“Granny, what happens to the Christmas trees that nobody buys?”
Grace turned from watching through the car window as the man tied a skinny white fir to the roof of her grandmother’s battered old LTD and looked over at her little brother, somehow alarmed at his question.
“Goodness gracious, Nicky!” her grandmother exclaimed, straining as much as four-foot-eleven could to look back over the car’s front seat, “What makes you ask that?”
“I don’t know,” Nicky replied, lowering his head so that his inquisitive green eyes were hid. “I guess… I guess it just made me sad to think they might be alone Christmas eve. Like us.”
“You’re not going to be alone, child,” the old lady said softly as she turned back around and started the car, having gotten the ‘thumbs up’ from the man who had tied the tree.
“No, but my momma’s not going to be there. Or my dad,” the boy replied without looking up.
Grace looked from her grandmother to her brother and back, wondering if maybe this was why she’d heard her Granny use the word ‘dread’ in a phone conversation the previous day. Grace had been around the corner while her grandmother had been on the phone with her friend Mrs. Rogers, and she’d distinctly heard her say “Lord, how I dread this Christmas!” Even then Grace had suspected it had to do with the auto accident that had killed their mother, and had led to their losing their father, as well. Now she was certain.
Grace, always more concerned for her brother than herself, knew she had to say something, and say it fast. The bits and pieces of a couple of stories she had read in school, stories about lonely Christmas trees and all, started to come together somehow in her mind. She spoke:
“I think I know what happens,” she began, as her grandmother pulled out of the Allsup’s parking lot and onto the highway.
“What?” Nicky asked, looking up.
“Well,” Grace replied, “I think that on Christmas Eve, Santa comes and takes all the left-alone trees, the ones that have been good, and he brings them to a special place. And they all get to be together, and the elves come, they get decorated with garland and balls, only there’s not no lights because there ain’t no electric, but it’s still really pretty. And they call it Christmas forest.”
“Santa could make the lights by magic,” Nicky protested, though his eyes still sparkled.
“Yeah,” Grace replied, again thinking quickly, “But Christmas Forest doesn’t really need it, and anyway the lights might scare the forest animals, because they come and look at it, too.”
“Christmas Forest,” Nicky repeated thoughtfully. “Where is it?”
“I guess it’s someplace different every year,” Grace replied. “Like, Santa takes it to the best place. Maybe, the forest gets put somewhere where they need the trees. Right, Granny?”
“I reckon so,” their grandmother said thoughtfully.
“I hope Momma gets to see it,” Nicky said, turning to look out the window. “I wish I could see it.”
Later that evening, after they had brought the tree into the house and decorated it, Grace’s grandmother came back in from the kitchen to where the two children were watching TV. With a strange little smile on her face, she said:
“You two need to jump under the covers now, I reckon. Old Santy can’t do his work with you awake.”
“But Granny,” Grace protested, “It’s so early.” They’d been watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Grace had been secretly wishing some angel like Clarence might do something for her brother. And her.
“I know it’s early,” her grandmother replied, walking over to turn off the TV as “The End” shown over the last strains of Auld Lang Syne, “But Santy’s got a lot to do, hun. And that’s another thing: Whatever you two do, don’t you dare peep out that front window, trying to spy on him. ‘Cause he’s just liable to take everything back if you do. No matter what you hear, or think you hear this evenin’, you just stay in bed.”
Grace looked at her grandmother quizzically, but the old woman only smiled. So Grace took Nicky by the hand and led him back to the bedroom they shared, Nicky at five and a half being still afraid to sleep alone. She got him into his pj’s and tucked in him tight.
“Grace,” Nicky said as she got into bed into her own bed in turn. “Tell me about Christmas Forest again. Does Santa Claus really take the left-alone trees?”
Nicky would be in first grade at that time the next year. Grace knew that he was too smart, and that the other kids would be too talkative. Santa would never be the same for him after this, as it had been for her four short years before. Somehow, young as she was, she wanted to cherish it.
“It started like this,” she began, weaving into her previous tale the story of their own lives over the last twelve months, a story she sadly knew by heart having repeated it to herself so often at night before drifting off into troubled dreams, “Somewheres in the woods, a-way up north, there were these four trees that had grown up together. And they each dreamed of being a beautiful Christmas tree in a happy home. And men came with saws, and cut them down, and took them to be sold, each to a different store. But for some reason nobody bought a one of them. And they were sad. But Santa saw, and on Christmas Eve he came to where each one was, and took it, and carried it back to where they grew up at, and the elves come from the North Pole with all the best stuff from Santa’s workshop, and they decorated the trees the best that anybody ever saw, and then the forest animals they came and danced around them. And so the trees’ wish came true. And every year, to remember them, Santa does just the same.”
Neither of them said another word that night. Before very long, Grace could tell that Nicky was fast asleep. At long last Grace fell asleep, too, and dreamed of her mother.
“Grace Anne! Come look” Grace was awakened out of another dream the next morning by the excited voice of her brother, who was standing at their window, looking out at the front lawn.
Grace jumped up out of bed and looked. And there, filling the lawn, were dozens of Christmas trees—tall, short, skinny, full—each decorated with garlands, balls, and bows. The man from Allsup’s was standing by his pickup on the street with his wife and daughter, a shy girl a year behind
Grace in school. He pointed to the trees and seemed to say something to his daughter, then he saw Grace, waved, and smiled.
“It really happened,” Nicky whispered at Grace’s side. “Santa picked us. And I know Momma got to see it. I know it, Grace.”
“How in the world?” Grace began, when she heard her grandmother’s halting tread behind her, and felt the warm pressure of two loving hands on her shoulders.
“Would you look at that?” Granny said, “Christmas Forest! Old Santy must have decided we needed it here. Reckon?”
Grace looked around into her grandmother’s loving eyes, in which the tears were starting.
“Merry Christmas, Grace,” the old woman whispered as she folded her granddaughter in her arms.
“Thank you, Santa,” Grace whispered back. “Merry Christmas.”