Best Christmas tree ever

My Mille Lacs Messenger column for 12/24.

During the Depression, when my dad was a young boy in Chicago, his family couldn’t afford a Christmas tree one year.

My grandfather was out of a job, and he paced, defeated, across the floor of their one-bedroom apartment. He had been taught that it was a man’s duty to support his family, but like many during those hard times, he wasn’t able to.

That Christmas, they had to rely on the generosity of their neighbors and food from the government.

My grandfather was not a drinking man – just the opposite in fact. Although Prohibition had been repealed a few years earlier, it was still Prohibition in Grandpa’s church, and in his heart.

But one day, a week before Christmas, my dad, who was 10 at the time, came home and found his father sitting by the window with a large jug of wine, the cork still in it, the seal unbroken.

Grandpa would look from the window to the jug and back to the window, and my dad wondered what it was doing there, and how he could afford it, and why he didn’t open it.

My grandmother was a cheerful woman who could make oatmeal taste like sugar plums. That same day, while Grandpa was sulking by the window, she came in, brushing snow off her coat and holding what looked like the branch of a small tree. Her rosy cheeks made Dad think she was as warm inside as the oil burner that heated the living room where he and his brother slept.

Grandma’s tree was six feet tall, with gray bark. Its branches curved and grew upward, each one splitting again and again, and each covered with sharp thorns.

Grandpa asked what she was doing.

“I got us a Christmas tree,” she said.

My dad knew where it had come from. Near their apartment building was a vacant lot, and across the lot was a small valley – more of a ditch, really – lined with thorny trees.

Grandpa watched as she tried to find a way to make the tree stand up. She put it in a glass pitcher, but the tree tipped the pitcher over. When she filled the pitcher with water, the tree still leaned precariously because the mouth of the pitcher was so wide.

It leaned there all evening, a bare and ugly thing, until it was time for the boys to go to bed.

In the morning, when my dad woke up, the tree was standing straight and tall – taller than my dad or his younger brother. It had been decorated with popcorn and cranberries and the most colorful and fragile ornaments, which Grandma had collected during happier times. Around its base was a red wool blanket that the boys slept under on cold nights.

The boys knew there wouldn’t be many presents under the tree that year, but they hoped for the best. They awoke on Christmas morning and saw a present for each of them under the tree, but the real present was on the branches. Overnight the tree has sprouted hundreds of purple flowers – more beautiful and intricate and fragile than Grandma’s precious ornaments.

When it was time to take the tree down, Grandma took the red blanket away, and there, under the tree, holding it steady, was the jug of wine that Grandpa had brought home. He never drank it, but the tree did, and turned the wine into purple flowers.

Grandpa and Grandma are gone, and so are my dad and his brother. All that’s left of them are the stories they told, and one old, cracked ornament. Whenever we would ask him to tell a story about his childhood, my dad would tell that story, and eventually it became a tradition. He would hang that bulb on the tree and tell us the story of the best Christmas tree ever.

Merry Christmas.

Brett Larson (blarson@millelacsmessenger.com) is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger.

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