The Real Christmas Tree: a short story with which to celebrate Christmas

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The Real Christmas Tree: a short story with which to celebrate Christmas

The Real Christmas Tree: a short story with which to celebrate Christmas

Brian Fernandes   ¦    Dec 23, 2019 09:30:17 AM (IST)

The Real Christmas Tree: a short story with which to celebrate Christmas-1

 For those who prefer to listen to the story, rather than read it, click here for the audio version

 Here & Now

I am 36; I still believe Santa will come on Christmas Eve, and that I will get a glimpse of him.

I tell my two children, aged 7 and 5 that Santa always comes when he sees a real Christmas tree adorning a house, not the artificial ones that adorn most houses these days, and surprise, surprise - they believe me.

Their mum, my wife, however, doesn’t. She thinks I am crazy. But thankfully, she has never expressed those views in front of the kids, or to them. The way she looks at me as I stay awake on Christmas Eve and revel in the joy of finding gifts at the foot of the tree the next morning - ones that I myself had placed there for her and the kids - conveys that message loud and clear. She even once suggested I see a psychiatrist!

I don’t think I am crazy. And if I am, so what? I have valid reasons.

29 years earlier
As far as I can recall, it all began when I was a child of seven years, the age at which I began to understand where I’ve come from and where I’m going; and importantly the advantageous position I found myself in, as an only child.

It was the beginning of Christmas week, and for me, the most exciting time of the year. Do you know what added to the excitement? My dad had come down from Dubai, as he did every alternate year. I loved being around him. Besides the chocolates and small presents, he was full of energy and fun.

With Dad in town, and it being Christmas week there were several visitors, mainly my Dad’s brothers and sisters and my older cousins trouping in and out of the house. The family get together every alternate Christmas, was like a fiesta. I enjoyed every moment of it. But it was also a time of tension for my mum.

It was not very visible on her face, except occasionally; but it would often spill over into arguments when Dad and Mum were alone. I know, because they ignored my presence on those occasions. Often it was about expenses, and the additional work involved in entertaining guests that would stop over, only because dad was in town. But I guess that’s how the cookie crumbled everywhere.

I loved watching Mum covertly, the quiet affectionate disciplinarian she was – maybe I loved her more maybe because of it, I still don’t know - as she watched us wistfully from the doorway of our 2 bedroom second-floor rundown apartment as we planned the setting up of our Christmas tree. This time, guess what? I was a part of the Christmas tree committee! This year, as previously the plan was, to set up a real Christmas tree, without Christmas lights, because we didn’t have a set, unlike the neighbours.

It was time to set up the Christmas tree; with Dad in town, my older cousins were around to help and often there were shouts of where's this, where's that amid the constant chatter of my mum; “Don’t dirty the floor now, take out all the debris; if you dirty it, you have to clean it up. It was so exciting for me especially, and my cousins too, to be a part of this chaos; young as we were, we enjoyed ferrying stuff they wanted from where they told us it would be.. We felt we were in the thick of it...

I was a wee bit disappointed, when I compared the real tree we had set up with our neighbours’ trees, tall, well spread and all lit up at night, their houses even. Oh! How I envied them. I decided I would ask Santa, not for the tricycle I saw my friends use, but the gift of a new big Christmas tree with lights – just like the neighbours!

I decided to ask Dad first. He would know if it was the right thing to ask Santa. He knew everything I thought. When I told Dad that I would ask Santa for a new big Christmas tree just like the neighbours, he said knowingly, “Aaron, he won’t bring that kind of a tree; those are artificial trees, and Santa loves real trees”.

But what about those in their houses I asked plaintively. Dad replied, “Santa did not bring those trees, they are from the local market and Santa may skip their house on the way, but he won’t skip ours, because he loves real trees; why don’t you ask him for a toy instead?”

“Then can I ask him for a tricycle Dad?”, I asked, disappointed. “Not this time Aaron. He must already be on his way. It’s alright even if you don’t ask him for anything; he knows what you want, and he will bring something for you for sure. He will not skip our house, because we have a real Christmas tree”.

“How do you know Dad?” I asked

“He told me,” Dad said.

“So you have seen him, Dad? He spoke to you?” I asked curiously. “Mum says the real Santa Claus remains invisible to children because the children will trouble him if they see him.”

“Your mum is right son, he does, but two years ago we had this real tree remember? He stayed a wee bit longer admiring it, and I caught him just as he was leaving. “

“What did he say Dad?”, I asked excitedly.

