Christmas Stories

A Great Tree

Contributed by Merry Carey

Here is a fine old Christmas story from 1914 about Calliope Marsh, a woman determined to gather her entire neighborhood under one Christmas tree.

A Great Tree
From Neighborhood Stories by Zona Gale (1914)

I never had felt so much like Christmas, said Calliope Marsh, as I did that year.

“I wish’t,” I says, when it got ’most time, “I wish’t I knew somebody to have a Christmas tree with.”

“Well, Calliope Marsh,” says Mis’ Postmaster Sykes, looking surprised-on-purpose, the way she does, “ain’t there enough poor and neglected folks in this world to please anybody?”

“I didn’t say have a Christmas tree for,” I says back at her; “I says have one with.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that difference,” she says, “I’m sure.”

“I donno,” I says, “as I know either. But there is a difference, somewhere. I’d kind of like to have a tree with folks this year.”

“Why don’t you help on your church tree?” Mis’ Sykes ask’ me. “They’re going to spend quite a little money on theirs this year.”

“I hate to box Christmas up in a church,” I says.

“Why, Calliope Marsh!” she says, shocked.

I didn’t want to hurt her feelings—I ain’t never one of those that likes to throw their idees in folks’s faces and watch folks jump back. So I tried to talk about something else, but she went right on, trying her best to help me out.

“The ward schools is each going to have a tree this year, I hear,” she says. “Why don’t you go in on your ward, Calliope, and help out there? They’d be real glad of help, you know.”

“I hate to divide Christmas off into wards,” I says to her.

“Well, then, go in with a family,” she says; “any of us’ll be real glad to have you,” she adds, generous. “We would. Come to ours—we’re going to have a great big tree for the children. I’ve been stringing the pop-corn and cutting the paper for it whenever I got an odd minute. The Holcombs, they’re going to have one too—and Mis’ Uppers and Mis’ Merriman and even the Hubbelthwaits and Abigail Arnold, for her little nieces. I never see a year when everybody was going to celebrate so nice. Come on with one of us, why don’t you?”

“Well,” I says, “mebbe I will. I’ll see. I don’t know yet what I will do,” I told her. And I went off down the street. What I wanted to say was, “I hate to box Christmas up in a family,” but I didn’t quite dare—yet.

Friendship Village ain’t ever looked much more like Christmas, to my notion, than it did that December. Just the right snow had come—and no more; and just the right cold—and no more. The moon was getting along so’s about the night of the twenty-fifth it was going to loom up big and gold and warm over the fields on the flats, where it always comes up in winter like it had just edged around there to get sort of a wide front yard for its big show, where the whole village could have a porch seat.

You know when you live in a village you always know whether the moon is new or to the full or where it is and when it’s going to be; but when you live in a city you just look up in the sky some night and say “Oh, that’s so, there’s the moon,” and go right on thinking about something else. Here in the village that December everything was getting ready, deliberate, for a full-moon Christmas, like long ago. The moon and the cold and the snow, and all them public things, was doing their best, together, for our common Christmas. All but us. It seemed like all of us humans was working for it separate.

Tramping along there in the snow that night, I thought over what Mis’ Sykes had said, and about all the places she’d mentioned over was going to have Christmas trees. And I looked along to the houses, most of ’em lying right there on Daphne Street, where they were going to have ’em—I could see ’em all, one tree after another, lighted and streaming from house to house all up and down Daphne Street, just the way they were going to look.

And then there was the little back streets, and the houses down on the flats, where there wouldn’t be any trees nor much of any Christmas. Of course, as Mis’ Sykes had said, the poor and the neglected are always with us—yet; but I didn’t want to pounce down on any of ’em with a bag of fruit and a box of animal crackers and set and watch ’em.

That wasn’t what I meant by having a Christmas with somebody.

“There’d ought to be some place—” I was beginning to think, when right along where I was, by the Market Square, I come on five or six children, kicking around in the snow. I was ’most dark, but I could just make ’em out: Eddie Newhaven, Arthur Mills, Lily Dorron, and two-three more.

“Hello, folks,” I says, “what you doing? Having a carnival?” Because it’s on the Market Square that carnivals and some little circuses and things that belongs to everybody is usually celebrated.

