Any Tree Free. Merry Christmas!

On Christmas Eve, 1942,  anticipation was about the only thing left that was not rationed. Underprivileged children were just as excited as rich ones waiting for morning to come, and although I no longer believed in Santa Clause, I still believed in magic. No matter how poor we were, a decorated tree materialized on Christmas morning. After we three kids fell asleep, my uncle gave Dad a ride to the nearest lot to pick out a little tree. Poor families in Cedar Rapids, Iowa  knew that the lots closed before supper and one of them always left a sign that read ANY TREE FREE. MERRY CHRISTMAS. When Dad and Uncle Cullen returned with our free tree, my parents decorated it so quietly that we never knew what happened.

That year we awoke to a freezing house, squealing with delight at the sight of our most important gift of all–a decorated tree. It had appeared like magic while we slept. There were lights in every hue, wrinkled tinsel, and small packages placed beneath it. Best of all was the fragrance of the forest right in our own house. No rich kid could have been happier than I was that morning.

Mom started the coffee and Dad disappeared to the basement to crank up the furnace. It was a special day and we all deserved heat even though our fuel allowance for the month was almost used up. We kids dragged our blankets to the living room and immersed ourselves in the magical beauty of the Christmas tree, the smell of coffee brewing, and carols playing on the radio. Once we felt heat wafting through the vents, Christmas morning became all that we ever hoped it could be.

As the warmth seeped through the kitchen and the living room, we threw off the blankets and started stripping paper from packages that had our names on them. What a happy mess! We shared our gifts, helped smooth and fold the wrapping paper for next year, and then wore ourselves out playing our new games: Bingo, Old Maid, and Authors. The pictures of the authors were interesting, and I was entranced by them having three names like Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. When I asked, “Do you have the card Little Women by Louisa May Alcott?” I felt like a big shot as though I knew Louisa personally.

While the family was busy with other things, I huddled closer to the tree hoping to memorize everything about our most important gift of all–the one we never saw until Christmas morning.  I stretched out underneath it, lying face up with my head close to the trunk and my nose nudging the lower branches. I closed my eyes and inhaled the perfume of pine. It smelled so good I could taste it. Then I gazed straight up the center through all the shiny stuff at my warped reflection in colored balls. My magic mood helped me to become something else: one of the branches, an ornament, a bug in a forest, a girl who believed in fairies. Music in the air, snow in the garden, and lying under a tree that had decorated itself transported me to my favorite place, the land of make-believe.

Mom said that I was too old for fantasy, so I never let her know what I was really doing with half my body sticking out from under pine branches. I was on the lookout for a Christmas elf.


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