Mark helped his sister, Mattie, across the dirt and rubble in the street. The snow that had been white and sparkling earlier that morning on their way to school was now gray with the city’s soot.
As they walked home, Mark thought about his first day of school after the Christmas holiday. The teacher and children had taken down all the Christmas decorations, and the classroom had a clean new look that matched the clean new morning snow.
Maybe, Mark thought, when we get home, Mattie and I can work together and clean our house too.
He was about to tell Mattie his idea when almost at the same moment they saw a green tree limb sticking out of a pile of dirty snow.
They bent down to pick it up, but the limb was crusted over with ice. Twisting and turning together, they were finally able to loosen the ice and snow and pull out a Christmas tree that had been thrown away. Pieces of tinsel and ribbon clung to the brittle green needles, and here and there were small bits of bright paper.
“Do you think we could take it home?” Mattie asked.
“Sure!” answered Mark. “No one else would want it. And now we can have a Christmas tree—even if it is after Christmas!”
Together they dragged the tree to the corner of the street. They struggled up the three flights of stairs of the apartment building and into their living room.
Mark quickly cleared a space by the window and set the tree carefully on a small piece of rug. Then they both sat down in front of the tree and looked at it.
Father lay on the couch as usual. He lifted the paper he was reading to watch them. Mother came from the kitchen and stood in the doorway silently. Neither of them said anything.
Each afternoon Mattie and Mark hurried home from school to see their tree. Mattie cut her favorite bright red ribbon and tied small bows on the tree. Mark went through his box of treasures and found a few things that almost looked like Christmas ornaments. Both of them watched for bits of tinfoil and pieces of bright yarn or string to make their tree more beautiful.
In the long evenings as they sat before the tree, they softly sang carols they had learned in school. Neither Father nor Mother seemed to pay much attention. The children felt as if they were living in a different world, so they were surprised when one night Father started humming the songs with them.
That same night Mother came to the kitchen door and said, “Don’t make so much of that tree. After all, it was the Child who made Christmas, not just a tree.”
“Tell us about the Baby,” Mark and Mattie pleaded.
Mother took the old Bible from the round table, dusted it, and read to them. Night after night they asked for the story. And over and over again Mother read about the small Child in the manger and Mary and Joseph who were so careful and protecting.
“That star was something too,” Father said one night.
“Tell us again about the star,” Mark asked, and no one seemed to think it strange when Father began talking about the star that led the wisemen.
Once when Mother put the book back, she dusted and straightened the round table and swept the floor around the tree. The next night when she read, Mother had on a pretty pink apron.
When the snow began to melt, Mark and Mattie found many shiny bits for the tree, until its branches were filled with color and sparkle. Even though many of the needles on the tree had fallen off, the children noticed that Mother still kept the floor swept clean.
In honor of the tree, they thought.
Mark and Mattie just laughed when the children of the neighborhood called them scavengers. Nothing was too good for their tree!
They were so happy with this bit of beauty in their lives that at first they didn’t even notice their father no longer lay on the couch most of the time.
Then one warm afternoon in March, they came home to noise and confusion. Many people were gathered around their apartment. They heard an officer say to their mother, “I’ve been told that there is still a Christmas tree in your house. I’m afraid it’s dry as tinder and a real fire hazard. The tree must go!”
“But it’s so pretty,” said Mattie.
“Please, can’t we keep it?” Mark pleaded.
The officer sent the curious crowd away. Father came running in, looking excited. The officer closed the door to the apartment and sat down in front of the tree with Mark, Mattie, Father, and Mother.
“Why did you keep it so long after Christmas?” he asked.
Mark explained how they hadn’t had a real Christmas. But when he and Mattie found the tree and brought it home and decorated it, Christmas came at last. Mother told them the story of Christ’s birth, and Father sang songs with them.
Mattie looked as if she was about to cry.
“And now it will all be over,” Mark said, and there was an odd little catch in his voice.
“No,” said Mother quietly. “It’s just the beginning. The tree has been a miracle for us. Because of it, we have changed our ways. Now we can have beauty and happiness in our home without the tree.”
“And next Christmas,” said Father, “we’ll have a tree of our own. I got a job today.”
“You have more than a tree now,” said the officer. “And just so you can keep all you have, we’ll remove the fire hazard.”
After the tree was gone, Mark and Mattie looked at Father and Mother. There was something different about them.
Then they smiled at each other, for suddenly they understood that after all they didn’t really need the Christmas tree to be happy!