Little Arthur Mills spoke up. “No,” he says, “we was just playing we’s selling a load of Christmas trees.”

“Christmas trees,” I says. “Why, that’s so. This is where they always bring ’em to sell—big load of ’em for everybody, ain’t it?”

“They’re going to bring an awful big load here this time,” says Eddie Newhaven—“big enough for everybody in town to have one. Most of the fellows is going to have ’em—us and Ned Backus and the Cartwrights and Joe Tyrril and Lifty—all of ’em.”

“My,” I says, “what a lot of Christmas trees! Why, if they was set along by the curb-stone here on Daphne Street,” I says, just to please the children and make a little talk with ’em, “why, the line of ’em would reach all up and down the town,” I says. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”

Little Lily claps her hands.

“Oh, yes,” she cries, “wouldn’t that be fun? With pop-corn strings all going from one to the other?”

“It would be a grand sight,” says I, looking down across the Market Square. There, hanging all gold and quiet, like it didn’t think it amounted to much, right over the big cedar-of-Lebanon-looking tree in the Square, was the moon, crooked to a horn.

“Once,” says Eddie Newhaven, “when they was selling the Christmas trees here, they kept right on selling ’em after dark. And they stood ’em around here and put a little light in each one. It was awful nice. Wouldn’t it be nice if they’d do that all over the Square some time!”

“It would be a grand sight,” says I again, “but one that the folks in this town would never have time for.…”

While I spoke I was looking down across Market Square again toward the moon hanging over the cedar-of-Lebanon-looking tree.

“There’s a pretty good-looking tree there already,” I says idle. “What a grand thing it would be lit up,” says I, for not much of any reason—only to keep the talk going with the children. Then something went through me from my head to my feet. “Why not light it some time?” I says.

The children set up a little shout—part because they liked it, part because they thought such a thing could never be. I laughed with ’em, and I went on up the street—but all the time something in me kept on saying something, all hurried and as if it meant it. And little ends of ideas, and little jagged edges of other ideas, and plans part raveled out that you thought you could knit up again, and long, sharp motions, a little something like light, kept going through my head and going through it.

Down to the next corner I met Ben Cory, that keeps the livery-stable and sings bass to nearly everybody’s funeral and to other public occasions.

“Ben,” I says excited, though I hadn’t thought anything about this till that minute, “Ben—you getting up any Christmas Eve Christmas carols to sing this year?”

He had a new string of sleigh-bells over his shoulder, and he give it a shift, I recollect, so’s they all jingled.

“Well,” he says, “I did allow to do it. But I’ve spoke to one or two, and they donno’s they can do it. Some has got to sing to churches earlier in the evening and they donno’s they want to tune up all night. And the most has got to be home for family Christmas.”

“There ain’t,” I says, “no manner o’ doubt about the folks that’d be glad to listen, is there, provided you had the singers?”

“Oh, sure,” he says. “Folks shines up to music consider’ble, Christmas Eve. It—sort of—well, it——”

“Yes,” I says, “I know. It does, don’t it? Well, Ben Cory, you get your Christmas-carol singers together and a-caroling, and I’ll undertake that there sha’n’t nothing much stand in the way of their being out on Christmas Eve. Is it a bargain?”

His face lit up, all jolly and hearty.

“Why, sure it’s a bargain,” he says. “I’ll get ’em. I wanted to, only I didn’t want to carol ’em any more than they wanted to be caroled. I’ll get ’em,” he says, and gives his bells a hunch that made ’em ring all up and down Daphne Street—that the moon was looking down at just as if it was public property and not all made up of little private plans with just room enough for us four and no more, or figures to that effect.

I donno if you’ve ever managed any kind of a revolution?

They’s two kinds of revolutions. One breaks off of something that’s always been. You pick up the broke piece and try to throw it away to make room for something that’s growing out of the other part. And ’most everybody will begin to tell you that the growing piece ain’t any good, but that the other part is the kind you have always bought and that you’d better save it and stick it back on. But then they’s the other kind of revolution that backs away from something that’s always been and looks at it a little farther off than it ever see it before, and says: “Let’s us move a little way around and pay attention to this thing from a new spot.” And real often, if you put it that way, they’s enough people willing to do that, because they know they can go right back afterward and stand in the same old place if they want to.

