I’ve been the owner of the O Tannenbaum Christmas Tree Lot for twenty years, the only lot in the valley that doesn’t cut their trees weeks in advance, expecting them to last through the holiday season without losing their needles. We take pride in the fact that our trees are cut the week before the lot opens and that we cut fresh as needed. In fact, the majority of our trees come in buckets, so the environmentally conscious can plant the tree after they’re done with it.
Ironic — people can be so worried about the environment but pay so little attention to why they’re buying the tree in the first place.
A lot of things struck me as ironic a year ago. I was turning into a cynic, barely able to stand the holiday. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a Christian to the core. But I’m getting older, and my tolerance for certain things isn’t what it used to be. Take, for instance, the woman who came to the lot and stood for twenty minutes debating whether or not a certain blue spruce was taller than the one Nancy Englebrecht had in her foyer (she pronounced it “foy-yay” – I guess no
one ever told her we don’t have those in Utah) as if I should have known who Nancy Englebrecht even was. I was on the verge of telling her I had been to Nancy’s house, with a tape measure, and the blue spruce in question topped Nancy’s by a whopping six inches, when the lady in question turned, sighed, and told her husband that they had better keep looking. It just wouldn’t do.
It was a tree, for crying out loud, and a right pretty one, too. I had cut that one myself and felt a sense of pride whenever I looked at it. But for some reason, if it couldn’t compete with Nancy What’s-Her-Name’s tree, it wasn’t good enough. After all that, I’m not sure I would have sold it to her anyway.
One particularly bright and clear night midway through December my cynicism vanished, the kind of night where the air is so cold you can feel your nostrils freezing from the inside out. I sat on the stool I always sit on, overseeing the place and listening to Harvey, my eager assistant, point out the merits of a fir tree to a young couple, celebrating their first Christmas together. I had been thinking of selling the lot and doing something downright self-indulgent with the money when a family drove up in a sad brown station wagon and tumbled out
like puppies. Three children and a mother, a blonde with a pony tail. She was too tired to be pretty, but the potential was there. Give her a nap and she would have sparkled.
The children ranged in age from about five, up to around ten. I’m a terrible judge of age but that’s my best guess. The woman, I estimated to be younger than she looked. Lines of care touched her eyes where they had no right to be, this early in the game. They stood near the entrance, staring up at all the garish lights I strung along the fence for the purpose of attracting passing motorists, their eyes reflecting the colors in a way the bulbs themselves could only aspire to.
“Let’s walk around,” I heard her say, and the children reached out and took each other’s hands. They went from tree to tree, admiring, standing back to see the tops. I had arranged the trees from largest to smallest, but this family didn’t seem to have a target in mind. They looked at every tree on the lot.
Finally they reached the back corner, where I stack the dead branches. One of the small trees cut way back when the lot first opened had lost some limbs on one side and looked as though the others were in danger too, and I couldn’t have it out on the lot. I take pride in my quality and selection. I heard a squeal as the family rounded the corner and saw the trash heap, and the next thing I knew, the oldest, a boy, was standing in front of me, holding that tree like a trophy, asking how much it was.
“Well, now, that tree has seen better days. Are you sure it’s the one you want?”
“Yes, sir,” he said. “This one is perfect.”
I nearly fell off my stool when he said “sir.” I haven’t heard that since I was too young to be addressed that way.
“This tree is straight out of Charlie Brown,” I told him. “There are much nicer trees out there.”
“We really like this one,” he insisted.
“Well, I can’t see myself taking any money for that old thing,” I began, but the mother interrupted me.
“Go look at the lights,” she told her children, and they walked off. She kept an eye on them as she turned back to me.
“I appreciate what you were about to do,” she said. “But please don’t. The children have been saving their money for months to buy a tree. If you were to give it to them, it would be kind, but it wouldn’t mean quite the same thing, you know?”
I looked at her for a long moment. I did know. I remembered the first thing I ever saved my money to buy. It was a Secret Spy Decoder Ring, a piece of junk that was created for the purpose of luring young innocents like myself into forking over their hard-earned allowance, but I treasured that ring like almost nothing else.
She misunderstood my silence. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful, really, I’m not. But you should have seen them, all summer long, gathering up loose change from the parking lot at the store and taking out trash for the neighbors. They kept the money in a can on Peter’s dresser. This means so much to them.”
“Why a tree?” I found my voice at last. “Why have they been working so hard to get money for a tree? Why not candy, or toys?”
“Peter says a Christmas tree looks just like an arrow, pointing up to Heaven,” she said. “With all we’ve been through this year, we need every reminder of Heaven we can get.” I must have looked as lost as I felt, for she continued, “Oh, I see the rumor mill hasn’t made it this far. I’m Margaret Keith. You know, of the ‘her husband was an alcoholic and left her for another woman and hasn’t been seen in six months’ Keiths.” Her tone was light and I could tell that she
wanted to inject some humor into her admission.
“I only know the Albuquerque Keiths,” I told her. “Your bunch must have immigrated later.”
She smiled in acknowledgement as the children returned. The boy I took to be Peter was all business. “We’re ready to buy our tree,” he said, holding up a tin can. “How much is it?”
I looked to the mother for some kind of sign, and bless her heart, she held up five fingers, giving me the answer I needed.
“That tree is four dollars,” I said, wanting to leave them something to rattle in the bottom of their can. “And you are in luck. For the next ten minutes, all trees sold come with a string of lights, free.”
They chose white lights, “like the stars,” the youngest said, and the transaction was completed. I have never in my life seen so much joy on the faces of three young children as I did that night after helping them put the tree in the car. It was so small, it fit in the front seat next to Margaret. They thanked me and drove away, full of excitement.
I stood there for a long time, watching their taillights disappear. People came and went, ably assisted by Harvey, barely noticed by me. At last I turned and went back to my stool, looking at the trees as I did so. Each and every one of them was an arrow, pointing to Heaven, just like Peter said.
About an hour later my wife brought me a thermos of hot chocolate. She set it down on the table and began tidying up the receipts, her back to me. I slid my arms around her waist.
“Merry Christmas,” I said in her ear, and she laughed.
“What happened to you tonight?”
“I’ll have to tell you about it sometime,” I told her, and gave her a little squeeze. I had made a decision. I wasn’t going to sell the lot after all. Those precious moments of joy, as rare and fleeting as they were becoming, were strong enough and powerful enough to overshadow all the commercialism I’d grown to detest so badly. Yes, I was a walking, talking Christmas cliché, and I couldn’t have been more delighted about it.
Uhmm, I can’t find anything to pick apart.
What I liked best: I love the tone. This story is clever. The dialog between the man and the woman is great. Your last sentence is wonderful.
Magazine ready? Yes, yes, yes!