Putting Up the Tree

My wife is putting up the Christmas tree and we haven’t even rounded the corner toward Thanksgiving yet. But then, this holiday season can’t arrive quickly enough for us.

My wife is ready to get this show on the road. After a long year of sheltering in place, social distancing, sterilizing hands, and making curbside grocery pickups in hazmat suits, I’m surprised she didn’t put the tree up in July.

Not only is she erecting our tiny plastic tree, she is cooking butterscotch cookies, lighting scented candles, and diffusing festive 50-dollar essential oils into the air. Our house smells like a Yankee Candle suffering from an identity crisis.

Our corny Christmas decorations are making an annual appearance, too. We have porcelain figurines strewn on every surface, little glass people skating on mirrors, decorative salt shakers, a Norman Rockwell advent calendar, and of course, Christmas scarves for our dogs.

Yes. Scarves.

And music. You cannot put up a tree without music, it would be wrong. We play only the classics in this house. Because whenever Christmastime rolls around I prefer to travel back to a time when singers wore tuxedos, drank martinis on national television, and slurred their words in the company Foster Brooks.

The old melodies are drifting through our home like ghosts of Christmas Past. Nat sings about Chestnuts. Der Bingle is singing in Deutsch. The Vienna Boys’ Choir sings in Latin. Willie sings in Texan.

And I am lost in a fog of peppermint and plasticized Christmas paraphernalia. I have already traveled backward in time, deep into my childhood.

When I was a kid, my parents did not give many Christmas presents. Oh, we decorated and did trees, but our evergreens were fake, and our decorations were cheap.

On Christmas morning I would receive three or four sensible gifts and that was about all. Because we were fundamentalists. My mother didn’t believe in elaborate gifts. So I never even knew what I was missing out on.

I thought every kid received khakis, Fruit of the Looms, a Sandi Patty record, and a 1611 King James Bible for Christmas.

Until one year when I visited my friend’s house on Christmas Eve night.

The party was un-dang-believable.

I felt like I was walking into a Yuletide explosion. They were smoking cigarettes, sipping spiked eggnog, and shouting. They all gathered around a tree that was the size of a municipal landfill. Under the branches were 1,498,283 wrapped presents. Everyone was howling along to the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” refilling highballs, and wearing colorful garb.

My friend’s mother was dressed in a red gown with white pearls and a holly brooch. His father wore a Santa hat and smoked a stogie the size of a two-by-four. There was mistletoe hanging from the door jambs. I believe Foster Brooks even made a cameo.

The green-eyed monster of envy was awakened within Little Me, and I am at my worst when I’m jealous. It’s my ugliest emotion. I couldn’t believe I’d been so shorted for all these years.

Our Christmases had been dreadfully plain, and our suppers basic. We were pitiful. We ate canned oysters and cold cheese logs. We listened to solemn religious music. Our idea of a wild holiday night was turning up volume when Lawrence and the boys played “Lady of Spain.” How could my parents do this to me?

The next Christmas, my father decided to help me see life more clearly. He let me accompany him on one of the annual holiday errands he always did for our church.

We spent the evening going across town to deliver free balsam firs and sacks of gifts to needy families. These were sturdy trees, and the presents were mostly coats and shoes and hats.

That night we visited many different neighborhoods. I was introduced to various children who lived in ramshackled homes with dogs under the porches and absent parents. My father wasn’t trying to give me a guilt trip, I think he was just trying to let me see the world as it was.

And I did. I met kids my age who didn’t even seem to realize it was Christmas. They had no twinkling lights, no yard art, no butterscotch, no cheese logs, no nothing.

There was one kid who I went to school with. He was waiting on his porch with his little brother when we arrived. His family not only lacked a tree, they were using flashlights because their electricity was off. The church delivered their groceries weekly. And their clothes came from donations.

My father put on his biggest smile to make the delivery. We dropped off a garbage bag filled with gifts, and I was surprised to discover that these kids were actually excited about receiving so little.

When the kids threw their arms around my father I saw peach-sized tears in their eyes. One boy shouted, “Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou!”

And I’ll never forget seeing that kid look admiringly at my father, then to me, and saying with complete sincerity: “Man, you’re SO lucky.”

We rode home in silence. And when I arrived at our little house and saw our crooked tree, I felt differently about it all. I looked at our handmade decorations, and the popcorn garland, and the quilted advent calendar, and the candied pecans, and I felt downright silly.

Then I sat beside the glow of our lit-up tree and got lost in the sounds of music. I could not quit thinking about what I had seen.