Well, this last was the kind of a revolution I took charge of that week before Christmas. I got my plans and my ideas and my notions all planned and thought and budded, and then I presented ’em around, abundant.

The very next morning after I’d seen the children I started out, while I had kind of a glow to drape around the difficulties so’s I couldn’t see ’em. I went first to the store-keepers, seeing Christmas always seems to hinge and hang on what they say and do. And I sent to Eppleby Holcomb, because I knew he’d see it like I done—and I wanted the brace of being agreed with, like you do.

Eppleby’s store was all decorated up with green cut paper and tassels and turkey-red calico poinsettias, and it looked real nice and tasty. And the store was full of the country trade. The little overhead track that took the bundles had broke down just at the wrong minutes, and old rich Mis’ Wiswell’s felt soles had got stuck half-way, and Eppleby himself was up on top of a counter trying to rescue ’em for her, while she made tart remarks below. When he’d fished ’em out and wrapped ’em up for her,

“Eppleby,” I says, “would you be willing to shut up shop on Christmas Eve, or wouldn’t you?”

He looked kind of startled. “It’s a pretty good night for trade, you know, Calliope?” says he—doubtful.

“Why, yes,” I says, “it is. But everybody that’s going to give presents to people’ll give presents to people. And if the stores ain’t open Christmas Eve, folks’ll buy ’em when the stores is open. Is that sense, or ain’t it?”

He knew it was. And when I told him what I’d got hold of, stray places in my head, he says if the rest would shut he’d shut, and be glad of it. Abigail Arnold done the same about her home bakery, and the Gekerjecks, and two-three more. But Silas Sykes, that keeps the post-office store, he was firm.

“If that ain’t woman-foolish,” he says, “I donno what is. You ain’t no more idée of business than so many cats. No, sir. I don’t betray the public by cutting ’em off of one evening’s shopping like that.”

It made a nice little sentence to quote, and I quoted it consider’ble. And the result was, the rest of ’em, that knew Silas, head and heart, finally says, all right, he could keep open if he wanted to, and enjoy himself, and they’d all shut up. I honestly think they kind of appreciated, in a nice, neighborly way, making Silas feel mean—when he’d ought to.

It was a little harder to make the Sunday-school superintendents see the thing that I had in my head. Of course, when a thing has been the way it has been for a good while, you can’t really blame people for feeling that it’s been the way it ought to be. Feelings seems made that way. Our superintendent has been our superintendent for ’most forty years—ever since the church was built—and of course his thoughts is kind of turned to bone in some places, naturally.

His name is Jerry Bemus, and he keeps a little harness shop next door to the Town Hall that’s across from Market Square. When I went in that day he was resting from making harnesses, and he was practicing on his cornet. He can make a bugle call real nice—you can often hear it, going up and down Daphne Street in the morning, and when I’m down doing my trading I always like to hear it—it gives me kind of a nice, old-fashioned feeling, like when Abigail Arnold fries doughnuts in the back of the Home Bakery and we can all smell ’em, out in the road.

“Jerry,” I says, “how much is our Sunday-school Christmas tree going to cost us?”

Jerry’s got a wooden leg, and he can not remember not to try to cross it over the other one. He done that now, and give it up.

“We calc’late about twenty-five dollars,” says he, proud.

“What we going to do to celebrate?”

“Well,” he says, “have speaking pieces—we got a program of twenty numbers already,’ says he, pleased. “And a trimmed tree, and an orange, and a bag of nuts and candy for every child,” he says.

“All the other churches is going to do the same,” I says. “Five trees and five programs and five sets of stuff all around. And all of ’em on Christmas Eve, when you’d think we’d all sort of draw together instead of setting apart, in cliques. Land,” I says out, “that first Christmas Eve wouldn’t the angels have stopped singing and wept in the sky if they could of seen what we’d do to it!”

“Hush, Calliope,” says Jerry Bemus, shocked. “They ain’t no need to be sacrilegious, is they?”

“Not a bit,” says I; “we’ve been it so long a’ready, worshiping around in sections like Hottentots. Well, now,” I says, “do you honestly think we’ve all chose the best way to go at Christmas Eve for the children, filling them up with colored stuff and getting their stummicks all upset?”

