“Christmas may be a day of feasting, or of prayer, but always it will be a day of remembrance—a day in which we think of everything we have ever loved." – Augusta E. Randel
My dad used to paint our Christmas tree. He’d sneak a live evergreen into the house after we were in bed and bring it into his workshop. Then he’d break out his paint sprayer and paint the poor entire thing white. When it was dry, he would haul it back up the stairs, install it in front of the large window of our living room and meticulously add lights, ornaments, and silver, crinkled tinsel until it looked quite magical. The final touch was always a star placed on top.
In the mid-1950s, there were no artificial white trees. A white tree was something you found in the forest on a snowy day – not in someone’s living room. It was such an unusual sight that throngs of people would make it a point to walk or drive past our house to gaze upon this wondrous unicorn of a tree. They were never disappointed. Although painting a live tree would probably be frowned upon today, back then it was Dad’s way of creating something special for his family.
Many, many years have passed, and I still remember running down the stairs to witness its miraculous appearance in our living room every Christmas season. I would sit in front of that tree for hours mesmerized by its splendor. The tree didn’t need presents beneath it to enchant me – its unique beauty captured my imagination – and my heart.
A few days before Christmas mom would wake us up when it was still dark, and we’d get into the car for the long drive to visit our grandmother and cousins in Canada. Back then it took about 7 hours to make the trip. In the back seat we had blankets, pillows and books to read. Sometimes the weather would cooperate, and sometimes we weren’t so lucky. There was always snow at some point on this journey.
On Christmas Eve, we’d all head out to midnight mass in our warm coats, hats and mittens. Our boots would make the snow squeak beneath them as our little gaggle of humans hurried down the path. Of course, I would fall asleep on my dad’s shoulder midway through the service and drowsily emerge from the church only to look up and see that it had started to snow. (It never failed to snow on Christmas Eve – that was part of the magic.) How fortunate for Santa who was making a beeline for my grandmother’s house that very evening.
After midnight mass, everyone would gather back at my grandmother’s house for ‘Le Reveillon de Noel’, a meal that featured many French delicacies including French Canadian meat pie and a yule log dessert known as ‘La Buche de Noel’. Although my grandmother’s tree was green and not white, Santa did stop by with presents. I was such a believer that I thought I heard sleigh bells one year and quickly closed my eyes so Santa wouldn’t see me awake. Knowing just how much magic is in the air on this special night…. maybe it really was Santa’s reindeer. As evidence, I submit that presents from Santa were indeed under the tree for us the next morning. So, there’s that! A few days later, we would travel back home where, much to my surprise, Santa had stopped by our house too. Seems even Santa couldn’t resist being in the presence of the magical Christmas tree our dad had created just for us.
As is often the case with enchanted things, the tree disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. A quick look out the window confirmed my fears. My precious white tree was lying on the snowbank in front of our house stripped down to a few straggling pieces of tinsel. Its mission to spread joy to the world completed but not forgotten. I may no longer remember the presents I received from Santa so long ago, but that strangely beautiful tree continues to stand tall in my memories of Christmas past.
My dad’s approach to decorating a Christmas tree may have been unconventional, but his intention was straightforward - he wanted to create something beautiful that we would always remember. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.