The Real Christmas Tree

(Christmas memory, Major Luke Gaines Parker, Aug. 19, 1976 – Nov. 17, 2013)

From the time he was two until he was 11, I was a single parent to my son Luke. We spent seven years in the Great Basin Desert of northern Nevada, exploring deserted caves, ghost towns, and mountain trails. I had told Luke how my siblings and I would go out into the Georgia woods on our property and find the perfect pine tree to cut down and take home for Christmas each year. One year, Luke decided we should go out into the desert and bring home a Christmas tree.

We headed up rough mountain tracks – hardly roads – in search of a real Christmas tree. Trees of any kind are rare in the desert. But we finally found a scraggly, twisted mountain juniper. Luke was delighted. He cut it down himself and we took it home and decorated it, largely with decorations that he made himself.

My seven-year-old son had a real Christmas tree that he had chosen himself. We thought it was beautiful. Enter well-meaning adult visitor. Said visitor looked at the tree in disdain and said, “The least you could do is buy your kid a real tree for Christmas. That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Imagine Luke’s heartbreak at being told that his tree was ugly and his mom didn’t love him enough to buy a real tree. Truthfully, I didn’t have sufficient funds to spend on a Christmas tree. We had eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Thanksgiving while the rest of the country ate turkey and watched football games on TV. We didn’t even have a TV.

Off goes officious visitor and returns with a real Christmas tree, professionally decorated and presented to us in a condescending manner that tempted my southern upbringing to “slap the tar out of him.” For the sake of Luke, who now had a real, bright, beautiful, glowing Christmas tree, I bit back both retorts and violent retributions.

Happily convinced that he had improved a single parent and child’s Christmas cheer, the visitor left. Before the engine noise of his vehicle faded into the desert, Luke said, “Mom, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but now that’s he’s gone – can I get my real Christmas tree back. It’s prettier than this one.”

We retrieved scraggly mountain juniper and displayed it with honor in the living room. We added some new decorations from the professionally decorated tree, which we put outside the back door to entertain coyotes and ravens. “Luke,” I asked, “I agree that your tree is beautiful, but why do you like it better than the big one?”

“Cause, Mom. It’s like Jesus. It’s real.”

“What makes it more real than the one outside?”

“Jesus made it and planted it. I loved it the first time I saw it, just like Jesus loved me before I got to know Him. Love is what makes things real, Mom. I thought you knew that.”

The real Christmas tree stayed with us until its memory was a whisper of dry needles scattered across the carpet.

Links to books by Stephanie Parker McKean:


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