We had quite a little talk about it, back and forth, Jerry and me. And all of a sudden, while I was trying my best to make him see what I saw, I happened to notice his bugle again.

“There ain’t no thrill in none of it,” I was saying to him. “Not half so much,” I says, “as there is in your bugle. When I hear that go floating up and down the street, I always kind of feel like it was announcing something. To my notion,” I says, “it could announce Christmas to this town far better than forty-’leven little separate trimmed-up trees.…Why, Jerry,” I says out sudden, “listen to what I’ve thought of.…”

A little something had come in my head that minute, unexpected, that fitted itself into the rest of my plan. And it made Jerry say, pretty soon, that he was willing to go with me to see the other superintendents; and we done so that very day. Ain’t it funny how big things work out by homely means—by homely means? Sole because the choir-leader in one choir had resigned because the bass in that choir was the bass in that choir, and so they didn’t have anybody there to train their Christmas music, and sole because another congregation was hard up and was having to borrow its Christmas celebration money out of the foreign missionary fund—we got ’em to see sense. And then the other two joined in.

The schools were all right from the first, being built, like they are, on a basis of belonging to everybody, same as breathing and one-two other public utilities, and nothing dividing anybody from anybody. And I begun to feel like life and the world was just one great bud, longing to open, so be it could get enough care.

The worst ones to get weaned away from a perfectly selfish way of observing Christ’s birthday was the private families. Land, land, I kept saying to myself them days, we all of us act like we was studying kindergarten mathematics. We count up them that’s closest to us, and we can’t none of us seem to count much above ten.

Not all of ’em was that way, though. Well—if it just happens that you live in any town whatever in the civilized world, I think you’ll know about what I had said to me.

On the one hand it went about like this, from Mis’ Timothy Toplayd and the Holcombs and the Hubbelthwaits and a lot more:

“Well, land knows, it’d save us lots of back-aching work—but—will the children like it?”

“Like it?” I says. “Try ’em. Trust ’em without trying ’em if you want to. I would. Remember,” I couldn’t help adding, “you like to be with the children a whole lot oftener than they like to be with you. What they like is to be together.”

And, “Well, do you honestly think it’ll work? I don’t see how it can—anything so differ’nt.”

And, “Well, they ain’t any harm trying it one year, as I can see. That can’t break up the holidays, as I know of.”

But the other side had figured it out just like the other side of everything always figures.

“Calliope,” says Mis’ Postmaster Sykes, “are you crazy-headed? What’s your idee? Ain’t things all right the way they’ve always been done?”

“Well,” says I, conservative, “not all of ’em. Not wholesale, I wouldn’t say.”

“But you can’t go changing things like this,” she told me. “What’ll become of Christmas?”

“Christmas,” I says, “don’t need you or me, Mis’ Sykes, to be its guardians. All Christmas needs if for us to get out of its way, and leave it express what it means.”

“But the home Christmas,” she says, ’most like a wail. “Would you do away with that?”

Then I sort of turned on her. I couldn’t help it.

“Whose home?” I says stern. “If it’s your home you mean, or any of the thousands of others like it where Christmas is kept, then you know, and they all know, that nothing on earth can take away the Christmas feeling and the Christmas joy as long as you want it to be there. But if it’s the homes you mean—and there’s thousands of ’em—where no Christmas ever comes, you surely ain’t arguing to keep them the way they’ve been kept?”

But she continued to shake her head.

“You can do as you like, of course,” she said, “and so can everybody else. It’s their privilege. But as for me, I shall trim my little tree here by our own fireside. And here we shall celebrate Christmas—Jeddie and Nora and father and me.”

“Why can’t you do both?” I says. “I wouldn’t have you give up your fireside end of things for anything on earth. But why can’t you do both?”

Mis’ Sykes didn’t rightly seem to know—at least she didn’t say. But she give me to understand that her mind run right along in the self-same groove it had had made for it, cozy.

* * * * * * * *

Somehow, the longer I live, the less sense I seem to have. There’s some things I’ve learned from twenty-five to thirty times in my life, and yet I can’t seem to remember them no more than I can remember whether it’s sulphite or sulphate of soda that I take for my quinsy. And one of these is about taking thing casual.

