Christmas has a smell to it, the perfume of pine making the whole world bright and shiny. That was why you couldn’t make a Christmas tree out of a poplar or Miss Thomas’s old rubber plant

JEAN HOWARTH December 15 1949


Christmas has a smell to it, the perfume of pine making the whole world bright and shiny. That was why you couldn’t make a Christmas tree out of a poplar or Miss Thomas’s old rubber plant

JEAN HOWARTH December 15 1949


Christmas has a smell to it, the perfume of pine making the whole world bright and shiny. That was why you couldn’t make a Christmas tree out of a poplar or Miss Thomas’s old rubber plant


THERE were four of us, my brother Harry, who was nine, and myself, Ellen, who was eight, and my sister Cora, who was six, and my brother Philip, who was five; we all knew that it was quite impossible to have Christmas without a Christmas tree.

There were other important things. It was important to lie on the buffalo rug in front of the fire and look at the toy pages in the catalogue and pick out the one thing that you wanted most of all that didn’t come to more than a dollar. It couldn’t come to more than a dollar, because Santa Claus had a lot more kids to look after than just us four.

And it was important to be in the school Christmas concert and not forget your lines. My brother Harry was one of the aeren dwarfs in the school concert that year, and he wore a red suit that my mother made out of flour sacks and dyed red.

And it was important to write your letter to Santa Claus, being very careful not to let anybody see it because of course if you did, you didn’t get what you asked for; and then to stoke the fire till it went roaring up the chimney, and toss in your letter and watch it shoot right up the chimney to Santa Claus.

All of those things were important. But nonq of them was as important ns the Christmas tree.

CHRISTMAS didn’t even start to be until the day when my father looked at my mother and said, “Well, Lily, I guess it’s time we went after that Christmas tree.” And then he would put on his mackintosh und his mitts and go out to harness our horse Dan. And my mother would put the oats on the stove to heat —hot oats in a grain sack are nice to sit on when you ride out in the cold to find a Christmas tree. And I would help my sister Cora and my brother Philip put on their coat« and their toques and their long woolen stockings that you pinned with safety pins to their pants. And we would all ride out in the sleigh behind Dan to find the Christmas tree. We would carry it into the house and set it up in the parlor by the fireplace.

The snow that was in its branches would sparkle and then melt, and then sparkle in little drops on the needles and then go away. And pretty soon a perfume would come out of the tree and drift all over the parlor and out into the hall and the dining room and the kitchen. It would even drift upstairs and fill our bedrooms, so that when mother had blown out the light we could lie in the darkness and smell it.

It was Christmas coming into the house.

BUT THAT was how it was before we moved to Alberta, before we came from B. C. to Barclay and my father’s new church. I guess if we’d stopped to think, we would have known how living on prairie could do things to a person’s Christmas.

Even before Coley McNichol told us there’d be no Christmas tree, we should have known. Just a week before Christmas, we were sitting out in my brother Harry’s igloo in the back yard. It was cold in there, but we had the lantern with us, and if you looked hard at the lantern you could pretend that it was warm. Looking hard at the lantern made you think of red glass bubbles on the Christmas tree, with the light shining on them.

“I guess we’ll have to go out tomorrow and get the Christmas tree,” said my brother Harry. “What’s a Christmas tree?” asked Coley.

We were a little shocked. “Why,” said my brother Harry, “it’s a—it’s a tree. It has green

needles on it instead of leaves, and a clean smell, like walking in the woods. And you put a star on the top of it, and tinsel. And after you go to bed on Christmas Eve, that’s where all your Christmas presents get left.”

“Well,” said Coley McNichol, smugly and with finality, “you won’t get any Christmas tree in Barclay. There aren’t any Christmas trees in

Barclay. Didn’t you notice? There’s willows,

down by the creek; but I guess that wouldn’t do for your old Christmas tree. And there’s poplars, out by Andersons’ dam. You’d look funny with a naked old poplar tree in your parlor.”

“We’ll go out into the country,” said my brother Harry.

“There aren’t any Christmas trees in the country either,” said Coley McNichol. “I’ve been there and I know.” He was kind, but superior. “The trouble with you kids—you just moved here and you don’t know what it’s like around Barclay.

Maybe they have Christmas trees other places, but they don’t have them here. Just willows and poplars.”