“He said, “I shouldn’t have stayed this long, but I love real Christmas trees and I miss them when I’m travelling. But now that I’m visible, I better move on” and then he disappeared.”

I believed him. I always did. He was my hero. He knew what Santa loved when Santa would come. After our conversation, I was sure of one thing - that night Santa would come and I would see him. After all, we had a real Christmas tree!.

We lived on the 2nd floor of a small two-bedroom apartment that overlooked a side street. The building was rather run-down, but my parents had no immediate plans to change it. They couldn’t afford to do it is what I had gathered from eavesdropping on my parents barely concealed conversations’.

On that Christmas Eve, my cousins and their parents stayed over and I knew there would be no arguments, so no tension - My Dad and Mum would be on their best behaviour!

But I was not about to be on mine. I wanted to see Santa and nothing in the world would stop me from doing that. I was certain he would come, and it would be more than the fleeting visit he normally made because we had a real tree, didn’t we? And that’s the time I would catch him.

Since there was limited space in our house, our parents decided that we children would sleep in the hall near the Christmas tree. But this decision came after a secret lengthy debate among the elders. Their concern? How would Santa come and leave his gifts? So after an early Christmas Mass, and a light dinner we were herded off to sleep. Literally herded. Then the lights were put off.

Our Christmas tree had no lights, so it was close to pitch dark, save a sliver from under the bedroom door as our elders continued to party inside, but quietly.

An hour later they came to check on us, using a torch. My cousins had fallen asleep. I was awake although I was tired from the day’s excitement and the strenuous game of gully cricket, my cousins and I had played. I lay still with eyes closed as they shone the torch on me.

When they left the room, I quickly opened my eyes and looked around. It took a while to adjust to the low visibility. But I knew Santa had not yet come - there were no gifts under the tree, and besides, I had been awake the whole time....

I couldn’t see the clock, and though I was told that Santa comes at midnight, I didn’t think it possible; with so many houses to visit - it cannot be, can it? Maybe there was still time? I might have to stay awake the whole night was the last thought I had before I fell asleep, despite my resolve.

I don’t know what time I fell asleep, or how long I slept, but I woke up with a start. I thought I heard a sound. A sort of thud. Santa? It was pitch dark, the bedroom lights were off and there were no lights on the Christmas tree. The curtains were drawn, but not fully and the flash of the neighbours’ coloured Christmas lights snaked through the gaps. I looked back at the Christmas tree – and there were gifts for all of us under the tree, their wrapping paper glinting.

Santa had come and gone. I cursed myself, for falling asleep and missing his visit. But wait. What was that sound I heard? That thud? Was it a dream, or was it real? On an impulse, I ran to the window and looked outside.

There was Santa sitting majestically in his reindeer driven sled on the street below; The street itself looked white and filled with snow. I could see the reindeer straining to go. Santa was all he was made out to be – roly-poly, with a white flowing beard; our elders must have seen him several times to copy his avatar down to a T I thought fleetingly.

Just then Santa looked up with his blue piercing eyes. Our eyes met, but only for a brief second. I don’t know why or how, but I just felt a deep love sweep all over me. It was the greatest moment of my life. One that remains deeply etched in my memory.

I was about to wake up my cousins and drag them to the window to see Santa, when in a whoosh of snow that blinded me, he moved off, and all I could see was the dark dreary dirty road that we had played cricket on earlier that day.

Once he left, and there was nothing left to see, I went and quietly lay down on my quilt. For some strange reason, despite the excitement of actually seeing Santa, I fell asleep.

The Real Christmas Tree: a short story with which to celebrate Christmas-2

2 years later
For some reason, I kept my vision of Santa a secret. In any case, I thought, no one would believe me if I told them I saw him. But that, in hindsight I can say, was not the real reason.

I thought I would see him again the next year – I had insisted that my Mum find a way to put up a real Christmas tree, as Dad was not around, and I did stay awake at least up to midnight or a little thereafter when I fell asleep. He must have paid a fleeting visit because I found my gift under the tree. But I never saw Santa that year.

The following year I recall, Dad, brought both a new Christmas tree and Christmas lights. But I did not allow him to set it up. I insisted he find a real tree and bring it home. I gave him his own argument to bolster my case - Santa loves real Christmas trees.

Finally, he swallowed his pride and made me tag along as he went to an acquaintance’s house to bring a real Christmas tree. I did not even allow him to use the Christmas Lights he had bought with much sacrifice I gathered. I only relented after he told me that Santa is getting old and he needs the lights to light up his path.

