The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree

by Gloria Houston; ill. by Barbara Clooney

Dial, 1989

32 pages

Christmas is a tricky holiday. Commercialization is not exactly a new problem (the Victorians sent cards, gave presents, and decorated their department stores, too), but it is a pervasive and pressing one, particularly where children are concerned.

Between catalogs, commercials, store displays, and the omnipresent Santa, it’s hard to focus little ones (and maybe even ourselves) on what’s meaningful about the holiday.

One way our family has tried to do this is by establishing traditions that center on love, peace, joy, and generosity. Because we’re Christian, faith elements like a Nativity-themed Advent calendar and Bible readings are front and center. But there’s one thing we do that’s appropriate for any family that celebrates Christmas: we read special books.

I’ve always been interested in children’s literature, but it wasn’t until my daughter was born that I started building a small collection of Christmas books. Whenever I go to garage sales, the thrift store, or my favorite secondhand book shop, I scan the racks and piles for good Christmas books. We now have a little bin stocked with about a dozen titles, including a couple of Christmas anthologies, and each night in December we read one before bed.

Gloria Houston’s The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree is one I found earlier this year at the thrift store. I picked it up because it’s illustrated by Barbara Cooney (one of my favorite artists) and because it’s about Appalachia (one of my favorite subjects). A quick scan told me it was also well-written, so into my cart it went.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that it would make a great Read Like a Girl review. The story centers on Ruthie, a little girl living in Appalachia during the first world war. Her community has one important Christmas tradition: each year, a different family provides a Christmas tree for the village church and the angel for the Christmas pageant.

This year, it’s Ruthie’s family’s turn. She and Papa choose a tree in early spring, but in summer he’s called away to fight in the war. When he doesn’t return with the rest of the village men that winter, the community begins to wonder whether they’ll have a tree. The preacher suggests that Ruthie’s mother allow another family to fill the need, but she refuses. Her husband can’t keep his word, so she’ll keep it for him.

Together, Mama and Ruthie climb the mountain, chop down the tree, and deliver it to the village church. And since Papa was unable to cut and sell the family’s timber, leaving Mama and Ruthie without money to buy cloth, Mama stays up all night to turn her own wedding dress into an angel costume for her daughter. The Christmas pageant is a rousing success, with Papa’s safe return serving as the night’s crowning event.

As I write, I’m realizing that it all sounds a bit sappy in the retelling. But that’s one thing that makes this such a good book: it’s heartwarming but not at all saccharine. Without being maudlin, Houston and Cooney together create a sensitive portrait of Appalachian culture, the hardships of families whose breadwinners have gone to war, and the communal strength of the Appalachian people.

But this is more than just a good book–otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing about it here. Mama and Ruthie are inspiring. They are true-to-life Appalachian women: stubborn, strong, and resourceful. With no money to buy cloth or food, Mama plants a vegetable garden and remakes their clothes. As they trudge up the mountain through knee-deep snow, leading their horse and timber sled, they sing Christmas songs. And of course it’s Mama’s inventiveness that saves the Christmas celebration.

There’s no doubt that Mama and Ruthie miss Papa, or that he belongs at home with them. But they are not helpless and weak in the face of his absence. Mama is not a hand-wringer–she is capable and tough. She and her daughter are survivors, role models for girls facing tough times. And–more to the point at this time of year–they are an example of how to find the beauty and peace in Christmas, even (or perhaps especially) through sacrifice and hardship.

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