That night, for instance, when I come round the corner on to Daphne Street at half-past seven on Christmas Eve, I thought I was going to have to waste a minute or two standing just where the bill-board makes a shadow for the arc-light, trying to get used to the idea of what we were doing—used to it in my throat. But there wasn’t much time to spend that way, being there were things to do between then and eight o’clock, when we’d told ’em all to be there. So I ran along and tried not to think about it—except the work part. ’Most always, the work part of anything’ll steady you.

The great cedar-of-Lebanon-looking tree, standing down there on the edge of the Market Square and acting as if it had been left from some long-ago forest, on purpose, had been hung round with lines and lines of strung pop-corn—the kind that no Christmas tree would be a Christmas tree without, because so many, many folks has set up stringing it nights of Christmas week, after the children was in bed, and has kept it, careful, in a box, so’s it’d do for next year. We had all that from the churches—Methodist and Presbyterian and Episcopal and Baptist and Catholic pop-corn, and you couldn’t tell ’em apart at all when you got ’em on the tree. The festoons showed ghostly-white in the dark and the folks showed ghostly-black, hurrying back and forth doing the last things.

And the folks was coming—you could hear ’em all along Daphne Street, tripping on the bad place that hadn’t been mended because it was right under the arc-light, and coming over the hollow-sounding place by Graham’s drug-store, and coming from the little side streets and the dark back streets and the streets down on the flats. Some of ’em had Christmas trees waiting at home—the load had been there on the Market Square, just like we had let it be there for years without seeing that the Market Square had any other Christmas uses—and a good many had bought trees. But a good many more had decided not to have any—only just to hang up stockings; and to let the great big common Christmas tree stand for what it stood for, gathering most of that little garland of Daphne Street trees up into its living heart.

Over by the bandstand I come on them I’d been looking for—Eddie Newhaven and Arthur Mills and Lily Dorron and Sarah and Mollie and the Cartwrights and Lifty and six-eight more.

“Hello, folks,” I says. “What you down here for? Why ain’t you home?”

They answered all together:

“For the big tree!”

“Are you now?” I says—just to keep on a-talking to ’em. “Whose tree?”

I love to remember the way they answered. It was Eddie Newhaven that said it.

“Why, all of us’s!” he said.

All of us’s! I like to say it over when they get to saying “mine” and “theirs” too hard where I am.

When it was eight o’clock and there was enough gathered on the Square, they done the thing that was going to be done, only nobody had known how well they were going to do it. They touched the button, and from the bottom branch to the tip-top little cone, the big old tree came alight, just like it knew what it was all about and like it had come out of the ground long ago for this reason—only we’d never known. Two hundred little electric lights there were, colored, and paid for private, though I done my best to get the town to pay for ’em, like it ought to for its own tree; but they was paid for private—yet.

It made a little oh! come in the crowd and run round, it was so big and beautiful, standing there against the stars like it knew well enough that it was one of ’em, whether we knew it or not. And coming up across the flats, big and gold and low, was the moon, most full, like it belonged, too.

“And glory shone around,” I says to myself—and I stood there feeling the glory, outside and in. Not my little celebration, and your little celebration, and their little celebration, private, that was costing each of us more than it ought to—but our celebration, paying attention to the message that Christ paid attention to.

I was so full of it that I didn’t half see Ben Cory and his carolers come racing out of the dark. They was all fixed up in funny pointed hoods and in cloaks and carrying long staves with everybody’s barn-yard lanterns tied on the end of ’em, and they run out in a line down to the tree, and they took hold of hands and danced around it, singing to their voices’ top a funny old tune, one of them tunes that, whether you’ve ever heard it before or not, kind of makes things in you that’s older than you are yourself wake up and remember, real plain.

