I’ve never been one for telling Christmas stories.
The reasons for this are, I am sure, quite obvious to anyone who professes to know me in the slightest, as well as to any who have spent any time reading this blog.
What does come as a surprise, to some, is how much I enjoy Christmas stories.
There is something special about that moment when John Boy opens his gift, only to discover that his father has known all along about has passion for writing. I always find myself grinning, when that troop of postal workers come marching into the courtroom where Kris Kringle is on trial, dumping mounds of unaddressed ‘Letters to Santa’ across Judge Harper’s bench. I can’t help but wonder if poor Ralphie will ever get his Red Ryder BB-Gun, or if Charlie Brown will buy the right tree for the Christmas Play. I have always longed to attend one of Mr. Fezziwig’s famous holiday gatherings, and I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t swell during those moments on the bridge, when George Bailey cries out for Clarence to give him his life back, and the snow begins to fall once again.
I like Christmas stories. I even like the first one.
These tales come together to form their own special mythology, one which lends unto them a kind of truth which runs deeper than the actual fictions they describe.
I read them, and I watch them, but I don’t tell them.
Carla Christian lived on the streets.
I do not know what combination of fate and circumstance made her homeless, I only know that for a time, she was.
I have read that she drifted in and out of the shelters on the east side of Fort Worth, until she was finally able to get back on her feet. And don’t all Christmas stories include a moment of personal triumph over impossible odds?
Well, I suspect that most people, in her position, would simply move on with their lives, never looking back. Some would just want to put an unfortunate episode behind them, while others would feel shame that they had fallen so low.
But Carla was of another sort.
She didn’t want to forget that she had been homeless.
She didn’t want anyone to be forgotten.
And so one day, just a few days before Christmas, she carried a box full of ornaments up a windswept hill. At the top of this hill, overlooking the Interstate just a few short miles from the shelters she had once called home, was a single mimosa tree, leafless in the winter chill, which she decorated for all to see.
She called it the Homeless Christmas Tree.
Its purpose, she said, was to remind all those commuters streaming past it on their way into town, that not a stones throw away from that stretch of pavement, people were sleeping homeless on the cold streets.
I remember the first time I noticed that tree. It was years and years ago, and I’d passed it hundreds of times without noticing it, perched there, alone on its little hill. And then one day I glanced up and it was covered with tinsel and ribbon, and ornaments hung from its bare branches.
I didn’t know what to make of it, except that someone must have been feeling festive. Still, it made me smile, and it made me notice that tree.
I watched it even after the ornaments came down. I watched it leaf out, its branches swaying on particularly windy days. I wondered if it would be decorated again the next year – and it was. It made me smile again, to see it.
Later, when I learned the story of the Homeless Christmas Tree, I wondered how many other commuters into the city, knew its secret meaning. I wondered how long the tradition of decorating this tree would go on.
Long years have passed since I first started watching that tree.
I understand that Carla died some years ago, but determined friends and neighbors kept alive the tradition of decorating the tree for Christmas.
And for a while, all seemed to be well.
But things have changed, and not, I am afraid, for the better.
Where once I could look forward to seeing that lush springtime burst of leafy fronds, in the last few years there have been only scattered tufts of green. Instead, throughout the year, the tree is almost constantly wrapped in ribbon, like some festive mummy. Its branches droop with wooden and plastic baubles throughout the year – decorations commemorating every passing holiday. Flags often festoon the area immediately surrounding the tree and on many occasions I have observed a huge wooden cross, nearly as big as the tree itself, leaning against its strangled trunk.
And just a few weeks ago I noticed that one of its largest branches had fallen. In a strange irony, that branch, which jutted out from the trunk toward the southwest, once pointed almost directly toward that part of town where the homeless still seek shelter at night. But that’s okay, because the tree really doesn’t seem to be about the homeless anymore.
I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be a symbol for now.
I know it’s not about ‘hope’, or about caring for the least among us.
The Homeless Christmas Tree is dying, and I’ll never understand why certain people choose to take a beautiful symbol and ruin it in an effort to make it their own.
The tree didn’t want to be a symbol for anything, it just wanted to survive in an impossible situation. The people I see, huddled on the sidewalk outside those shelters on East Lancaster are trying to survive an equally impossible situation. But the folks I talk to tell me they try not to drive down that stretch of road. They avoid it because they don’t want to see what’s there, because they look down on those people, or fear them.
And besides, the freeway will get you there faster.
And look, someone wrapped that tree in ribbon and bows – how festive!
And that, my friends, is why I don’t tell Christmas stories.