T.I.P. | My Favorite Christmas Memory--- By Nancy J. Helzel
Since I’ve been living in China, I’ve had many Chinese people ask me many questions about how Americans celebrate Christmas. If you ask that question of 10 different Americans, you may get 10 different answers. What I usually tell those who ask me is that there are many different customs for celebrating Christmas. But the one custom I think 99% of Americans follow is the decorating of Christmas trees.
Still, every family has their own traditions about what is put on the tree. Some like elegant, well designed trees, while others decorate with ornaments that have been handed down through the generations in their family.
In my family, we follow the second tradition. A Christmas tree is absolutely required or it just doesn’t seem like Christmas. When I was 16 years old, in 1975, my father told us we could not afford a Christmas tree, it looked like Christmas was completely ruined.
It all began when Dad lost his job because he was hurt at work and the doctors told him he would never walk again. For nearly six months we struggled to pay for our basic needs: food, a home to live in, and heat for the home. Every month seemed to bring us closer and closer to poverty. With help from the government, we were able to eat simply, pay for a small home and pay our heating expenses.
At the beginning of December, Dad gave us some good news. We had $300 dollars for Christmas! This seemed like so much money at that time, especially when we had struggled so much. Dad told us he had been saving a little each month so we would have a nice Christmas even when he couldn’t work. We began to plan! My older sister started to plan what would we eat for Christmas dinner. I started to gather the Christmas decorations we had stored since the year before. When I found our favorite ornaments, I asked Dad, “When will we get our tree?”
“We’ll go shopping on the weekend,” he replied.
So, on Saturday, we all got into the car and Dad drove us to the nearby shops. As we drove, we were singing Christmas carols. Even Dad joined in the singing. We were so excited about Christmas.
However, we didn’t get very far. As we were driving through town, a policeman stopped us. Dad didn’t realize that he had driven through an intersection while the traffic light was yellow. In our town this is illegal.
The policeman gave Dad a ticket (a paper that showed the amount of money owed) for driving through the yellow light. We were heartbroken when Dad told us we would have to go home without shopping for Christmas. The ticket showed that we had to pay $250. Dad drove to the police station where he paid the money and then on home.
My younger siblings were crying that night as we were getting ready for bed. The hope for a special Christmas was gone. My older sister and I were also sad, but we knew that the saddest of us all was our father. He blamed himself for what happened. We tried to quiet the children so that Dad wouldn’t hear them. But, soon Dad came into our rooms. He had heard, and, with sadness in his face, he apologized for losing the money.
The next few days were very quiet in the house. We went to school and came home to a sad home. We decided to do our chores and our homework without complaining. We knew that Dad was depressed about the holiday. He kept to himself and didn’t say much to us.
Then something happened. Grandpa and Grandma (our mother’s parents) heard about our problem. They came to our house with a surprise for us! Can you guess what the surprise was?
Was it money? No.
Was it beautifully wrapped Christmas presents? No.
Grandpa had cut the top off of a very tall pine tree and brought it to us. We had a Christmas tree! Grandma brought everything we would need for a Christmas feast! And one of their neighbors gave us a large bag of walnuts! Christmas was going to be wonderful!
I will never forget the look on Dad’s face. He smiled and his eyes shined with unshed tears. He thanked Grandma and Grandpa and instructed us to do the same. Grandma told him, “We wanted to help you have a good Christmas. And, don’t forget to come to our house on Christmas Eve!” After visiting for a couple of hours, they left and we started to really look at the tree.
It was awful! The whole tree was twisted and crooked. I know that Grandpa tried his best, but didn’t he see how crooked the tree looked? All the branches were unsuitable to hold precious ornaments. I was afraid if we tried to decorate the tree, the ornaments would fall off of the branches. It looked hopeless!
Then Dad said, “Billy, get me the saw and the electric drill from the shed outside." Puzzled, I looked at Dad. He smiled and said to us
“I’m going to fix the tree. Don’t worry.”
When Billy (my brother) brought the saw and drill in from outside, Dad began to cut off branches from the tree. One, two, three…soon we began to see that he was cutting off ALL the branches! What! How is this going to fix the tree? Smiling, Dad reassured us that he had a plan. He continued to cut until every branch was lying on the floor of the kitchen. Then, with our help, he arranged the branches into piles on the floor according to their size.
Next, Dad drilled holes into the trunk of the tree. He drilled holes from the top to almost the very bottom of the trunk. There were holes all around the trunk. Then using his pocket knife, he trimmed the cut ends of the branches and inserted them into the holes. Large branches were placed in the holes near the bottom and smaller branches were placed near the top.
When Dad finished, we all stood back in amazement at the change. It seemed like a miracle! The tree was beautiful!
As I look back to that time, I don’t remember what presents we received on Christmas Day, but I do remember the tree. This will always be my favorite Christmas memory. Dad created a beautiful tree out of what seem like the ugliest tree I had ever seen. He taught us that no matter how dark our lives may seem, beauty is there somewhere. We just need to look for it.
I hope that everyone has a wonderful Christmas! Build memories that will last. Make life wonderful!