A Christmas Gift
Snow fell invisibly in the waning gray light. A heavy bank of clouds had cut off the sun earlier, so that the 5:00 p.m. sunset had been lost and only drifting layers of glow from the electric streetlight passed through the air on their way to the end of December. Janie walked tiredly to the car, worn out from an afternoon of research at the library. Her thoughts flitted back and forth from between the black and white characters of the alphabet dotting her textbooks like the tracks of field mice in yesterday’s snow to what she faced at home. She looked forward to returning to her apartment, its welcoming scent of warm chocolate—if the children had followed her instructions. Then she would take up her new role as a single mother.
As she unlocked the car door, she noticed a student rushing from the dormitory toward the dumpster. She looked again, barely able to believe what she saw. He carried a large Christmas tree in one hand, and, pausing only briefly, threw it on top of a pile of boxes in the trash. Of course, Janie thought, the university is closing for the semester break—but it didn’t seem right to throw away a tree before Christmas. Such a wasteful thing to do! She thought of long-ago Christmases when she was a child. How the Sunday School tree had always gone to the poorest family in the congregation, a family happy not to have to spend cash on anything besides food, rent, and clothing.
What a shame, she thought again, starting her car and looking around, checking for anyone who might see her if she stopped beside the dumpster for a moment. She pulled alongside the receptacle, determined to find out if the tree really was ready for the ghost of Christmas past. It will be all dried up, she imagined. Students in a dorm would hardly bother to put it in the water it needed. But as her hand closed around the soft needles she shook her head determinedly and then lifted the tree up, rapidly, like a thief in the night.
In seconds the hatchback was open, the tree firmly inside and Janie was driving off through the dark, the telltale top of the tree waving to all who might see her car. Relief flowed over her as she escaped the campus with no voice booming, “What do you think you’re doing?” She would have had to stop with the trail of green evidence stretching out behind her.
She didn’t know of a needy family to give the tree to—except for her own. It hadn’t been easy reforming her life as a head of household. Two years she’d been forced to be away from the children, and the break had left spaces in their relationships. Some things were easy to fill in. The weekly grocery cart filled with hamburger, frozen pizzas and gallons of milk. Other spaces were not so simple to ease shut. She knew her son and daughters missed the big house they’d left behind with their own personally decorated rooms, the landscaped yard, and their neighborhood friends. She knew too that they didn’t talk about it because they didn’t want to hurt her feelings. And so they squabbled over little things, paying her no heed in spite of commandments to love one another. The irony tugged her lips into a half-smile curving downward.
As she drove home, carefully avoiding potholes and sharp turns, she began to rehearse her arrival. A variety of scenarios developed as she imagined explaining her sudden appearance with a tree to the children. Before the divorce, they had always shopped for the tree as a family outing, one the children enjoyed more than she did. Perhaps she could just tell them the unbelievable truth. I stole it. Well, actually I rescued it. From what though? The trash? Then they would surely hate it and feel cheated.
“So you’re too good for a secondhand tree?” she’d ask.
“Well,” they’d answer, “Dad always said nothing but the best!”
And how they had searched for the perfect tree, every year driving from tree lot to tree lot, holding up frozen trees too often extra tall, or short, or fat, or thin, and forever lopsided. The joy and expense of a perfect tree seemed so far away now. As if God had nothing to do but to teach Christmas trees to ignore the rocks, hillsides, weather, shade, all the spontaneous aspects of nature.
The way she had grown up, Christmas trees were part of the celebration, something to be thankful for, not to spend a fortune on. In fact, they had never bought trees when she was little, nor had there been a romantic pilgrimage to the nearby wooded hillside where Father selected the best tree and brought it down with a sharp ax, slinging it over his shoulder and wading grandly through the snow as the children followed singing Christmas carols.
No! Her memories were of her mother, doing the best she could, counting the money out carefully before they got in the car. It was a big trip into the small town 30 miles away. There they shopped for the necessary store items, small gifts for single aunts and fading grandparents. You had to buy something for the old people who never outgrew or wore out their clothes, except socks. So they would receive new jigsaw puzzles, argyles or nylons, and on good years even a spritely set of salt and pepper shakers for Grandma’s collection. But before the shoppers left for town, no matter what, there had to be a reserve of $20 in her mother’s purse. This was for groceries: sugar, flour, canned milk, pumpkin for pies, cocoa for fudge, oranges for the Santa stockings. Then there would be candy canes and candied orange slices with one or two store-bought chocolates for each child. They knew she was buying these and would look away from the counter during the sale.
The store her mother shopped at was Paul’s Grocery. She had to drive several miles and across the river to shop there. “It’s not a waste of gas,” she’d say. Paul always ran a special that drew her in. With a $20 grocery purchase, he gave each and every holiday customer a free Christmas tree. “Something I don’t have to buy,” her mother would say, smiling, and thanking him. And the tree always looked so much better after it was decorated, the flat side turned to the back against the wall and a variety of hand-made and hand-me-down ornaments filling in the gaps in front.
The imprint of her childhood experience on Janie was strong— you don’t have to pay a lot for the miracle of beauty at Christmas. It’s in the heart, how you feel about the birth of Christ. So what am I doing now, she thought, as she pulled into the drive way. Dragging home a real Charlie Brown tree! Maybe she could ask the kids to adopt it and then they might feel more kindness toward each other.
The dark in the driveway had thickened, the heavy snow swallowing most of the beams from the streetlamp and what few had escaped were softly diffused, revealing only blurry shapes. Still, from what little she could see as she drew the tree from the car, it seemed like a shapely and attractive fir. Heartened, she headed for the front door.
Still unsure of what she would actually say, but clinging stubbornly to her resolve, Janie pushed open the door with one hand and thrust the tree in ahead of her. Or maybe she was afraid and hiding behind the tree, waiting to see what the children’s reaction would be.
Peeking through the greenery, she saw her son, who looked up and rose rapidly from his perpetual still-life pose where an open bag of potato chips fortified him as he watched Star Trek characters go where no man had gone before. He spoke urgently then, but not to Janie. His tone of voice rose, signaling an important event. Janie froze, and then looked up in amazement as she heard him call, “Angela, Lucille, get out here! Mom’s home and she brought a Christmas tree with decorations already on it.”
In the dark, she hadn’t noticed. Now she saw clearly, among the shiny wet needles, strands of shimmering tinsel and, here and there, a few red satin bows clung to the tree. The children gathered around and all began talking at once.
“Wow, Mom. Neat!”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Isn’t it pretty?”
Janie’s doubts and fears melted like the snowflakes on the greens as they soaked up the warmth of the room. She remembered learning the verse from James: Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.1
“Let’s just say it was a gift from God,” she said, “Heaven sent!”
As their faces shone with amazement, she added “Now you’ll need to help each other get out the tree stand, or do I have to hold this thing up all night?”
Margaret Koger is a school media specialist with a writing habit. She learned that if your words are dark, let them be dark until the light shines through. Her poem “Ripe Figs,” placed as a 2018 finalist in the Heartland Review Joy Bale Boone Poetry Contest.