As a five-year-old, I didn’t know how poor we were. We had just moved to Manhattan and knew no one in that city. My father would not be home that Christmas Eve; he was in the Army serving overseas. My mother, in her 20s, and I worked all afternoon making tree decorations. The kitchen table was crowded with stars, globes, and animals made of shiny paper.
There was at least a dozen feet of a chain made of colored paper loops. We were going to get the Christmas tree later in the evening, when the prices for them usually dropped.
Just after sunset, we bundled up against the chilly Manhattan night and walked four blocks to a parking lot where they sold Christmas trees.
“How much is your cheapest tree?” my mother asked the man standing at the lot entrance.
He held his gloved hands over the fire in a steel barrel. His brown skin glowed in the flickering. “Thirty dollars, miss.”
Her smile disappeared. “Nothing for less?”
The man picked up a small tree branch and dropped it into the fire. “I just work here, miss. I can’t change the price.”
The sudden melancholy in my mother’s face made me sad.
The man looked down at me for what felt like a long time; it probably was only moments. He pointed at a mound of branches, the size of a car, in the corner of the lot. “See that pile of cuttings? Behind it is a tree that we can’t sell. You can have it for free.”
“Thank you,” my mother said. She nudged my shoulder.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
We hurried to the back of the mound. There it was, a scrawny thing just a little taller than me, leaning against the wire fence. It had few branches—almost a ghost of a tree.
My mother shouted to the man, “Can we take some of these branches, also?”
He waved his arm. “Take it all if you want to, miss.”
I hauled the tree, and she carried a bundle of branches. We set the tree in the corner of the living room, away from the radiator. I couldn’t imagine how we could hang many decorations on a sparse tree.
She was smiling again. “Go to sleep now. Santa will decorate the tree for us.”
I woke at dawn and rushed into the living room. To my amazement, the tree had filled out. I couldn’t even see the trunk anymore. And it had a beautiful natural shape. The decorations glistened in the morning light. The chain of blue, red, white, and green paper draped gracefully around the tree. I almost didn’t notice the presents wrapped in shiny paper under it.
Days later, curiosity made me examine the tree closely. Christmas evening, my mother had used wire from clothes hangers to somehow fix discarded branches to the almost nude tree trunk. She had carefully trimmed it with scissors to get its perfect shape.
A few weeks later, my father returned from overseas. When I told him about the tree, something happened that I didn’t understand at the time. Tears filled the eyes of that burly soldier.
Since then, I have seen many wonderful holidays. That Christmas remains as my favorite.
Bill Butler is a Reader’s Digest reader.
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