With all the children’s books available today, it is nearly impossible to choose one, single illustrator I like the most. If pressed, however, Barabara Cooney would be near the top of the list–if not at the pinnacle–so it is fitting that one of my favorite Christmas books features Cooney’s paintings and takes place high on the rocky craigs up near heaven where only a venturesome man will go.
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston, is a beautifully written story set in the Appalachian mountains of the author’s grandmother’s youth–1918, when across the ocean the Great War raged, but in the valley all was at peace.
It was getting on toward the Christmas Ruthie would never forget. The Christmas when the village almost did not have a Christmas tree. It happened this way. Ruthie told me so.
So begins the story of Ruthie’s special Christmas–special because that year was her family’s year to offer a tree to their rural Appalachian community, and her year to be the angel in the the village’s Christmas pageant.
Come, my pretty youg’un,” Papa said one day early in the spring. “It is time to choose the Christmas tree for the village church.”
“But, Papa, Christmas will not come for a long while,” said Ruthie. “The sarvice trees are just now in bloom.”
“We must choose a special tree and mark it for the coming year. It is the custom in our village,” said Papa, “for one family to give to all the folk in the village and up every hill and hollar a Christmas tree for Pine Grove Church. This year is our turn.
“Some years a timbering man will give a fat round laurel from the northy coves, the kind the outlanders call rhododendron. Other years the holler folk may bring a cedar to spread its fragrance throughout the village church.”
“What kind of tree shall we have, Papa?” said Ruthie.
“We shall have a balsam Christmas tree, my pretty young’un,” said Papa. “The balsam grows up the rocky criags where only a venturesome man may go. The balsam is a perfect tree. It grows up high, near to heaven.”
So that spring, Ruthie and her father climb up into the mountains in search of the perfect balsam Christmas tree. “And as is the custom, the selfsame year you shall be the heavenly angel in the village Christmas play. It is fitting that you should mark the Christmas tree.”
What Ruthie doesn’t know on this fresh spring day–although her father must suspect it–is that shortly after they mark their perfect Christmas tree, her father will be called to fight in the war, and that she and her mother will have to work hard and make do with very little until he returns. What neither of them know, is that her father will not return in time to fulfill his promise to the village and deliver the perfect Christmas tree to the church in time for the Christmas Eve service. Fortunately, none of these circumstances is enough to deter one venturesome woman and her equally venturesome little girl as they climb into the high craigs one moonlit evening…
That night the preacher from Pine Grove Church knocked at the door.
“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, Miz Green,” he said. “And Tom is not yet home from the war. Chad McKinney has been saving a prime cedar on his bottom land for Christmas next. He’d as leave cut the tree this year.”
“This is the year our family gives the tree,” said Mama. “Tom chose it before he went away to war.”
“I had hoped you would heed my wish,” said the preacher. “The church must have a Christmas tree when the morrow comes.”
“Tom is as good as his word. Our family will give the tree this year,” said Mama.
As they came to the dark woods the winter moon made strange shadows on the snow.
“Mama, I’m afraid,” said Ruthie.
“No need to be afraid,” said Mama. “We’re off to get the perfect balsam Christmas tree.”
Mama pulled. Ruthie pulled. Pull. Pull. Back and forth until the perfect balsam Christmas tree fell softly into the snow.
Then they made their way down the ridge. “I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day in the morning,” they sang.
Through the soft snow they led old Piedy to the church. Together they lifted the perfect balsam Christmas tree from the sled and stood it in the corner near the belfry wall. Just as the sun was rising over Doe Hill, they hurried home.
“The folk shall have their Christmas tree, and you shall be the heavenly angel this year.”
Ruthie fell fast asleep, but Mama sat long by the firelight sewing as fast as her nimble fingers could move.
As the sun rises in the sky, Mama makes a dress for Ruthie from her wedding dress–for lack of any other material, or money to buy it–and a doll out of silk stockings that Papa had sent to Mama as a special gift from overseas.
In the morning it is a mystery how the perfect balsam Christmas tree arrived at the church, although “it’s being told hereabouts that folks who live up the holler heard the angels singing high up on the ridge late into the night…”
And of course it was an angel…
…a heavenly angel whose whispered the same prayer throughout the year: “Please send my papa home for Christmas…and please have old St. Nicholas bring me a doll with a beautiful dress, the color of cream, all trimmed with ribbons and lace.”
For Ruthie, both these prayers were answered. Her father returns as the Christmas Eve service is ending, just as she is hugging her tiny doll, which felt just like the silk stockings Papa had sent to Mama.
Innocence, tenacity, hope, love…the perfect ingredients for a perfect Christmas.
And since that time, every year for more than sixty years, a tiny angel has stood on top of a perfect balsam Christmas tree. She wears a dress of softest silk, the color of cream, all trimmed with ribbons and lace. The sleeves are long and flowing, and it looks as if she has wings. The angel has coal-black curls and a dimple in each cheek.
That’s how it happened. The Christmas of the heavenly angel and the perfect balsam Christmas tree.
Grandma Ruthie told me so.