By Travis Rees, Salem Congregation
Family traditions usually have interesting roots, and Christmas traditions can often have much deeper roots. My family has a tradition that was born out of a dark time. But it can be the dark times that bring us closer together, and even put a spotlight on what is truly important. That’s what happened when we invented The Candy Tree.
It was the winter of 2004. We had just welcomed our sixth child and first boy into our family a couple of months earlier. I had lost a great job about a year earlier, and I was trying to figure out where I fit in the world. I was working a job that I wasn’t terribly happy with, doing commission sales. Sales jobs have highs and lows… when things are great, they are great. But the downturns can put you into a tight spot, especially if you’re not good with money. I was terrible with money, and the last few months of 2004 was a downturn of abysmal proportion. We were struggling just to pay our rent, and even had to seek public assistance to help with our utility bills. The Salvation Army generously gave us a basket for each child so that they would have presents to open on Christmas. But other than a few stocking stuffers, that’s all that our kids were going to get. We couldn’t even afford a Christmas tree.
Even though times were tough, our bills were paid and, thanks to food stamps, our cupboards were full. We would not be cold or hungry. But knowing that all of our kids’ friends would be opening up bicycles and Playstations and the ‘cool toy of the year’ in a couple of days, while ours were getting a knock-off Barbie and a hat with matching gloves for Christmas had raised the tension in our home to a boiling point. My wife, Steffani, and I were taking our frustrations out on each other. The night of the 23rd, when we realized we were down to our last $5 in cash and about $20 in food stamps to last until after the New Year, our arguing got to a point that it might wake the sleeping children in the other rooms. Steffani grabbed the keys and left- determined to do something about the bare Christmas we were about to have.
She had a plan to try and bargain her way into a Christmas Tree. Even though the cheapest live trees we could find were in the $30 range, she proceeded with confidence that she could play on the sympathy of a local lot attendant, and trade our last $5 and a great sob-story for a tree. She settled on a lot in a strip mall close to our home, and found it abandoned. The ropes that cordoned off their section of the parking lot as well as the attendant that normally worked there were gone for the holiday. All that remained were the cinder blocks that surrounded where the lot had been, and a few trees lying on the ground. Knowing that these remaining trees would end up on a burn pile somewhere, and knowing that no one was going to come to bargain with her, she grabbed a tree and threw it into the back of our van. Still possessing our last $5, she ran into the discount store to look for decorations. She was able to find a couple of strings of twinkling lights for a dollar each.
When she got home, she pushed the tree through our door and told me what had happened. We grabbed our tree stand and put the tree up as quietly as possible so as not to wake the children. We decorated it with the strings of lights and the few heirloom ornaments that we had. We stood back to marvel at our tree and were both unimpressed. Even with a few presents underneath it, the tree looked… barren. The lights seemingly retreated into the boughs and the sparsely placed ornaments reminded me of the ‘sad’ Christmas tree from an old Charlie Brown holiday special. We had to do something else. We scoured the house, looking for anything that might make an acceptable substitute for a tree ornament. But our search came up empty. We thought of some ways we could make-shift some ornaments: frosted sugar cookies in sandwich bags and popcorn garland came to mind and was what we settled on. Now feeling a little more optimistic, Steffani started baking, while I ran to the store in search of popcorn.
When I got to the grocery store, I saw the ‘seasonal’ aisle was still decked out in a Christmas theme, though the shelves were looking bare. I walked down, just to see what they had. To my surprise, everything that was on the aisle was on clearance sale, and one item struck my eye- it was the Christmas candy. There were boxes of little Christmas chocolates- Santa’s and snowmen and reindeer shapes, wrapped in different colored foil. They were on clearance for a quarter apiece. I made the executive decision to abandon the popcorn strings and began filling my basket with discounted candy, making sure that there was one of each flavor for all 6 kids. I used the calculator in my brain to track how much I was buying, making sure I didn’t exceed the $20 we had left on our food stamp card.
When I pulled into the driveway with a sack full of candy, I felt like Jack when he came home with his beanstalk beans. Tensions between my wife and I had died down since we formulated a plan, but I wasn’t sure if this deviation was going to escalate them again. The opposite was true instead… she was thrilled.
She continued baking and cutting cookies into seasonal shapes, frosting them with different colors of icing she had made, while I carefully attached loops of ribbon to each piece of candy so it could be hung from a bough. We both worked while the kids slept, and we finished each of our jobs at about the same time. We decorated the tree and went to sleep. We knew that this wouldn’t make up for the lack of presents, but at least it seemed a little closer to the kind of Christmas kids expect to be able to have.
December days are short, and it was still dark when our kids woke up. The only light was the twinkle of the Christmas lights as the kids emerged into the living room. Their eyes all burst open wide, shedding the sleep that still encrusted them, and their mouths were agape with grins. Almost simultaneously, the girls exclaimed, “WOW!” The lights twinkled and reflected off the metallic cellophane wrappers, making multi-colored light dance in the air. They breathed life and love and joy into our home with every little and unique flash. Their brilliant incandescence was all the light we needed to be able to see the wonder and excitement in each child as they circled the tree, examining and exclaiming how amazing it was, but careful not to touch, appreciating the fragility of what they saw before them. They kept saying heart-filling words like, “Amazing!” and “Cool!” until one of the girls beamed, “This is the best Christmas ever!” which the other girls agreed with quickly. Steffani and I held each other and smiled through our tear-streaked cheeks. They were right. This was the best Christmas ever. As we got hung-up and twisted ourselves over the things that we didn’t have, we forgot to cherish the things that we did. And it took the unbridled joy and unapologetic love that our children showed us when they first caught sight of The Candy Tree to be able to see that. We spent the rest of the day laughing, and loving, and playing. And eating tree candy.
Every year since then, we have decorated our tree with candy. One of each flavor for each child. And it serves to us as a symbolic reminder of what the Christmas season is all about. It’s a time to celebrate the birth of Christ and the gifts that we are all given through his life on Earth. It’s about spreading the joy and love that Christ taught us to spread, and to shed the shackles of a material world. It’s a time to celebrate the fact that the ability to laugh and love are among the greatest gifts God has given us, and spreading those things to others is our greatest gift to ourselves and to each other, and also our gift back to God. And every time that one of the kids says, “Dad, can I have a piece of tree candy?” I will remember that first Candy Tree and how blessed I truly am. I hope you all have a Candy Tree of your own.