“Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” from the Desert

As a single parent with a sick child, I couldn’t afford to buy a Christmas tree. I hadn’t been able to afford a turkey and all the fixings at Thanksgiving – we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Trees of any size or kind were rare in the Nevada desert, populated by sagebrush, tumbleweed, coyotes, horned toads, bull snakes, rattlers, and antelope. I loaded my seven-year-old son, Luke, and our dogs into the truck and drove out into the desert to find a Christmas tree. We drove up and down dry washes and on such faint narrow trails that it seemed inevitable that we were going to get stuck even more in the middle of nowhere than where we lived. Finally we climbed a steep, dusty hill and found a few scraggly mountain junipers crouched between rocks. Luke was thrilled!

Luke examined each tree critically, scrambling over rocks and climbing up steep ledges to view each tree from every angle. Then he picked his favorite and cut it down. We bounced back home over rocks and through dry washes and carried the little tree into our mobile home.

The tree trunk was as twisted as egg beaters and the branches not much better. It was difficult to keep the tree in the stand because no matter which way it was turned – it over balanced and fell. Finally, I managed to wrap towels around the trunk tightly enough to make it stand and Luke joyously dragged out decorations and glorified the juniper with lights, bulbs, and handmade decorations.

I fought back laughter every time I looked at that scraggly tree weighted down with twinkling lights and colorful decorations. It reminded me of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

Enter Missing Dad who had hardly seen Luke after his fourth birthday and who had never sent a penny of child support. MD immediately declared the little tree was the ugliest thing he had ever seen and berated me for not having bought a real Christmas tree for my son. Luke left the room in tears and MD stomped out the door and drove off – forever, I hoped. Sometimes things are not forever. MD was soon back with a large store-bought, pre-decorated Christmas tree. He moved Luke’s tree into the corner and installed the “real” Christmas tree in its place. Then he berated Luke for not being excited about the purchase and for insisting that he liked his Charlie Brown tree better.

Fortunately, MD did not stay in our lives long. He never had. Still criticizing us for keeping Luke’s tree in the house when we had a “real” tree, and still criticizing me for not having purchased gifts to put under the store-bought tree (even after I explained I couldn’t afford to buy anything), he drove away. We watched him until he was out of sight and shared a sigh of relief.

Eyes sparkling, Luke turned to me, “Mom,” he said. “I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but now that he’s gone, can we have the real tree back? Please, Mom.”

So we stuck store-bought tree out back and hung popcorn strings on it for the birds. We put Luke’s “real” tree back in its place of honor in our home.

Love, not money, makes things real. Luke loved his “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree.


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: