January 28, 2023

A Christmas Tree Grows in the Heart

A scene from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Francie explains the meaning of truth is beauty, beauty is truth

Now that retailers have made Christmas season longer than baseball season, shaking my past has become harder than getting rid of the chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the shoe. The Christmas tree display goes up with the back to school specials. As a consequence, I’m unable to drive around my conscience like I was unable to go around the Christmas tree that had fallen off the car in front of me. I didn’t want to believe it was my fault. The kid’s crying suggested I was to blame for much more in his life than requiring a return trip to a Christmas tree farm. Evidence of Ford tire tracks going over the busted Christmas tree nabbed me as the Grinch who ruined this kid’s Christmas and stole a generation of joy from the family tree.

His mother tied the tree to the trunk of the car and I watched it bounce erratically up and down for a mile or so in busy traffic. Another hard bounce and out it came, the tree bouncing and rolling in front of my car. Then it went under my car a rather nice tree for a modest clapboard house and came out the rear with broken branches and pine needles decorating the road. The little kid began to cry, cars began to honk, and my conscience began to hurt. The tax on real Christmas trees has been delayed. A tax on my conscience is collected by Salvation Army bell ringers.

Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a poignant scene (among several) where Francis must explain beauty and truth.

“What’s happened to your writing, Francis?” asked Miss Gardner.

“I don’t know.”

“You were one of my best pupils. You wrote so prettily. I enjoyed your compositions. But these last ones…” she flicked at them comtempuously.

“I looked up the spelling and took pains with my penmanship and…”

“I’m referring to your subject matter.”

“You said we could choose our own subjects.”

“But poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose…”

Francis then asks, “What is beauty?”

“I can think of no better definition than Keats: ‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty.'”

“Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, ‘Those stories are the truth.'”

The real Christmas tree grows in the heart, not at retailers or a Christmas tree farm. It grows or dies every day of the year. It requires the truth to grow. There isn’t a tax on the truth but deceitfulness is its Grinch.

At Christmas time all the letters and cards arrive, putting the best face on everything. No one is fired, flunks a class, falls off the wagon. But the retailers betray the facade. Alongside Christmas tree displays are all the liquor displays. I don’t remember a single sermon from a Christmas Eve service. I remember an alcoholic man slipping in the back pew next to me. I had on a nice suit. His clothing reeking of alcohol and the familiar stale odor of defeat. I had dressed “pretty” for Christmas. He wore the truth. Another Christmas Eve service watching everyone go into the big, historic church with the expensive organ and glancing across the street on the frigid night and seeing a homeless man eating out of a Dumpster.

Thanksgiving is next week. Thanksgiving is when Francie decides that she must become a writer. The teacher asks if anyone in the class wants a tiny five cent pumpkin pie. None of the students raise their hand. The teacher is about to throw the pie in the trash. Francie has never tasted pumpkin pie. She desperately wants it and finally raises her hand.

“I’m glad someone wants it,” said Teacher.

“I don’t want it for myself,” lied Francie proudly. “I know a very poor family I’d like to give it to.”

“Good,” said Teacher. “That’s the real Thanksgiving spirit.”

Francie ate the pie on her way home. On Monday the teacher asks Francie how the poor family enjoyed the pie. Francie embellishes her story with vivid details how the poor family would have died had she not given the girls the pumpkin pie. She knows she’s gone too far with her lie.

“That’s all a big lie,” she confessed. “I ate the pie myself.”

“I know you did.”┬áThe teacher tells Francie, “I’ll not punish you for having an imagination.” She’s┬áspared because she told a story of what she believed it should have been. The heart’s always the first to know the truth.


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