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The Big Christmas Tree: A holiday tale
2 boys lost in the snowy woods give their father reason to raise a light of hope

By David Sloan
Special to The Daily

Where I grew up in Texas, it snowed about as rarely as it does here in Alabama.

The first snow I remember fell at Christmastime when I was 9 years old. It happened to be on the same day that my 12-year-old brother and I had planned to go out and find a Christmas tree and cut it. We didn’t know it would be one of the worst days of our lives.

Our father didn’t like the idea. He didn’t even like to decorate at Christmas. “The simpler the better” was his motto. He particularly didn’t like big trees.

As soon as my brother and I had eaten breakfast, we were ready to set off. Daddy cautioned us, “Don’t go too far, and if it starts to snow, come home immediately. And, no matter what you do, don’t get a big tree. Get a small one that you can carry. No big trees!”

My brother and I had a different idea. We wanted the biggest tree we could find. There were acres and acres — miles and miles — of trees just across the pasture behind our house. We knew we could find the perfect tree. In our minds, that meant not only a tree shaped just right but a huge one.

There was no such tree at the edge of the woods. So we plunged in. We looked at one tree after another — but one would be too small, another not shaped like a perfect cone, another not covered thickly enough with needles. But we were convinced that within the next hundred yards or so we would discover the exact tree we were hunting.

Around 3 in the afternoon, it began to snow — slowly at first, and my brother and I barely noticed. By 4, though, the snowflakes were huge — the size of quarters — and the tree branches and dead winter grass and fallen leaves were hidden under a white blanket.

It was at about that time that we suddenly saw the tree we had been looking for. It must have been 12 feet tall. We were so impressed that it didn’t even dawn on us that the tree was much too big to fit into our house.

We got out our hatchets and began hacking away. It was a hard job, and by the time we had the tree cut, the sun, hidden behind the snowy clouds, had almost set.

My brother and I grabbed the tree trunk — and suddenly realized that, with our minds so focused on finding a tree, we had paid no attention to where we were going.

We set off in what we thought was the most likely direction home. But as the woods got darker, we realized we were lost. We went on for several hours, hoping we soon would figure out where we were. With each step, we were more exhausted and, we feared, more lost.

For the first two or three hours, we continued to drag that big tree behind us. With each step we took, it seemed to get bigger. It certainly got heavier.

But the last thing we wanted to do was give it up. It was like a treasure, as valuable, in our children’s minds, as a chest of gold and jewels to pirates. We had searched for it so long, and it was the last thing we could think of losing.

Finally — barely able to carry it any farther and becoming more and more afraid that we could never find our way home and would freeze to death that night in the woods — my brother and I conferred.

We decided to drop the tree.

It was a hard decision, but the choice seemed to be between leaving the tree or freezing. That was around 9 o’clock. By then we were hungry (we hadn’t eaten since early morning), tired and shivering.

We continued to walk, probably in circles, hoping that soon we would catch a glimpse of our home in the distance.

In the meantime, around 4:30, when the snowflakes were getting thick, our worried father had begun anxiously watching for us. As the sun was starting to set and light fade from the gray sky, he decided to set out to find us. Our mother had started praying.

Daddy walked for what must have been miles, but he returned to the house around midnight and told Mother he had seen no sign of us.

It was a short time after that that my brother and I, utterly lost and by now losing hope of ever getting home, suddenly saw a dim, small light flash on in the distance. It must have been at least a mile from us. It could be a barnyard light, we thought, or even, we wished, a light at our home. But if it came from our home, what could it be? The light was too high up to be shining from a window, and our house didn’t have an outdoor light.

Whatever it was, though, it was a light of hope.

We began walking through the deep snow as quickly as we could. We forgot how exhausted we were.

We must have walked for an hour, but suddenly we found ourselves at the edge of our pasture. We crawled under the barbed-wire fence. There was the familiar barn in the distance. We began running: past the barn, past the garden — and then home!

Our father and mother saw us as soon as we ran into the yard. Mother grabbed us and excitedly quoted from her favorite song, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.”

And then we saw what had made the strange light we had seen in the distance, high in the air.

Daddy had attached a 150-watt light bulb to the end of a long extension cord, climbed to the top of the big tree in our front yard, tied the bulb to the tip of the highest limb he could reach, 80 feet up, and turned on the light. Mother, in her joy at having my brother and me home, exclaimed that it “was like ‘the light that lighted the world’!”

The next day, Daddy went out and bought 100 strings of Christmas lights and wrapped them all around that tree. People who lived in the area said for years afterward that it was the biggest Christmas tree they ever saw.

David Sloan is a journalism professor at The University of Alabama.

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