It was December 24, 1938. My sister, Betty, and I had patiently waited for 23 days for our Father to take us to get our Christmas tree. Every night when he came home from work, I would pester him by asking over and over, “Daddy, are we going to get our tree tonight?”
“No, Anne, not tonight. I have been working hard all day and I’m tired. Don’t worry, we will go before Christmas, I promise you.”
My sister was eight and I was five. Every day seemed like a week to us. She was shy and wouldn’t ask Daddy. I was a chatter box, so I asked every night when he got home over and over again, much to his annoyance. Finally it was Christmas Eve, so I knew it had to be tonight or never. I had my coat and mittens on when he arrived home from work.
Daddy walked in the door and announced, “Is everyone ready to go look for our tree?”
I began to jump up and down and clap. I was sure this aggravated him, but he didn’t say anything. Daddy, my sister and I and our Momma (who was dressed to the nines in her red fox fur trimmed coat, high heels and hat) left the house walking to the Christmas tree lots near our house in Charleston. My Father was an artist and a perfectionist so we knew that he would be looking for the perfect tree that was shaped like a triangle. It had to be over six feet tall to accommodate the high ceilings in our old house. We also wondered if he would find it, since the lots had already been picked over.
We were at our fourth lot, when Momma finally chimed in, “Edwin, you are not going to find the perfect tree on Christmas Eve. I don’t know why you wait so late every year.”
Daddy said nothing, but continued to look, but he was careful not to make our Momma mad.
I saw a smile cross Momma’s face. She was about done with the whole process.
“Girls,” he said, “You will have to carry the top of the tree and I will shoulder the stem.” At first, I thought this was a wonderful thing to do and began singing Jingle Bells. After a half block, it became heavy in my five year old hands. I began to whine and complain.
“Daddy, this tree is too heavy and it’s branches are sticking me.”
“Well,” he said, “I guess if y’all can’t help me get it home, we will just have to leave it for some poor little girls that don’t have one.”
I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
My sister said, “Anne, pick up the tree.”
I complied and somehow, it seemed to get lighter.
Momma didn’t have to help because she was all dressed up in her hat and high heels. She was so lucky. I was going to get dressed up to go get my tree when I got married so I wouldn’t have to help tote it home. Or maybe I would marry a big strong athlete who would carry it all by himself.
We finally arrived home with our prized tree. We watched as Daddy laid it carefully on our piazza (porch for those who are unfamiliar with the low country). He went to his work shed and came out with some wood and his tools. He nailed a stand on the bottom of our tree. He then wired the extra branches to fill up the big hole. When he finished, it was a work of art, the perfectly shaped triangular tree
We sat on the floor (except Momma who was in her chair) and oohed and aahed at his perfect tree.
He found an old pan, filled it with sugar water, then took the tree into our living room. He placed the tree in the pan of water. Now it was ready to be decorated. He brought in the wooden box that he stored our ornaments in. First, he would test the lights since they were the kind, if one goes out, they all go out. In 1938, that was all we had. My sister and I watched in awe as he carefully accomplished his task. We clapped and squeeled when all the lights were lit and on the tree. It was magnificent.
Next, came the ornaments. He unwrapped them one by one and carefully placed them strategically on our tree. He would tell us a story of each one and how it came to be in our box. He showed us one they bought the Christmas eve that they got married. We were fascinated. I began to wonder if we would ever get to place anything on our tree. Our Father would place an ornament, then step back away from the tree making sure it was in the right place. Momma would concur with a smile or a nod.
After what seemed like an eon, all the ornaments were on. It was beautiful.
Now, our Father said, “It is time for you girls to help.” He gave each of us a hand full of silver tinsel. “Now watch me and do it exactly as I do.”
He showed us how to put it on one strand at a time”
We began our task which took forever but was well worth the effort. Finally, when Daddy was satisfied, the tree was perfectly decorated. It was like an fine artist had taken his brush and painted his canvas. Our Father smiled with self satisfaction. Our tree was a work of art. My sister and I laid on the floor and looked at it for hours that night.
When it turned dark, we could see the shadows that the lights made. It was like having a rainbow in the room.
We loved our tree. We loved it so much that after Christmas was over, when Momma suggested that our Father take it down., we began to whine (particularly me).
“Please, Daddy, leave it up until my birthday. That’s not so far away.” (actually, it was on February 24th). Every night, our Father procrastinated and left the tree up. I was delighted. My birthday was in two weeks.
Living in the low country of South Carolina, the temperatures were mild with many seventy degrees days. Our tree began to go limp and started to loose it’s needles. You could run your finger across a branch and watch the needles slide off, but the tree remained up. Finally, my birthday arrived and I had my tree up for my party. All of my friends were so jealous even though it was almost needleless. Momma told us that we could only light it for the party as she was afraid it would catch on fire. Why it didn’t was always a mystery to me.
After the party was over, she told Daddy that he had to take it down.
My sister began to protest, “ My birthday is March fourth. If Anne had it up for her birthday, then I want it up for mine.”
Daddy had no answer for her, so he just didn’t take it down.
By the time her birthday came, there were absolutely no needles left on the tree.
On March fifth, our Momma took the bull by the horns and insisted that our father take down the tree.
We watched sadly as the ornaments went back into the wooden box and as he carefully took the lights off and rewound them. He was like an artist cleaning his brush and putting his easel away. He carefully removed the tree from our living room and put in on the trash pile. I looked at the empty space and cried. I missed our beautiful tree. This happened every year of our life.
The first year that my husband and I had a Christmas tree, it was I who waited until Christmas Eve to go find one. It was I who took forever to find the perfect tree shaped in a triangle. Since I married a big strong athlete, he would carry it home all by himself. But it was I who nailed the stand to the bottom of the tree. I had to put on the lights so they would be perfect and with precision(without his help). I, like my Father, put on every ornament with precision. My husband sat back in amusement as he watched me go through my ritual. That tree was my canvas just as it had been our Father’s. Finally, I handed him a hand full of tinsel to put on the tree. I didn’t tell him to put it on one strand at a time. All of a sudden, I felt liberated and began to toss the tinsel on the tree. He followed suit. We laughed so hard that we collapsed on the floor. When I took a look at our tree, I realized how ugly it was with tinsel tossed in clumps.
I could hear my Father’s voice in my head, “One stand at a time girls.”
I left it like that when we went to church on Christmas Eve, but as soon as we came home, I took all of the tinsel off and my husband and I started all over again, one strand at a time. That would be our tradition to decorate our tree on Christmas Eve. But I bought unbreakable ornaments after the children came along so that we would all have a part in making our tree beautiful just as my Father had done for us. I also taught them to put the tinsel on one strand at a time. When we picked out our tree, I never had to carry it home. It was our family tradition.