A Special Christmas Tree
I had been flying for thirteen hours into Milan and queuing in the traffic jam to reach my little town and visit my family for the Christmas holidays, only to find out that the dead, dry pine tree of our garden had not been chopped off yet. It had been abandoned that way for over five years, but Mum and Dad refused to take any action and put an end to its sad condition that still made me feel quite gloomy. What a far cry from the tree my sister and I used to decorate as children, when it was still standing green!
In those days, oddly enough and with the aim of making it more colourful and appealing, we adorned it with leftover candles from disastrous homemade birthday cakes, plastic Christmas balls that had lost their white velvety snow due to years of use and – if lucky – some old, unbreakable candies that we would tie with golden ribbons to the lower branches. Mum forbade us to eat them because they were too old and as hard as stone and she was convinced that they could break our molars. She obviously did not know that there were other harder things that could have damaged our teeth, like the sandy gravel we constantly found in the sauce of the spaghetti alle vongole she insisted on cooking without much success, with the hope of imitating uncle Salvatore’s skills.
We also added to the tree some lights Mum bought for us ages before at the market stall selling all ‘Made in China’ Christmas decorations. They had never worked the way we wished: red off, green on, blue on and off. But they were our indispensable addition to a childhood dream that came true once a year only: a decorated Christmas tree that could give us the illusion of a festive celebration.
On a early December that I will never forget, auntie Carola – who used to daydream night and day – got into our garden. She walked with her head up looking at the cloudy sky, trying to guess if it would ever snow and bumped her big bag full of oranges against the pine tree, smashing two lights. That was the end of the story. All light went off, forever. She was carrying oranges sent from her husband Salvatore’s Sicilian family, claiming as always that ‘These are the juiciest of all, darling!’ The oranges had been her Christmas present for us for years, until Uncle Salvatore left exactly the day after the broken lights accident, never to come back. He said he had some urgent family matters to deal with in Agrigento, but in reality he took the train to Reggio Calabria, then the ferry to the island and disappeared among the ancient Valley of the Temples, the zest of tangerines and the sweet almond trees. Sincerely speaking, we did not blame him at all. He was a funny, clever and warm-hearted man, but how he could have been struck by auntie Carola’s only quality – beauty – and willing to bear with her forgetfulness and superficiality for so long had been a sheer mystery for us all in the ten years they had been married (without any children because she wanted none)! Finally, it seemed that he could not bear with her inconsistency and reverie anymore. On the other hand, Auntie Carola did not care much about his disappearance, and carried on with her disorderly life, regardless.
Marina cried for such a long time – not because we lost our uncle (although I did!) – but because we had to give up the idea of a lighted up Christmas tree. So, I took courage and went to knock at the neighbour’s door. I asked Mrs. Amelia if we could borrow one string of lights from them. ‘Non c’è problema’ the woman told us, but then her son started whingeing and crying and, like all spoiled children, he had his own way. He did not want to remove the lights from an insignificant bush, in a garden where every inch of foliage was bearing colourful and twinkling lights.
Dad always thought that it was just vain indulgence to spend time and money decorating the house for Christmas, and that was the reason why we migrated our childish wishes outdoors, to the only slim pine tree that had been enclosed into our property, probably by mistake.
Mum was indifferent. She was too busy knitting anything people asked her to and before Christmas we had red yarn travelling like a snake all around the house. One night, Marina and I took one of her ball of yarn, cut out short pieces from it, tied them at one side and hung them on the tree. No matter if they looked like the end of Marina’s cloth doll’s braided woollen hair. To us, they were a special handmade addition to the scarce decorations of our one and only Christmas tree. Mum was not mad at us, even if she immediately found out that we had used her wool and was almost risking not being able to complete the red mitten with reindeer she had to deliver to her customer. She managed somehow to compensate the loss of red yarn by using more brown thread and knit a bigger deer.
But Christmas was coming, our lights were gone and there was nowhere else we could find others for free as we had no money to purchase new ones.
After the sun had set, with our noses stuck on the window and our finger drawing snow crystal on the fogged glass, we loved to admire the symphony of twinkling colours coming from the neighbours’ garden. Perfectly synchronised lights were dancing during the long winter nights.
‘What a waste of money!’ Dad would say.
‘But Dad, all passers-by stop in front of the neighbour’s garden and feel spellbound by this beautiful display of lights!’ I replied to him
‘Spellbound? For the lights?’ His incredulous lopsided smile was ready to become a loud laughter.
‘Yes! Little things can make people happy!’
‘Fine! Go out, enjoy the show and come back happy then!’
‘I would like to be happy with our own lights. And Marina too. ‘ I replied, cleaning the window glass with my naked hand and removing the last snow crystal drawn by Marina.
But my father had already left and we knew it would have not made any difference if he were still there, anyway.
Three days to Christmas and there was no solution in sight. Marina thought that we should light the birthday candles’ stubs but I did not think it was a great idea. The humidity would put them out and if not, we could risk igniting a fire. The following morning we headed to school, resigned to the idea of a different Christmas.
Back home, mum told us that there was a parcel for us. We read the names printed on the label over and over again, to make sure it was really something for us: ‘Riccardo e Marina Riva’. Yes, our names! We opened the package, hands shaking. It was probably the first time that we received a parcel mailed just and exclusively to us. We unwrapped the box to uncover a set of colourful new lights for outdoor use. There was a note, from uncle Salvatore: ‘May these lights light up your path (and your special Christmas tree) the way they lighted up mine.’
Auntie Carola had not been that bad after all: at least she had told him about what had happened with the oranges, we thought. In reality, many years later we discovered that Uncle Salvatore had driven past our house that same night with the intention to greet us before leaving. He got off the car but he did not find the courage to ring the bell.
Before leaving, he noticed the skinny pine tree that was standing alone in the middle of the garden. It was adorned with a few simple decorations, probably enough to show Uncle all our love and dedication to the evergreen plant. The next-door carousel of lights hit the solitary but proud tree, brightening it in intermittent flashes that gave it moments of respite – albeit temporarily – from the merciless darkness.
But Salvatore knew that it deserved better than that.