"One little Christmas tree was standing alone
Waiting for someone to come by
One little Christmas tree that never had grown
Cried as he looked up to the sky
Oh please Mr Father tree, the tallest of all
I'm so afraid and alone
Could one little Christmas tree so tiny and small
Light up someone's home…"
- Stevie Wonder
By the time my daughter was in seventh grade, finding a Christmas tree was something we did without question on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving at our favorite tree lot filled with tall, elegant evergreens. We liked Frasier pines…they stay fresh the longest…and weren't averse to spending whatever the going rate was for the perfect specimen.
We bought new strings of tiny white lights each year to replace those that had burned out or had missing bulbs, and added to our store of hand-made and carefully chosen ornaments each season. There was never a question about having the perfect tree in the corner…or by the window…it was a non-negotiable.
And this Christmas was no different. By Thanksgiving morning our tree was sparkling… dressed in twinkling lights and years of memories symbolically captured in glass, fabric, paper and porcelain hung delicately from her branches. We all loved sitting in the front room with the fireplace crackling, something baking in the oven and the Christmas tree in the corner. The sparkle of hundreds of little lights danced to the sounds of Bing Crosby, Karen and Richard Carpenter, or Jewel, and all was well with the world.
I hadn't forgotten my own Christmas tree roots…years, as a child, and then again after my dad passed on, when just "getting a tree" was a miracle of grace…much less putting presents under it. But I didn't want my own daughters to ever have to worry about whether or not they would have a tree. That was our responsibility as their parents…wasn't it…to make sure they never had to worry about those things. Or at least that was what I thought until that one cold December night just a few days before Christmas.
Our daughter had plans to spend the afternoon with her best friends, a brother and sister she did everything with throughout the school year. The Christmas break had included many trips between our home and theirs. Since, if they were awake, they wanted to be together. I dropped her off that morning with plans to pick her up in the afternoon, but later in the day she called breathless with excitement. They were in the middle of a big secret project, she told me, and could she please stay until later in the evening. Our plans were flexible and so I asked her to call me when she was ready to come home.
When she finally called much later than I had expected, but not unreasonably so, I drove over immediately. She bounded out the door as soon as I pulled into the driveway and the minute I saw her face I knew something extraordinary had happened. She was fairly glowing from within.
As she buckled herself into the passenger seat and I eased our car down the driveway, it all started to tumble out of her. They had had the BEST day ever. It was clear that the Christmas spirit had found its way straight to the deepest regions of her heart. And once I heard her story, I understood why.
She explained that she and her friends had been hanging out at their house when she discovered that the reason her friends didn't have a Christmas tree was that their mom, a single parent raising four children on her own, couldn't afford one. As they talked about it, it occurred to them that a man sold Christmas trees in the parking lot of a department store about a quarter of a mile away. Perhaps if they pooled their money, they could find a little one that would work. So off they trotted, bundled in every bit of winter wear they could find - loose change and crumpled bills in their pockets - to the Christmas tree lot.
The man was willing to sell them a full size tree, but then they needed to get it back to the house. Their only option was to drag it all the way back…a route that was uphill all the way. It took them "forever" and it was bitterly cold that day, but they had done it! After they got it home, into the house, and in the Christmas tree stand (Oh how I wish I could have seen those three kids, 12 and 13 years old, wrestling a tree into a stand) they found the lights and decorations that had been left in boxes that year, and proceeded to turn it into the perfect gift for my friend, the children's mom. As my friend recounted, just a week ago, "It was the best Christmas gift ever!" Our daughter had stayed late enough to be there for her friend's mom to come through the door and be surprised. This was the reason for the joy and happiness I had seen glowing from within her as she hopped into the car that night. My friend and her children had given my daughter a gift greater than gold.
She had been given the gift of giving of herself…in pooling whatever modest amount of money she had with her, in braving the cold, and in struggling with her friends to wrestle an unwieldy Christmas tree across the snow and ice in the last light of dusk, she had been so deeply blessed. They had given her the Christmas gift that I had failed to realize she needed most…the right to sacrifice something of herself…for others.
I had tried, over the years, to make it all so beautiful and easy. To never let her worry about finances, logistics, wrestling with things that were difficult…to never feel the cold or be deprived. But that night I realized that some of the greatest moments of my own childhood were forged under the stress of circumstances. When things were hard and we had to pull together, when we were far from family and had to huddle closer to keep warm, when the winds of sorrow or lack left us clinging to one another for a reminder that we were not alone, and when wanting to give to one another led us to finding creative ways to be generous.
So this year I am thankful for that evening. I am grateful for that brilliant glimpse my daughter had...of her best self. And I am so grateful for the reminder that the best gift we can give our children (or ourselves) is the gift of giving...really giving. Not just giving my children money so that they can go out and purchase a gift for a teacher or a friend, but opportunities to get outside of themselves and experience, truly experience the gift of giving something so exquisitely beautiful and treasured…their own heart's rich overflow of love, and hope and goodness. With this kind of giving, everyone is blessed…in ways that echo through time and eternity. And we just might find that we are not only lighting up someone's else's home, but our own heart...with love.
Have a blessed Christmas,