,” I sheepishly said. “It’s not like I have room for one anyway.”
I didn’t. I was living in an efficiency apartment – a place I lovingly referred to as “my shoebox.”
However, having similar parallels to my mother – being truly out on my own for the first time and not having a lot of money – seemed to strike a nerve with my brother.
The next time I came home to visit, leftovers and a batch of cookies weren’t the only things loaded up in my car, the Charlie Brown tree made its way to Wisconsin with me.
“Your brother mentioned you needed something small for your apartment,” Mom simply said. “Besides,” she added, “your dad and I haven’t used that tree in years.”
The Charlie Brown tree fit perfectly in my shoebox, wedged between my bed and a makeshift bookcase.
There was little fluffing I could do to its worn, wire branches to make it look plumper. It certainly looked a little scragglier since the last time I’d seen it, but once I had the lights and garland wrapped around it, and the bulbs scattered here and there, it looked charming.
“It’s cute. Kind of quaint,” Mom remarked. “You know, I don’t think I paid more than $12 for that tree. The only thing you’re missing is Snow White.”
My eyes lit up. “Don’t think about it,” she said. “They are staying on my tree.”
We were Skyping, me in front of my tree and Mom and Dad in front of theirs. Grumpy sat between their heads. He was one of the only dwarfs that still had his eyes, the paint had rubbed off the other six. It was the only way we could feel like we were together on Christmas Day.
Although I was saddened that I truly was on my own that Christmas, every time I looked at my tree I could feel my home and my family around me because this tree exuded the best of Christmas – eternal love.