John William Smith didn’t grow up with a lot of material possessions.
He was a child in 1949, and the financial strain on the family had made his parents stressed and irritable. The tension was clear—as was the reason that they could not afford a Christmas tree that year.
But with his child-like logic, Smith thought that if they only had a tree, it would make everything so much better.
Luckily for him, he had a job delivering papers. Three days before Christmas, it was dark and snowing, bitterly cold, but instead of going home he decided to try to catch a customer who hadn’t paid him for the last few papers.
“Much to my surprise, she was home,” Smith wrote. “She invited me in and not only did she pay me, she gave me a dollar tip! It was a windfall for me—I now had eight whole dollars.”
“What happened next was totally unplanned,” he continued.
On his way home, Smith came across a Christmas tree lot where the only trees left were mostly stragglers that people who came early for the best pick no longer wanted. But among them was one last beautiful tree he just had to have.
The vendor told him it was $10.
“I—in my gullible innocence—told him I only had eight. He said he might sell for that,” Smith wrote. He didn’t want to spend all $8 he had on the tree, but he really wanted that tree.
So he paid for it, and then dragged it all the way home in the snow. “About a mile, I think—and I tried hard not to damage it or break off any limbs,” he wrote. With the snow acting as a cushion, the tree made it home in pretty decent shape. He propped it up on the porch, and called for his parents to come out and see what he’d brought.
“My heart was bursting as I announced that I had a surprise,” Smith remembered.
But he didn’t get the reaction he was hoping for.
“Where did you get that tree?” his mother exclaimed—angry, not pleasantly surprised.
He tried to keep up his enthusiasm, but it was quickly deflating. “Isn’t it just the most perfect tree you ever saw?” he tried.
But his mother was more concerned about the money. Her tone turned accusing, and then she went off on a tirade about “how stupid it was to spend money on a dumb tree that would be thrown out and burned in a few days.”
She yelled at him for being irresponsible and foolish like his father, and “that it was about time I grew up and learned some sense about the realities of life.”
Then she said that he would “end up in the poorhouse because I believe in stupid things like Christmas trees, things that didn’t amount to anything.”
His mother had never yelled at him like that before. She’d never spoken such harsh words.
Smith was crying now, and stood there in the dark after she snapped off the porch light and stormed back into the house.
“Leave it there,” she said. “Leave that tree there till it rots, so every time we see it, we’ll all be reminded of how stupid the men in this family are.”
His father helped him prop it up and decorate it, but it wasn’t the same.
The mood was ruined, and it was the worst Christmas that Smith ever had.
Decades later, his father passed away. His mother, in her old age, was spending half a year with him and his sister each. He never forgot that awful Christmas in 1949, but they never brought it up again.
But one Christmas Eve in 1971, it was just him and his mother in the kitchen. He wasn’t able to sleep, and he found her in the kitchen making a hot cup of tea. They talked about how happy they were to be together for Christmas, and how they wished Dad could see his grandchildren and spend his favorite time of the year with them.
Then she said: “Do you remember that time on Twelve Mile Road when you bought that tree with your paper route money?”
Smith had just been thinking about that same moment.
“She hesitated for a long moment, as though she were on the verge of something that was bottled up so deeply inside her soul that it might take surgery to get it out. Finally, great tears started down her face and she cried, ‘Oh, son, please forgive me,'” Smith recounted.
His mother confessed that what she said that night had been a burden on her heart for 25 years.
“I wish your dad were here, so I could tell him how sorry I am for what I said. Your dad was a good man, and it hurts me to know that he went to his grave without ever hearing me say that I was sorry for that night,” she said.
Then she confessed that the money problems had been worse than he realized. They were fighting all the time, but not in front of Smith. There was no money for food, yet his father talked of taking a trip, and his mother ended up taking out all her anger on her son.
“It doesn’t make what I did right, but I hoped that someday, when you were older, you would understand. I’ve wanted to say something for ever so long, and I’m so glad it’s finally out,” she said. She begged for his forgiveness, and he found it was easy to give. They both cried and held each other, and talked for a long, long time.
Smith realized then that the greatest gifts weren’t things that could be put under a tree, but are things like understanding, grace, peace, and forgiveness.