We might have believed him then. We might have worried, but just then my sister Cora decided to see if her tongue would freeze to the lantern handle if she stuck it against it. It did, and we wanted to take her inside to thaw her oil it, only she wouldn’t and we had to pull them apart, and her tongue swelled up and all she could have for supper was soup.

IT WAS while we were eating supper soup that my brother Harry asked, were we going out tomorrow to get the Christmas tree.

My mother said, “Oh dear!” and looked down the table at my father. He was carving the meat, but he laid the knife down and turned his eyes all around the table, very seriously.

“I’m afraid we Continued on page 30

Small Miracle for Cora

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can’t,” he told my brother Harry. ‘‘You see, Christmas trees don’t grow in the country around Barclay. It’s too dry. ’The only trees that grow around here are poplars and willows.”

‘‘We’ll get a poplar tree,” said my mother quickly, “and put green paper on it to make it look like a Christmas tree.”

We just looked at her.

“It wouldn’t smell right,” said my brother Harry.

“Don’t take it too hard,” said my father. “It will still be Christmas, even without a tree. We’ll put the decorations around the fireplace.”

“We’ll hang the star in the window,” said my mother. “Eat your soup, Cora honey.”

But Cora started to cry. We rushed to comfort her. We pretended she was crying because her tongue hurt. But we knew that wasn’t the reason.

We couldn’t any of us eat very much after that, although my mother set Cora on her knee, and my father told us a story he had thought up during the day. We hardly heard him, because we were trying to think of Christmas without a Christmas tree, only it wouldn’t come out Christmas.

After the supper dishes were done, mother went to the phone and called everybody on our party line and asked them if they knew any place where she could get a Christmas tree. Mrs. Anderson said you could get them out of the catalogue, little ones about six inches high, made out of paper; only it was kind of late for that, wasn’t it? And Mrs. Wright said they never had a Christmas tree; her children hung their stockings to the bedpost. And Mrs. Elson said, why don’t you shred up some green tissue paper and tie it to a little poplar tree? And Miss '1’homas, the telephone operator, cut in to offer, “I’ll send my rubber plant over, Mrs. Rusk. It looks just like Christmas with some tinsel hung around it.”

But nobody could tell her where she could find a Christmas tree.

They let us stay up later than usual that night, and mother read us the first ghost in The Christmas Carol. But when we went to bed and she blew the lamp out, there wasn’t any Christmas tree smell in the house, and the air wasn’t full of excitement, as it should have been. I cried. I could hear (-ora crying too, in her bed across the room.

THE NEXT DAY my father said at breakfast, “I’m going down to see Howard. He’s the district agriculturist; and if there’s a Christmas tree anywhere in this country, he’ll know about it.”

My brother Harry and I went with him. Mr. Howard had an office at the back of the town hall. He was a big fat jolly man, and he pushed a cat off a chair so my father could sit down, and gave each of us a humbug to suck.

“Christmas trees?” he said. “Oh man, I can’t help you there. The country doesn’t produce such a thing. You could go a hundred miles any way from here and not come across a single fir. Or many other trees for that matter. I’ve badgered some of the farmers into nursing along Manitoba maples for windbreaks, but that’s the best I can do.”

He thought a minute.

“Only man ever raised a fir around here,” he said, “is old Bogardus, out beyond Bradley, twenty-five miles on the south road. He’s got half a dozen either side of his driveway.”

My father jumped up. “I’ll go out and see him this afternoon,” he said.

“Don’t waste your time.” Mr Howard shook his head. “He’s a crusty old beggar, and he brought those trees in from the north ten years ago. Lost half a dozen, but the other twelve survived. He hauled water for them every summer from the creek two miles away. You might ask him for his right arm—hang stars and tinsel on that.”

But we went right back home anyway, and my father called Mr. Bogardus on the telephone. He told him all about it; he told him even a branch off a Christmas tree would do. Mr. Bogardus hung up in his ear.

It was just a few days to Christmas then, but it might as well have been the middle of March. We did the things we had always done. We cut stars out of silver paper, but they weren’t to hang on the Christmas tree. We tacked them up in the archway between the parlor and the dining room.

And we popped corn and strung it on long pieces of green string. But that wasn’t for the Christmas tree either. That was for the rubber plant that Miss Thomas, the telephone operator, brought over. We thanked her, because mother had told us ahead of time that we must; but it didn’t look like much with tinsel hung around it. It looked silly.

