The Christmas tree

On a Christmas Eve more than three quarters of a century ago, two young children waited for a humble holiday. World War II was raging around the globe. Even in coastal Alabama, far from the fighting, the ingredients for festivities that later generations would take for granted – treats, toys and other items – were in short supply. They might look forward to a few small presents, but any sugar plums would remain just visions in their heads.

My mother and her brother, twins, were about 8. When their father enlisted, their mother had moved the family in with her parents in Whistler, just outside Mobile.

The war did not seem that far away. When America had joined the fighting, they had lived in Pensacola. People soon spoke of the ships sunk just offshore by German submarines and of debris and bodies washing up on the American shoreline.

Now, those U-boats were hunting their father somewhere out to sea. Like many children that Christmas, they did not know when, or if, they would see their father again.

They didn’t even have a Christmas tree. No one had the resources – fuel or trucks – to ship decorative trees down to the Gulf Coast in the middle of a war and all its shortages.

My mother’s grandfather ran a small general store next to their house. On that Dec. 24, he had been busy all day as people in the area bought what their ration coupons and limited cash allowed in an effort to make the holiday as festive as they could.

He came home to a quiet, dark house. My mother remembered him shaking his head. He was tired, but this wasn’t right.

“Children should have a Christmas tree,” he said and reached for his coat again. He picked up a lantern. My mother and uncle grabbed flashlights. Children can sense a pending adventure.

Near the house was a wooded lot. They looked for something that would work. Fir trees do not grow on the coast. The native pines would not make much of a Christmas tree. They did, however, find cedar trees.

The three selected a tree of the right size and shape. The children’s grandfather did not cut it down. Instead, he dug up the sapling and placed it in a bucket.

In the twilight of a Christmas Eve, they carried their prize home.

Their mother retrieved a box of ornaments from the attic and they decorated the tree. The branches of a cedar tree are more delicate than the limbs of a fir or pine, but they were careful and patient and soon the tree was decorated.

Whatever else was happening in their world, this would not be Christmas without a tree.

After Christmas, their grandfather took the tree outside and replanted it. The sapling had done its job and would now live next to the house. In the years that followed, this would become a family tradition. Each January, a new sapling joined the other cedars growing next to the house. The line ranged in size from the new, smallest tree to the tallest at the other end, the original from that World War II Christmas Eve.

Years later, I saw the line of trees, now all full-sized next to the house. I didn’t fully understand the story until I was grown. How could you have Christmas without Christmas trees?

Today, when we look over the trees available in local lots and farms, I realize that little cedar would not have been much by the standards of majestic firs trucked down from up north, or even the modern pines bred to grow in the Gulf Coast climate.

When we talked about Christmas plans, however, my mother brought up the story of her grandfather and that night when they set out looking for a tree. How many of those modern trees will be talked about more than three quarters of a century from now?

A grand tree reaching for the top of a cathedral ceiling in a big modern home can be a beautiful sight.

But more than 20 years before Charlie Brown showed that a humble little tree could embody the meaning of Christmas, a little sapling came into an Alabama home.

It was a symbol of joy and wonder that two children would have as a part of their holiday. It was a sign of hope that their father would come home and their lives would return to normal for many Christmases to come. It was also a gift of love by a tired man determined that his grandchildren would celebrate the holiday no matter how difficult the times.

It was a Christmas tree.

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