This post first appeared in December 2014.
My home growing up had a playroom, a sunny place full of light where my older brother and I built castles and highways and dreams. Out the windows towered the high entrance of All Saints Episcopal Church, up a hill that seemed a mountain to me. We never took the steps, scrambling up and rolling down the hill. To us, the house and church made a playground. Classic preachers’ kids, we often played hard and loudly. Wars with my arsenal of realistic plastic WWII firepower. And later, fire crackers. Snowballs at cars. When I returned to the church at 19, I realized that the entrance hill was less than ten feet tall.
Inside the church on Christmas Eve spread a sea of handheld candles flickering as we sang Silent Night. I often crept into the choir loft where my mother played the organ and I could look down across the candles and feel that perfect mix of anticipated presents and present anticipation of baby Jesus arriving.
One year, we could not afford a real tree. This was the early 70s, so fake trees looked like a stack of green pipe cleaners. We soldiered on, reminded to be grateful by my parents’ work with the one family at the church who truly had nothing. We’d be fine. I was fine. That is, so long as the one $12 toy choice from the JCPenney catalog I had picked showed up on Christmas Morning.
And then it happened, one Christmas Eve. After the early service, I wandered back to our house to find something to do before the midnight show. I walked past the living room into the playroom, where I saw a dark fake tree and a bunch of boxes of ornaments and lights. I spun around to behold what had grown in the living room. Where our fake tree had been, now stood an enormous natural tree, decorated with beautiful new ornaments and bright lights. I can see it now, glistening with those fancy lights and shining globes.
I sat down on the footstool and just stared at it. After a few minutes, my dad walked in wearing his black priest shirt and white collar. “Gilbey, look at the tree.” “Look at the tree.” He would always chuckle telling this part of the story, because I was clearly looking at the tree, my face cupped in my hands and elbows pressed against my knees, just sitting there, looking.
When you’re seven, that’s a miracle.
I would later learn that someone in the choir had heard my mom mention the fake tree and had conspired with a lawyer in the choir to buy the real tree and gear and sneak it in while we were at the early service. Maybe that’s where I learned lawyers earned money.
What I believed at seven was that Christmas is magical. Still do.