A 1966 Christmas Story
The author recalls how her father brightened a family's holiday — and an unexpected twist
My father taught high school science and agriculture and advised the Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter in my small Midwestern home. Each December, the FFA chapter raised money, bought the high school a real Christmas tree and decorated it with blue, green and red bulbs and fragile, sparkling glass ornaments. The school community enjoyed the tree until the semester ended.
Tradition dictated that the FFA boys and my father take the tree, decorations and all, to a needy family chosen by the other teachers. Our 1965 Chevy Biscayne station wagon was inadequate to cart the nearly nine-foot tree to this family, so Dad borrowed the school's World War II-era Army truck.
The school was out for the semester a few days before Christmas. Dad let the chosen family know they would be receiving a large, fully decorated Christmas tree. Dad and several of the FFA members would deliver the tree to their home.
A Family in Need
This family had children ranging from a baby to an 18-year-old, with 10 more in stairstep ages. The father was out of work, a rarity in Middle America then, when manufacturing and farming jobs were readily available. There were no subsidized school lunches or free books and there was no heating assistance.
Dad had his students put the decorated tree in the back of the old truck. The three of them — the thirty-something schoolteacher and the two teenage boys in blue corduroy Future Farmer jackets — were in a festive mood, congratulating themselves on the good deed they were about to do.
They traveled east on the state highway past well-manicured farms; bright, freshly painted red barns and white fences. As the old truck turned onto a county road, pieces of packed ice and gravel spit up from the vehicle's worn tires.
Nearing the family's home, Dad turned around and looked in the truck bed to check on the gift.
No green and red metal tree stand.
Nothing but an empty and scratched truck bed.
Dad turned the truck around. He and the students retraced their steps to the town where the shops were closing for the night. The twinkle of holiday bulbs and the steeple lights from the Evangelical United Brethren Church signaled evening.
Nothing could be found. Now past five o'clock, stores were already closing. It was two days before Christmas.
Dad thought about it. "What should I do? Should I go home and get our tree?"
He did not believe that was a reasonable choice, with his two small children enjoying the tree, but he steeled himself for that option. If need be, he thought, his children could learn about sharing.
A Hurried Plan B
With darkness coming, the gray truck and three not-so-wise men arrived in town. A tree lot at the used car place was closing for the night. Dad reached for his wallet and bought the healthiest tree that remained. Then, off to Huffman and Deaton's Hardware for lights and ornaments and a new metal tree stand. Joe Huffman was closing his register for the day but recognized my father and unlocked the wooden and glass front door.
With a new tree in the bed of the beat-up gray truck, the group headed east again. As they tentatively approached the family's large farmhouse, they could spy children of all sizes watching them from each window. The family's older children greeted the group and helped set up the tree in their living room. Dad noticed a stack of presents and bags of candy and fruit donated by the Lions Club and other community groups.
Nearing the family home, Dad turned around and looked in the truck bed to check on the gift.
The scent of anticipation and cinnamon apples hung in the air. The teacher and the teenagers left the family with happiness and wonder.
Our family had our usual Christmas celebration.
I am confident we went to our German Lutheran church on Christmas Eve, and my brother and I sang in the children's program.
I remember nervous children in Sears' plaid robes re-created the manger scene.
I am sure we sang carols about a needy couple two thousand years ago who had their child in humble surroundings.
I am certain my brother and I ran from our bedrooms early the next morning to see what treasures lay wrapped and waiting under our tree.
I am sure Christmas was delightful, though I cannot remember one specific gift I received or what we ate at our holiday meal.
I don't know what happened to the large family. I haven't lived in my hometown for more than 40 years.
My father spent much more on the family's tree and decorations than he did on ours. Dad and those long-forgotten high school students received a gift when they saw the lights in the eyes of those children.
My family receives a blessing in the annual retelling of this tale, with its message of the power in giving.
Several weeks later, Dad went into the local post office to pick up the mail and chat with Clarence Pook, the postmaster. A man Dad did not know began talking to Clarence in a loud voice.
"Clarence," the stranger said. "It's the oddest thing. You know, I was driving out east of town a few nights before Christmas, and you would not believe it, I found a completely decorated, beautiful nine-foot Christmas tree that someone had thrown in a ditch!"