And even though I am an adult now, and even though COVID-19 has made this year a crummy year, I still replay that boy’s words in my head.

Because they remain so very true.


  1. Maureen Grandon - November 16, 2020 6:51 am

    I remember Christmas Caroling at poor families and taking gifts and candy from our church and felt bad for them but they were so grateful.
    Later as an adult my company raised a lot of money and gifts for a needy family. They were very grateful, the kids were very shy. Its a good feeling to be able to do that.

  2. Terry - November 16, 2020 7:38 am

    For me it was in sixth grade. I went with a group from my school to deliver food boxes at Christmas. I was amazed, shocked and horrified at what I saw. And now I can close my eyes and see the scenes all those scenes again. I honestly think it changed me, at least I hope it did. I am so blessed. Most of us reading this are.
    Thanks for sharing your words.

  3. Bobbie - November 16, 2020 10:32 am

    I think you have to see the worst to appreciate the best in people. This happened to me several years ago when I went to Africa on a mission trip. We took as many bags of Dollar Store gifts as were allowed. I’ve never seen such joy in faces! Two dollar flip flops brought the biggest smiles since most at the orphanage were barefoot. What a blessing…as the Bible says, It’s more blessed to give than to receive. Thank you Sean for sharing such precious memories.
    Many I think are rushing Christmas this year. But it’s very much needed. A reminder of good things to come. Thankfully there are no rules about when to put up a Christmas tree. Enjoy each day. There are too soon gone.
    **I saw your commercial for the first time. Good for you! Loved it! 😍

  4. Steve Winfield - November 16, 2020 11:20 am

    Several years ago I was in the Civitan. There are several chapters around B’ham. We were usually given 4 families to provide a complete Christmas. Gifts & food. Usually the fixings for a turkey dinner, a bicycle or 2 & other things the family had put on a wish list. It honestly became more important than Christmas with my own family. I never got to see the recipients but it sure made me happy knowing I’d helped.

  5. Ann - November 16, 2020 11:31 am

    Thank you

  6. joan moore - November 16, 2020 12:06 pm

    I think we are reading the new Capote ..

  7. Jan - November 16, 2020 1:01 pm

    Amen! This is what makes Christmas … giving a helping hand.

  8. Virginia - November 16, 2020 1:27 pm

    Loved this story. So true. Envy is a terrible disease

  9. aleathia nicholson - November 16, 2020 2:01 pm

    We got our Christmas tree on Christmas Eve because that was when Christmas started and not before. The kids I grew up with said it was because my daddy was cheap. He got really PO-ed when I told him and my mama said: “Just keep it up! You’ll give him a stroke and then you’ll be satisfied!’ He said: “I told you they’re all heathens..Holy Rollers! Church of Christ!,,,,spit flew everywhere!!” I was so glad when they got a black Catholic church so they’d leave us alone. We were Episcopalians. The first time I heard and actually saw black gospel groups, I had a duck fit. The Soul Stirrers drove me crazy and life never was the same. Neither was Christmas. Our Christmas tree hit the curb on the 13th Day-Epiphany. I didn’t even try to explain that to the holiness kids since their music was so good.It was Sam Cooke versus the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

  10. David Aday - November 16, 2020 2:19 pm

    As a retired Marine, I work with Toys for Tots every year. Great to help kids believe in Santa!
    I listen to me singing this song every year! It gets me in the right frame of mind! I wrote the song to the words of a great Garth Brooks song!

  11. Bud McLaughlin - November 16, 2020 2:54 pm

    Beautiful, Sean. And so needed … thank you.

  12. elizabethroosje - November 16, 2020 2:59 pm

    So every morning (well, Sunday AM I am getting ready for church, but then *after church* !!!) one of the things I look forward to is YOUR blog post of the day. I mean that, I really enjoy them and read them while savouring a pot of tea! It’s so true, we are so lucky. and I feel really blessed to be able to read your posts! (my Instagram is down for going on 5 days, I miss checking in with you and your most wonderful wife there!) … Oh, and about your book post, well written and I really am meaning to get your books! Also read the comments, you have a commercial? is it for your books? I would love to see it, personally! 🙂 I can’t put up our Christmas tree till after Thanksgiving (my Husband’s wish) but I am already getting so excited! And of course, planning our Thanksgiving menu…!

  13. Connie - November 16, 2020 3:26 pm

    Our trees are going up. Not my choice-I prefer to wait until after Thanksgiving-but my granddaughter is beyond ready after the year we have had. My childhood was spent doing without. Our family was the one with the hand me downs and food that the church delivered for Christmas. So I learned early to be thankful for every little thing. Thank you for another beautiful column.