My brother Harry and I pretended it was just fine, though. My brother Harry even said, “I guess it’s really better than a Christmas tree. It won’t drop needles all over everything.” My father had called us into his study and explained that he was going to need our help with the little ones. He said we were big, he knew we’d understand; but when you’re little, just five and six, it’s hard not to have a Christmas tree for Christmas.

So my brother Harry didn’t tease anybody those days, not like he always used to; he took Philip out in the back yard and built him an igloo. But when he was inside, hollowing out the middle, Philip went away. It took us quite a while to find him. He was down in the ravine and he was crying with the cold, but he didn’t want to come home. He was trying to find a little Christmas tree among all those willows.

I tried too. I got out my big sheets of green and red drawing paper that I was saving to paint pictures at school on. I tried to help my sister Cora make a basket out of them for mother for Christmas. But all she wanted to cut out of the green paper was Christmas trees.

BY THE TIME Christmas Eve came it was terribly cold outside, around twenty below, and somehow or other the cold seemed to have sneaked inside, too, and spoiled everything. Even the chocolate cookies that mother was baking for Santa Claus didn’t smell right.

After supper we gathered in the parlor, and my father piled the wood on the fire until the flames went roaring up the chimney, and we sat in front of it on the old buffalo rug, and my father took down his guitar and we had a singsong of all the Christmas carols, and Philip sang Away in a Manger all by himself, because Away in a Manger was the only one he could carry the tune of. We clapped our hands when he was finished.

Then my father brought out his very best typewriter paper, that he wrote his sermons on, and we all wrote our letters to Santa Claus.

I wrote mine quickly and threw it in the fire and it burned up and that was that. I had stopped believing in Santa Claus. My brother Harry wrote

his fast, too, and threw it in, and it shriveled up and burned and fell back on the hearth. I guess he felt the same way. And then my father put his hand over Philip’s and helped him write, because of course he was only five; he couldn’t really write. We watched while he took the letter and put it in the very top of the flames. It flew straight up the chimney.

“I asked for a tinker toy,” he said. We pretended to be very surprised, but we weren’t. When he looked at the toy pages in the catalogue, that was what he always looked at, tinker toys.

“And what about you, Cora?” asked my father. She was sitting cross-legged on the buffalo rug, with a big book on her lap and the paper on top of it.

“I’m thinking,” she said.

We knew she was going to ask for a doll. She always asked for a doll.

But she sat for a long time. Then all of a sudden she jumped up and ran and hid behind the dining-room table and spread her paper out on the floor and wrote her wish. She came running back into the room and thrust her letter into the fire and it went sailing up the chimney without even touching the flames.

She turned round to us, and she was happy all over.

“I asked Santa to bring us a Christmas tree,” she said.

Philip let out a whoop and jumped up and down and hugged Cora, and they laughed and laughed, because they were quite sure that everything would be all right now. But the rest of us looked at each other, and it was awful, and a lump came in my throat that was so big it sent a pain all through my chest. Mother picked Cora up and held her very close and looked as though she were going to cry.

“Oh my darling!” she said.

“Well now Cora,” my father said, “that was a wonderful wish, but you mustn’t count on it too much. Santa will have so many toys in his sleigh I’m afraid he won’t have any room for a big thing like a Christmas tree.”

But she wasn’t worried. She was only six, she believed in Santa Claus. Like in God.

IT WAS hard to be gay after that.

Cora and Philip were so happy, each was like a flame dancing around the room. And you couldn’t put out a flame like that. I wished we were all in bed and asleep, and never going to wake up again.

But we did what we had always done. We finished The Christmas Carol, and we sang Silent Night, Holy Night, and we read about the shepherds and the Baby Jesus out of the Bible. And then we hung our stockings by the fireplace and lit our red candles, and marched slowly up the stairs to bed.

“The Christmas tree will be waiting for us when we wake up,” said Cora, and she blew out her candle.

I couldn’t even cry, because Cora was right there across the room, and she wasn’t sleeping. I think she really wanted to sleep, and wake up, and find Christmas and the Christmas tree both there; but she couldn’t help listening for Santa Claus.

Twice she popped out of bed and slipped out to the head of the stairs. But each time mother called to her to go back, that it was early, that Santa would be a long time yet. I couldn’t help crying then. I put my head under the pillow and pressed it tight all around me. I knew there wasn’t any Santa Claus.

