In December of 2003, Sarah and I had been dating for about a year. She was midway through a six-month volunteer stint in New Zealand, and I flew down there to spend the winter holidays (and, incidentally, to propose). Christmas Day found us in Queenstown, where we were able to stay with Sarah's Tufts friend Katie Mason and her family. One of their traditions was a reading of the old British children's book The Good Little Christmas Tree, written in 1943 by Ursula Moray Williams. We loved the book and the tradition, and promptly appropriated both, and every Christmas Eve since, we've read the story to the boys just before bed.
The story tells of an earnest peasant family in the woods, poor but honest, and the tiny tree the father brings home. The tree wishes it could be more beautiful for the kind couple and sweet children, and so it pulls its roots free of the pot and wanders out into the Christmas Eve night. It encounters a variety of characters, from gnomes to wolves to angels, and each time trades some of its pine needles or branches (or even some of the cookies the mother had tied on its boughs) in exchange for some adornment. Icicles, candles, gemstones. From a wandering peddler, it even secures a couple of gifts for the poor boy and girl back home. By the end of this sequence, the tree is virtually denuded of needles, exhausted, lying broken in the snow. Along comes Father Christmas, carrying a bigger, bushier tree. Our hero begs St. Nicholas to take the better tree to the cottage and the peasant family, with all the ornaments bought at such personal cost. It is a moment of sacrifice, of selflessness, of pure love, and it moves Santa. He restores the Good Little Christmas Tree, and both tree and children are rewarded for their goodness with the magic of the season.
It's a simple story, but one with an important and timeless fundamental moral core. The little tree seeks only to give of itself for those it loves - too much, in fact. The little tree is so intent on giving, so consumed with its mission, it's hard not to be caught up its adventures. The book is gorgeously illustrated by Gillian Tyler, and the whole is from a more innocent, less complicated time. But it's become an indelible part of Christmas for us, an unwavering marker that after all the anticipation, the day itself is coming. It's something Sarah and I did together before the boys, something they've always known, and part of the fabric of our family. All of our families have things that stitch us together. This is one of our favorites.