And Jerry Bemus shouted out at ’em: “Sing it again—sing it again!” and pounded his wooden leg with his cane. “Sing it again, I tell you. I ain’t heard anybody sing that for goin’ on forty years.” And everybody laughed, and they sung it again for him, and some more songs that had come out of the old country that a little bit of it was living inside everybody that was there. And while they were singing, it came to me all of a sudden about another night, ’most three hundred years before, when on American soil that lonesome English heart, up there in Boston, had dreamed ahead to a time when Christmas would come here.…
“But faith unrolls the future scrolls;
Christmas shall not die,
Nor men of English blood and speech
Forget their ancestry—”
or any other blood, or any other speech that has in it the spirit of what Christ come to teach. And that’s all of us. And it felt to me as if now we were only just beginning to take out our little single, lonely tapers and carry them to light a great tree.

Then, just after the carols died down, the thing happened that we’d planned to happen: Over on one side the choirs of all the churches, that I guess had never sung together in their lives before, though they’d been singing steadily about the self-same things since they was born choirs, begun to sing—
Silent night, holy night.
Think of it—down there on the Market Square that had never had anything sung on it before except carnival tunes and circus tunes. All up and down Daphne Street it must of sounded, only there was hardly anybody far off to hear it, the most of ’em being right there with all of us. They sung it without anybody playing it for ’em and they sung it from first to last.

And then they slipped into another song that isn’t a Christmas carol exactly, not not any song that comes in the book under “Christmas,” but something that comes in just as natural as if it was another name for what Christmas was—“Nearer, my God, to thee,” and “Lead, Kindly Light,” and some more. And after a bar or two of the first one, the voices all around begun kind of mumbling and humming and carrying the tunes along in their throats without anybody in particular starting ’em there, and then they all just naturally burst out and sung too.

And so I donno who done it—whether the choirs had planned it that way, or whether they just thought of it then, or whether somebody in the crowd struck it up unbeknownst to himself, or whether the song begun to sing itself; but it come from somewhere, strong and clear and real—a song that the children has been learning in school and has been teaching the town for a year or two now, sung to the tune of “Wacht am Rhein”:
The crest and crowning of all good—
Life’s common goal—is brotherhood.
And then everybody sung. Because that’s a piece you can’t sing alone. You can not sing it alone. All over the Market Square they took it up, and folks that couldn’t sing, and me that can’t sing a note except when there’s nobody around that would recognize me if they ever saw me again—we all sung together, there in the dark, with the tree in the midst.

And we seemed long and long away from the time when the leader in one of them singing choirs had left the other choir because the bass in the other choir was the bass in the other choir. And it was like the Way Things Are had suddenly spoke for a minute, there in the singing choirs come out of their separate lofts, and in all the singing folks. And in all of us—all of us.

Then up hopped Eppleby Holcomb on to a box in front of the tree, and he calls out:

“Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas—on the first annual outdoor Christmas-tree celebration of Friendship Village!”

When he said that I felt—well, it don’t make any difference to anybody how I felt; but what I done was to turn and make for the edge of the crowd just as fast as I could. And just then there come what Eppleby’s words was the signal for. And out on the little flag-staff balcony of the Town Hall Jerry Bemus stepped with his bugle, and he blew it shrill and clear, so that it sounded all over the town, once, twice, three times, a bugle-call to say it was Christmas. We couldn’t wait till twelve o’clock—we are all in bed long before that time in Friendship Village, holiday or not.

But the bugle-call said it was Christmas just the same. Think of it…the bugle that used to say it was war. And the same minute the big tree went out, all still and quiet, but to be lit again next year and to stay a living thing in between.

When I stepped on to Daphne Street, who should I come face to face with but Mis’ Postmaster Sykes. I was feeling so glorified over, that I never thought of its being strange that she was there. But she spoke up, just the same as if I’d said: “Why, I thought you wasn’t coming near.”

“The children was bound to come,” she says, “so I had to bring ’em.”

“Yes,” I thought to myself, “the children know. They know.”

And I even couldn’t feel bad when I passed the post-office store and see Silas sitting there all sole alone—the only lit store in the street. I knew he’d be on the Market Square the next year.

They went singing through all the streets that night, Ben Cory and his carolers. “Silent night, holy night” come from my front gate when I was ’most asleep. It was like the whole town was being sung to by something that didn’t show. And when the time comes that this something speaks clear all the time,—well, it ain’t a very far-off time, you know.

Father of 7, Grandfather of 7, husband of 1. Freelance writer, Major League baseball geek, aspiring Family Historian.

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