After a while the smell of something cooking crept up the stairs and into our room. At first I didn’t recognize it, and then all of a sudden I knew it was oats heating on the kitchen stove, hot oats for somebody taking

“Mummie! Mummie!” I screamed, “are you going away?” Because everything was so awful, it seemed that even that awful thing could happen.

She came running and picked me up and carried me back to bed. “No, no. We’re just heating some oats for Santa’s sleigh. It’s a terribly cold night.”

AFTER a long long time I guess , I went to sleep. Once I half wakened and thought I heard the song of sleigh bells. But I knew it was a dream. I knew Santa Claus wouldn’t be coming.

It was pitch dark when I wakened next, but I knew instantly that it was morning, and I didn’t want to be awake. I wanted to slide back into the safety of sleep, away from Cora’s face when she ran down the stairs and saw the little rubber plant still there, with the tinsel on it. I lay back and put my hands over my eyes and tried to force myself back into sleep.

And then suddenly something was different. It was as though there was a light, only not in the room, in me, and it was growing, growing. I didn’t understand it. It felt like happiness, and it couldn’t be. And then it broke over me and I knew.

I was out of bed and running out of the room and down the stairs. And the perfume was stronger and stronger and suddenly I was in the parlor and the fire was dancing up around a log in the fireplace and in its light a star was shining on the most wonderful Christmas tree in the world.

It was tall, it touched the ceiling, and its branches dripped silver icicles and tinsel and strings of popcorn, and two fat angels bobbed gently on the topmost; branches, and great red bubbles flashed their red fire in my face.

I screamed, “Cora! It’s come. Philip! Harry!” And I ran wildly up the stairs and dragged Cora out of her sleep onto the floor, and cried and laughed, and said, “Cora, it’s here!” And then I was in Philip’s and Harry’s room, and they were shouting too, and the whole house was going wild, and we were half running, half falling down the stairs, with the perfume turning us dizzy and Christmas rushing out from the parlor to meet us.

We were all around the tree, all over it;, loving it, crazy, when mother and father came running down the stairs dragging their dressing-gowns around them. “What’s happened?” cried my mother. “Well, well!” said my father. “So he did have room in the sleigh!”

THERE aren’t any words to describe the happiness of that day. After a while we were a little quieter, and mother sent us upstairs to dress, and father built up the fire, and we each ate an orange. But that was all we could eat; you can’t think about; toast and eggs on a morning like that.

And then we were all sitting on the buffalo rug, and my father was taking the Christmas presents off the tree. His face was all red, as if he’d been out in the cold, and his nose was red and swollen and shiny. My brother Harry noticed it first.

“When did you freeze your nose, Dad?” he asked, surprised.

My father reached down another present. “I guess I should have worn a scarf,” he said, “when I was bringing in the wood.”

And then we forgot about it, because Cora was opening a big box, and Santa had brought her a doll, as well as the tree.

After we’d opened the boxes, and looked at everything, Harry all of a sud-

den remembered Coley McNichol, and what he’d said about our not having a tree. So he went to the phone and called him, and of course all the party line heard, too; and pretty soon everybody in Barclay knew, and the whole town was coming to see the tree. All day long they were tramping through the house, and setting their cameras on the table to take pictures of it. I guess that was the only Christmas tree that ever did come to Barclay. Coley McNichol was sure impressed. He looked at it for a long long time. Then he asked my brother Harry if he could have one of the red bubbles off it, to remember it by.

One man even drove in from the country twenty-five miles to see it. My father saw him first. We heard sleigh runners crunching in the snow and he looked out the window and said, “Why, it’s Mr. Bogardus.”

He was a little, tough sort of man, with a red toque pulled down over his

ears and big fur mitts on his hands; and as soon as my mother opened the door, he said, “1 hear you folks have a Christmas tree.”

We brought him into the parlor, all of us, because it was nice of him to come all that way to look at our tree, and Cora gave him two of her humbugs.

He looked the tree over very carefully.

“Yup,” he said, “I thought so. That’s my tree all right.”

He glanced at my father, and his hard old face started to smile, just a little.

“That old sinner, Saint Nick, collected it last night,” he said. “Onethirty in the morning, it was, and twenty below, when he came banging at my door. Claimed he absolutely had to have it for a little girl up here in Barclay.

“1 am a hard man,” said Mr. Bogardus, “but I couldn’t say no to a saint with a frost-bitten nose.” A