By Charlie Flood
Stealing a Christmas tree is something that isn’t done every day. And it really wasn’t stealing–not like the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. The motivation and timing were different.
I was a feisty 9 year old when Dad took sick and left mom and me sudden-like. That same year, the Great Depression hit the country, but it made no difference to us. We had nothing to begin with. Since mom was an invalid, our existence depended on kind-hearted neighbors and my marvelous talent for survival.
I sold newspapers on street corners and occasionally moonlighted at night by picking up a bottle of milk from some front porch, a pie from a pantry window, or fruit from neighborhood trees. I thought I had my mother believing they were neighborly gifts, but I knew I didn’t fool Him, if you know what I mean.
During the first Christmas season without dad, I got caught up in the yuletide spirit. Like any other young boy, I reveled in the holiday sights and sounds. My anticipation was high, but deep down in my heart was a gnawing resignation that the man in the red suit would skip right over our little two room shack. He stopped only at houses that had fireplaces. That’s what I told myself. I knew I was being punished and fervently promised that I would leave other people’s milk and pies alone.
Meanwhile, there would be no bounteous goodies under the tree. In fact, there would be no tree. That didn’t seem right. At least, a tree would ease the hurt. I resolved to remedy this decoration omission. On Christmas Day I hurried to Petersen’s Market. A fresh layer of new snow lay on the street unmarked by passing vehicles, not a soul was stirring.
I figured that since the store was closed and the unsold trees were usually thrown away, I was embarking upon fair game. As I prowled among the snow-dusted trees beside the store, old man Petersen popped out of nowhere yelling dire threats and chasing me away.
Nels Petersen was an old bachelor who could squeeze a nickel till the buffalo bellowed. Scrooge could take lessons from him—he was that mean. The following year, he installed a fence around the Christmas tree lot and locked the gate every night. I accepted the challenge.
On that eventful night, when people basked in the warm glow of family togetherness and somewhere angels were singing, I climbed the fire ladder that hugged the store wall. Hanging onto the rung with one arm and leg, I lifted over the fence a busy six foot fir. The next day, old Nels knew one was missing; he had counted them. Next year, the ladder was removed. I dug under the fence. The following summer the area was cemented and a light installed.
Then came a Christmas that I shall always remember with fondness and warmth. My teacher at school involved our class in making Christmas cards for our favorite person, not counting our families. I participated reluctantly; I was almost 12 and this was kid stuff. I made a humdinger for Nels Petersen. Why I included him as my favorite person, I didn’t know.
I pasted up a magnificently decorated green tree with all the trimmings. As I worked on it, my enthusiasm sparked a tremendous artistic fervor. I figured that it would be the only card he would get from anybody. By the time I had finished, I felt a strange kindship for my adversary. I signed it and put it in his mailbox. He spotted me and the chase was on. I guess he thought I was stealing his mail.
Late Christmas Eve, when the stores were closed and everybody was home, I peered around the corner of the back of Petersen’s Market cautiously. Lo and behold, the security light was out and the lot was shrouded in darkness. The heady scent of evergreen caressed my nostrils. With neck hackles alert and nerves keyed for a quick getaway, I moved with suspicion along the fence.
The gate was open! My first thought was that anyone that dumb deserved to lose a tree. Me second thought was that he may not be so dumb; this could be a trap! He was probably hiding among the cluster of branches ready to grab me when I stepped through the gate. A mixture of strategies raced through my mind. Not so dumb, maybe, but slow; he never could catch me. I’ll rush it, grab a tree and be gone before he can move. I stood motionless while scanning the enclosure. I spotted a lone seven footer standing in the center by itself–a beautiful ready-made target.
My muscles stretched taut as I sprang through the gate. Suddenly, the tree blazed alive; it sparkled with brilliant colors of light like a Christmas tree should. The sudden brightness stripped me of all anonymity. I felt the whole world was watching me in the midst of a heinous crime.
Just as I was about to turn and bolt, I saw the large crudely- lettered sign on the tree. It stated simply: DON’T FORGET TO PULL THE PLUG AND LOCK THE GATE—MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Dazed, I reached down for the connection and saw the presents and box of groceries. Mr. Petersen wasn’t among the trees; he was somewhere throwing the switch and watching me. With a suspicious lump in my throat, I waved and called out, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Petersen!” I did as his sign directed and carried home the best Christmas I have ever had.
My new friend and I had learned a beautiful lesson on the joy of giving—all because a simple home-made Christmas card had touched a lonely heart and opened a locked gate.