  14. Catherine - November 16, 2020 3:32 pm

    Beautiful. 💓🎄

  15. Bill Strawn - November 16, 2020 3:37 pm

    I understand how heavy the loss of your Dad was when you were so young, but you were lucky to have such a wonderful man as a dad, even for such a short time. He is someone I would like to know and call friend. I am glad his son turned into a fine young man. Merry Christmas.

  16. Hazel Barber - November 16, 2020 5:48 pm

    Oh how you tug at our heart strings! Thank you for sharing your memories so beautifully! May God shine his love down on that plastic tree and twinkling lights in your living room this year.

  17. Linda Moon - November 16, 2020 6:05 pm

    I wish it was the weekend just after Thanksgiving when we put up our Christmas decor. I also wish I could cook like your wife, especially anything with butterscotch in it Your father’s life lesson for young Sean was fundamentally what the One who was born on Christmas wants for all of us who are messed up. He and your Dad loved others. One loved perfectly; the rest of us sometimes get it wrong. Hear the boy’s words often, Sean!

  18. christine Wackrow - November 16, 2020 6:22 pm

    wonderful story. love all of your stories. thank you

  19. T.C. - November 16, 2020 8:41 pm

    I remember as a kid, my dad would gather our old toys, buy some nuts and fruits, and on Christmas Eve, and we would take it to this family, who didn’t have much, that lived out from town. One Christmas, I went in their house to find their Christmas tree had a couple of old ornaments, but no lights on it. No lights bothered me all year. So, the next Christmas we went down a few days out from Christmas and I gave them a string of lights. But, when we went back on Christmas Eve they had the lights I gave them around the front door. Dad asked Bill why they didn’t put them on the tree and he said they have always wished they had a light at their front door and they were using these lights for that. I guess we all need to wear another mans shoes every once in a while.

  20. Tom Wallin - November 16, 2020 8:42 pm

    Great story we all need to read or tell ourselves when we are feeling down or unlucky or sorry for ourselves. We can always help someone else. Thanks, Sean.

  21. MAM - November 16, 2020 10:55 pm

    Yes, I am blessed, and you, Sean, bless us with your words every day!

  22. Christina - November 16, 2020 11:28 pm

    Yes we are. Entering into this season with a greater appreciation for everything that we have.

  23. V2 - November 16, 2020 11:41 pm

    Wonderful. Thank you!

  24. jbarger@construction-360.com - November 17, 2020 1:41 am

    Thank you for always bringing our focus to the real heart of matters. You seem so humble and comfortable with an upbringing that this world would turn their nose up at. The humble things and people are the heart beat of God. Don’t stop bringing attention to what really matters!

  25. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - November 17, 2020 1:39 pm

    Yes, we fit somewhere in the middle. Our stockings contained oranges and nuts with shells on them. Mother said that’s what they got in their stockings in the 1920s. Oh, a a big peppermint stick’ we did love that. My brother Pat and I got cowboy and cowgirl outfits with the gun belt for our silver cap gun pistols. That was wonderful. Kids get so much today all during the year. I’m not sure if Christmas holds the same reverence and anticipation that we felt. Good memories, thank you Sean.

  26. Lovie - November 19, 2020 11:31 am

    Love will always be more important than things….and it’s enough. 💕

  27. Tammy - November 19, 2020 2:00 pm

    This was soo wonderful! I saw this on Instagram from Erin Napier-brought back soo many Xmas memories -my step dad didn’t really believe in Xmas -I remember going into the woods behind our house & getting a tree myself & making a cross stand (i could hammer a nail) I ended up getting a cedar tree -& I made gingerbread ornaments that I hung in tree threaded with string -on Xmas day all the ornaments were in the floor around the tree-I thought my stepdad had cut them off BUT they had gotten too soft and fell on their own overnight-there were 4 kids-$ was always tight -we got about 4 gifts a piece every year -I didn’t like it as a kid-but as an adult I see things so much clearer & see how hard my parents struggled financially
    TFS & have a wonderful holiday season!

  28. Kathy S Lorden - November 20, 2020 2:15 am

    Thank you. I needed this right now. I really needed this.

  29. Mary Christine Thompson - November 23, 2020 11:26 pm

    Christine – Las Vegas November 23, 2020 3:19 p.m.

    This tugs at the heart. Makes one remember the good/bad times.


Leave a Comment