“Get in the car,” Dad said. So I put on my winter coat and followed him out the door. “Let’s get a tree, whaddaya say?“
“Okay.” I was maybe 10 years old.
So off we went to the tree dealer in the lot of the local strip mall a few miles away. It was Christmas Eve, well after dinner, cold, dark, and snowy. As he often did, Dad leaned in on the steering wheel to light a cigarette. We didn’t speak.
It didn’t enter my head that we didn’t have a Christmas tree and it was Christmas Eve. I also wasn’t aware how much my parents struggled with four kids. Those things weren't part of my child universe. And my parents didn’t tell us those things either. But as the oldest child, I was chosen to help Dad select the tree and bring it home.
We pulled up to the tree lot. The string lights were off. No one was around. But there were still a few trees leaning on the temporary fence. We walked completely around the lot to verify that no one was there. That’s when the police car cruised up.
The officer walked over to Dad and I heard part of the conversation.
“I wanted to get a tree for my family…four little ones…money’s tight…” I recall pieces of what Dad said.
I’m sure the officer studied Dad to see if he was truthful. I remember the officer glancing at me, a scrawny kid waiting in the snow hands buried in coat pockets. And that’s when the miracle happened.
The officer and Dad shook hands. “Merry Christmas,” he said as he got in his cruiser and pulled away.
Dad walked over to the biggest tree left on the lot and said, “Help me with this one.”
We tied it to the roof and made our way home. He leaned into the steering wheel and lit another cigarette. I saw him smile in the red glow of the match light.
We trimmed the tree and decorated it right away. I was amazed at the transformation created by the beauty of those twinkling string lights in our darkened living room. The pine fragrance filled the house. It was fresh and good. All was right. It was really Christmas.
I didn’t realize at the time just how much my parents struggled. Money was always tight but we always had what we needed. We were pretty happy kids. I realize now that we didn’t have much - but we didn’t know that we didn’t have much. Nobody in the neighborhood did. We couldn’t miss what we never had. In retrospect, life seemed pure.
Dad never paid for that tree. The officer told him to take it and have a merry Christmas. We went out to find a tree, but we came home with something else - a gift of kindness.
That was a wonderful Christmas. I don’t remember any of the gifts - except the gift of a tree and a police officer wishing us merry Christmas as he drove away. He was our Santa that year.
The stuff of Christmas is immaterial. The real gifts are the simple things - laughter, togetherness, love. That doesn’t easily fit in a stocking but it can fit into a heart. Merry Christmas.