A Christmas Tree Story

Frank Warner / The Morning Call
Image courtesy of Frank Warner / The Morning Call

I was thrilled when I heard the news that the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, officially decided to embrace its so-called Charlie Brown tree.

On Sunday, the town placed its first ornament on the 60-year-old Norway spruce: a red bulb to symbolize that the town will care and adorn it just the way it is, says Jeffrey Waltman, vice president of the town's city council. To celebrate, the city is holding an essay contest for students in kindergarten through 12th grades, who are invited to share what the holidays and the tree mean to them. The city is also holding a national photo contest for photographers of all ages and skill levels. The winning photo will be the town's official photo of their Christmas tree.

"The tree has been waiting for 60 years to have its moment," says Waltman. "It's giving us a reminder that we're all important to each other and need to look out for each other -- that's the bigger message."

As a lifelong advocate for Christmas trees with character, I felt the news sent a powerful message: "imperfection" can be perfect, and every person has the right to decide what perfect uniquely means to them.

From Christmas trees to body image, we as a society are consistently compelled to cling to traditional images of perfection. The covers of magazines are enough to send a message of what the ideal weight, hair color, bra size and height might be. Extending that message to a Christmas tree -- the very sentiment of love, acceptance and gratitude -- I felt was harmful.

Reading's Christmas tree story brought back memories of a personal one. Every year throughout my childhood, my family would pack into a car in early December to cut down our own tree at a farm in upstate New York. I remember one year in particular, when I was around 12 years old. The scene was pretty much the same every year -- we'd drive for a few hours, my sister and I would get into some argument, we'd arrive at the farm, forget completely about what we had been fighting about, and run around playing in the snow, in search of "the one." We'd go from tree to tree, circling each one and examining every angle of it like hawks to determine if it was full and healthy, and around six feet or under in height to fit in our home.

After passing on a handful of trees that met some but not all of our desired qualities, we all walked by one tree that was easy to ignore. It was shorter than the trees we'd typically choose, and a little lopsided and scrawny in some places, missing a few branches on one side. I had initially walked by it, but the thought of it being cold and alone forced me to turn around and walk back to it for a closer inspection.

"How about this tree!?" I exclaimed excitedly to my family, who gave me skeptical looks, pointing out that it was not symmetric from every angle. "If we don't take this tree, no one will...and it will be alone forever," I argued. "Besides it will fit perfectly in the living room and look beautiful with all the decorations."

Indeed, it wasn't the traditional tree we'd select every year. It was unique. It certainly had character.

At the time, my family did not agree, and we continued our journey for a perfectly symmetrical, 8-foot tree. Years later, my mother told me that she regretted the decision not to deviate from the traditional image of perfection, even if it was as subtle as selecting a tree that was easy to walk by. "I could have used that opportunity to learn a lesson from my children," she told me.

"To me, the true meaning of Christmas is appreciating everything you have," Reading's council member Waltman said. "It's to love everything."

The residents of Reading should be proud of their decision. I certainly am.