Of course, Dad never knew the real reason for my insistence. He had forgotten what he had told me. That year, I stayed awake throughout the night and waited patiently for Santa.

And I saw him; for the second time… in the lights of the Christmas tree.

But something seemed out of kilt. I looked closely and I realised that it was my Dad dressed up as Santa placing the gifts under the tree! I could make out from his walk and his eyes that flashed as he turned away from the Christmas tree. They were furtive. They were not the same eyes that had looked into mine that night two years ago.

That night my whole world came crashing down. My belief in my dad especially. He had lied to me. And I was angry. Angry as hell. But for some reason or the other, the moment the angry thoughts hit me, the vision of Santa looking up at me from down below killed them all. That vision was definitely real; just as real as my Christmas tree.

From then on, my relationship with my parents changed. I would always double down on whatever my parents told me. After all, they lied to me once, didn’t they?

5 years later
I recall that as I started schooling in an upmarket school in the neighbourhood, my being a single child constrained my ability to make friends, to share, to collaborate, and sometimes even cooperate. I was labelled a loner by my peers and an introvert by my teachers. My mum was concerned; I gathered this from her frequent sermons on the subject to my Dad and me when he was in town.

“Who’s your best friend at school?” Mum would ask after the teachers told her all about my asocial behaviour at school at PTA meets, and I would say, “everyone; all are my friends”. That’s what I also told myself. My academic grades though gave me an upper hand and possibly the stiff upper lip I was accused of having! Not true.

I was in the second Standard and all of seven years old when I began to overcome these constraints. During that year, I learned how to effectively manage both school and home environments in different ways, attracting praise and pats from both. Mum spoke to me differently, complimenting me profusely, lest I revert to my old ways when I told her that I shared my favourite cutlets with a classmate or gave my extra pencil to my bench mate because he had not brought his.

What altered my behaviour that year is still a mystery to me; certainly, it was not my mum’s or teacher’s cognitive therapy, because that was tried the previous year too. It was however, I recall, the year I saw Santa. Was there a connection? I don’t know to this day.

School was that never-ending chore that needed to be done. Now in the 9th standard, I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Christmas time – I had friends - a few not many - lots to do, and goals to achieve. Which I did; most of the time. There were disappointments and pressure from teachers and peers, but I coped as best as I could. And when I couldn’t, I relied on Santa.

Santa I would say, “Come on, come over and help me out”. And he would, quietly and invisibly. Through my mind’s eye, I could see and feel his presence, his piercing blue eyes looking into mine, telling me things will be fine.

As I grew older and became more aware of the differences in gender, income, lifestyles, and beliefs, I realised that I was somewhere on the middle of the school’s social totem pole. Often I would be left out of gang trips to the nearest sweet shop on the opposite road, trips to the local fair and sleepovers I only heard about, maybe because of my introverted nature or more likely, my social status.

But this social clarity also allowed me to see that I had classmates that were below me on the totem pole too and my self-pity would vanish when I saw their circumstances, which they bore with fortitude and a smile. Arun and Andrew were from a different neighbourhood, but seemed to find it difficult to bring a full meal in the noon and what little they had brought they had cooked themselves. I knew this because we often ate together and I would share my favourites with them. Often I would find that they didn’t have a textbook, or their homework incomplete, because of their family finances forced them into part-time work after school at a neighbour’s bungalow.

As the years rolled on we became good friends and a ‘gang’. We helped each other out at school and at home when required. Another classmate, Anusuya, a tall petite girl, and her friend Anshu preferred to join us rather than their all-girl gang. We didn’t have sleepovers and stuff, but we were good friends, but with limited knowledge of each other’s personal lives. In the week leading up to Christmas that year, I was brimming with excitement – the ‘gang’ had planned a Christmas treat that day.

I was just finishing breakfast when mum received a phone call. It must be Dad I thought. It was unusual for Dad to call so early, but then he was getting ready to travel back home, so…

She said into the phone, “hi David”, then screamed and dropped the phone. I was on the way to the kitchen carrying my empty breakfast plate. I dropped it and ran to her. “What happened? What happened?” I asked. Her sobs became louder. “What happened Mum? Tell me”, I screamed in panic.

“Dad has died in Dubai”. My whole world came crashing down, just as when I saw him place the gifts under the Christmas tree. Was it a lie? No, it must be real. Mum didn’t cry a lot.

