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    Good Books: The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree

    December 3, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    There are some children’s books that are so beautiful, they are almost painful for me to read. Gloria Houston’s The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree is just such a book. If you don’t own it, get yourself a copy and quick, before the season is over!

    Houston’s book is set during World War I. We learn about the year the Armistice was signed, when Ruthie’s father had to go to war, and the village almost didn’t have a Christmas tree that year.

    At least, this is what most summaries will tell you.

    The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian StoryBut behind all of this is lies the power of motherhood. Father picks out the Christmas tree for the village {the families take turns providing the tree for the church} in the spring before he becomes a soldier, and, according to a letter the family receives, the Great War has ended and Father should be home for Christmas. This is good, as his absence means the family has no money; they have been living off of the land.

    Christmas Eve arrives, and Father isn’t home. The preacher offers a substitute tree, but Ruthie’s mother says that Father is as good as his word. Father will provide the tree.

    And because Father is providing the tree, Ruthie will be the angel in the village Christmas play. This is their tradition.

    In the night, Ruthie and her mother go and get the tree–they climb high up in the mountains in the snow with their horse and sleigh. It is dawn when they deliver the tree. No one ever knows it was them–it is suspected that angels brought the tree.

    Mother tucks Ruthie into bed, but she herself sleeps not. There is much work to be done. It is obvious that Mother had believed that Father would be home for Christmas Eve. She had hoped that he would bring with him money to buy the fabric needed for the angel costume. The school teacher had assured Ruthie that “if you wear a dress with great big sleeves, it will look like you have wings.”

    And so we see mother cutting up her own beautiful wedding dress to make Ruthie’s angel costume.

    Ruthie has been praying that Saint Nicolas will bring her “a doll with a beautiful dress, the color of cream, all trimmed with ribbons and lace.” Mother cuts up the silk stockings that Father sent her from the War, stuffs them with wool, and smoothes it into the shape of an angel for the top of the tree. She cuts the scraps of her wedding dress into a smaller dress, one that matches Ruthie’s, with which to dress the angel.

    And at this point I am trying not to cry while reading the story to my children.

    Ruthie wears her beautiful dress in the play. Saint Nicolas presents her with the angel from the top of the tree, to keep as her doll. {And there is one last surprise that you can only find out if you read the book.}

    As I was reading this for the second time yesterday, I started wondering how many children’s books out there actually encourage the mother reading it aloud to become a better mother. Surely this book is unique upon my shelf. This story of thankless sacrifice {not because Ruthie is ungrateful, but because she doesn’t comprehend all that her mother has done} reminds me of the power of motherhood at each reading.

    How many times do we think that because something goes unseen and unrecognized, that it is not great? Quiet heroism is what moves the earth, but we never realize it. This world tells us to do something that people can see, that we can point back to as having “changed the world”–that, in order to make a difference, we have to make a big difference.

    We listen to these lies, and subsequently undervalue the gentle sacrifices that make living upon the earth bearable in the first place. When Ruthie’s mother was simply being a good mother, she never suspected that the story would be told, generations later, inspiring other mothers to embrace their jobs, to do them well and with love.

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  • Reply Dorothy December 23, 2018 at 4:09 pm

    I’ve read this book to my 2nd grade class for years. It should be made into a movie. Such a beautiful story of a sacrificing mother.

    I love your comments above: “Quiet heroism is what moves the earth” and “When Ruthie’s mother was simply being a good mother…” Awesome review and interesting blog. Thank you!

  • Reply Trisha December 6, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing about this book. My Christmas read aloud selection is very poor, so I’m glad to add this one.

  • Reply Mama Squirrel December 5, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I like your review–and I’ve linked.

  • Reply Kansas Mom December 3, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    I have My Great Aunt Arizona. The illustrations are no match for Cooney, of course, but I really like the story. It’s also based on her family and I have almost the same feeling at the end as when I read Miss Rumphius, even though the two women live very different lives. They both inspire the children around them to learn and grow.

    Another good author is Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. We read A Christmas Like Helen’s today. The kids and I enjoyed it more than I expected (though I previewed it and knew we’d like it). It’s as more about family and really living than Christmas Day itself, though she describes both memorable Christmases and the kind of memories that build over the years. She also wrote The Bear that Heard Crying which we read in our American History in a Year of Picture Books series last year. 😉

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts December 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    I totally agree! We are Cooney fans, also, and she did a fabulous job on this book.

    I was wondering about Houston’s other books. For instance, I noticed My Great-Aunt Arizona and wondered if it was well done, or well illustrated, etc. Anybody have opinions on specific titles to check out?

  • Reply Nancy December 3, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    We love this book, too, but the storyline is only half the story for us. Barbara Cooney’s simple yet exquisite illustrations bring it to life in the way only Ms. Cooney, a favorite illustrator of ours, always manages to do. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply dawn December 3, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Argh! I saw it this morning at the library and passed it up … requested it now 🙂

  • Reply Kansas Mom December 3, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    This is one of my favorites, too. The kids can never understand why I have to keep stopping to hold back the tears. It’s on our list again this year. Gloria Houston has some other books that are quite good, too.

  • Reply Wendi December 3, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    We love this book! I picked it up at a Scholastic warehouse sale before I became a mom…it’s a favorite in our Christmas book basket 🙂

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