The next ten days, until his body arrived were a blur. Mum and I were devastated, but we pulled through with the constant stream of visitors and relatives, many of whom stayed over. I often turned to my vision of Santa and implored him to bring Dad back for Christmas. But there was no answer. My ‘gang’ was my only source of comfort.

Dad’s funeral was held on Christmas Eve. That day I remember I fought with mum. It was a fierce fight. I insisted on a Christmas tree, a real Christmas tree, without the lights – I never told her why. Finally, she agreed. The gang went over to Anusuya’s house – it was a big one with a huge compound a little distance away from our apartment; cut a branch of a tree brought it over and set it up. I stayed away from all of it.

There were angry looks all around, but I didn’t care. All I knew was Santa would bring Dad back on his sled. Funeral over, we returned home. I stayed awake the whole night. Santa did not come; there were no gifts under the tree. Neither did Santa bring Dad back. It seemed to me that Santa had abandoned me and I cried inconsolably.

One year later
It was a difficult year, finances had dried up. I was now in the 10th standard. There were loans to be paid, some of which mum didn’t know about apparently.

She began to share her doubts and pain with me. Dad was no longer around and perhaps she felt that I should take his place. I was not really ready for it. If things continued like this I would have to discontinue my studies and work she said. I found this very hard to digest. I loved school and I knew by then that I had it in me to make it big.

Mum herself had tried to find a suitable job, but with her lack of professional skills, other than her superb culinary skills, she found one hard to come by. She did take a few small home delivery orders here and there and gradually built up a small list of satisfied customers. I stayed home and helped her out when required. But it was not enough. There was too much of debt piled up and all our relatives had abandoned us.

By the time Christmas approached, we were getting disheartened. It was going to be an empty Christmas without Dad and money! We had never once, not put up a Christmas tree and this year, I was faced with a dilemma. Should I put up a tree? Why should I? Santa had abandoned me totally hadn’t he?

But as Christmas approached, something or someone (Dad?) deep inside kept insisting I should not break the tradition. I again approached Anusuya and the gang for help and this time I helped set it up in our living room.

At School, things were changing, Christmas was evolving from Carols and Cake to Christmas celebrations with a Secret Santa, a game in which everyone gets to play Santa, but secretly.

The Real Christmas Tree: a short story with which to celebrate Christmas-3

I loved Santa, and playing him, even secretly was a fantasy I had indulged in before. But could I afford to? I was glad when the teacher announced that the upper limit for gifts would be Rs: 100. But to my dismay, I got to play Santa to, of all the people in my class, Anusuya. She was my friend and I liked her a lot, and maybe, just maybe, I also had a wee crush on her, but what gift could I possibly give her? She seemed to have everything.

I was in a bind. I decided to bluff my way through. I decided that I would give her a gift that is not a gift. I found an empty pen box, and some old but still sparkling wrapping paper at home. I wrote a small chit – “This box is full of love. Santa Claus”, wrapped the box, ribboned it, took it to school, put her name on it and dropped it into the sealed box kept for the gifts.

On Christmas Eve, during the last period of the class, the box was opened and everyone scrambled to get their gifts from the box even as the teacher gave strict instructions – the gifts were not to be opened in the class. I was relieved.

My gift was neatly wrapped, ribboned and my name neatly written across it. The handwriting looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out who it was. I took it home and eagerly opened it; it was a beautiful pen, a Parker that must have cost more than Rs: 100. And then I realised whose handwriting it was; it was Anusuya’s. I wept quietly.

I was moping and feeling guilty when the doorbell rang; Mum opened it’ it was Anusuya. Normally she was accompanied by Anshu and had come home only once before, during my dad’s funeral, but this time she was alone. She must have found out, I thought; how I don’t know, it was supposed to be secret. I felt terribly embarrassed.

After pleasantries, Mum left us alone and went into the kitchen… Anusuya said, “Aaron I have an empty box, that seems full – it is heavy. I know it’s you who was my secret Santa. I saw your handwriting on the chit. I just came by to say thank you”.

I couldn’t stop the tears. They were in free flow. She put her hand on my hand and kept it there till I stopped crying. Mum heard me sobbing, and came out of the kitchen.

She sat down in the chair opposite and waited for me to stop crying. She didn’t say a word. After I had composed myself, she asked Anusuya what upset me, possibly worried that we may have had a childish tiff. Anusuya explained.

She also said that she understood our circumstances and had spoken to her parents and they were looking to see how they could help. Really? I looked again at the Christmas tree behind Anusuya and saw Santa; and Dad. Really. Santa and Dad together, behind Mum.