The Christmas Helper

Once upon a time in a land far far away, call Florida, I lived with my prince charming and our six beautiful children. We lived in a large house, that wasn’t a real castle, but it seemed like a castle to us. It sat in a beautifully wooded lot that boasted more than 200 trees. This may not seem like a lot to some, but to someone, who had grown up in the desert kingdom of Arizona, it was a lush forest wonderland.  We loved to go outside and look up at the trees that intertwined over the street in front of our house. Or lay outside on the royal trampoline and close our eyes and listen to the rustling roar of the leaves in the wind.  Anyone that knows anything about this faraway land of Florida knows that wind is a big factor. The wind blows a lot. And sometimes, the wind can blow so long and hard that it will blow over trees, cars, even houses. But I loved the wind, even when it was harsh and angry and came at me from all directions. It made my trees dance and it pulled at my hair and I was in heaven.

My neighbors were not so fond of the wind. They had had trees blown down and roofs ripped off their houses during especially windy days. They cursed the wind as they wrote their large checks to the repair companies and looked for ways to move away. But not me, I never had any damage, other than a small tree that blew over. I spent an entire day mourning the tree and left it where it lay instead of cutting it up and shipping it off as so many other people would have done. I left it as a sort of memorial to the tree for all the days it had provided shade for me and my children. We started using it as a bench in the backyard to sit on while the children would swing from other tree branches.  My son carved our names in it and it became a part of our history there.

In Florida, the seasons are fairly mild, but the leaves still change color and fall, or get blown down. Piles and piles of leaves would gather from the wooded forest around the house. The children would rake them up to jump in and would jump and jump until the pile was spread out again. Then they would rake them and jump some more. It was good clean fun that helped break down the leaves for mulching as well. It seemed that whenever the jumping was done and all the leaves had been raked up and were ready to be bagged and taken away, a big storm would come and blow them all over again. Nature was definitely the one in charge in Florida. Man may have tamed pieces of it, but whenever his back was turned, nature would step back in.

One year, there was a series of really big storms, right before Christmas. The big storms usually came at the end of summer or beginning of fall when it was still fairly warm and muggy.  But this year, the Florida winter had already set in when the winds came. It was chilly…probably at least 68 degrees outside. The winter wardrobes had been rediscovered, the blankets put on the beds, and the fireplace cleaned and ready for use. The family started spending their days inside…viewing their trees through windows and looking forward to spring days again. The woodland animals hunkered down in their dens and the birds and lizards grew scarce.

Christmas preparations were a great distraction from the lack of outdoor activity and the building storms. The attic was emptied of it’s many boxes of stockings, ornaments, decorations and the ‘Christmas tree.’ Yes, an artificial tree. It seems strange to have a plastic tree for Christmas when there was such a love for the live trees outside, but it made sense. Instead of cutting down a living tree each year, this tree could be reused over and over and it would save a trees life. Besides, live Christmas trees were expensive and this one had been free! Yes, Free. The year before, just after Christmas, I had been coerced into  participating in what can only be called….what it is….dumpster diving. It’s true. A new level of low had been reached as I found myself shining a flashlight over the edge of a huge dumpster for my friend while she rummaged through other peoples discarded leftovers. Or, in other words, trash. Holding the flashlight was as far as I was willing to go though, I do have my limits. We had found several ‘so called treasures’ on our adventure. A full badminton set, a bread maker (that didn’t work, surprise!), and the 10 foot tall, 500 piece, no instructions included, Christmas tree. I had brought it home in all it’s many bags, and put it straight into the attic. Now, here it was, almost a year later, and I was ready to start the process of assembling ‘the tree.’  I started with the center poles. The thing was going to be tall, that’s for sure. I decided to put it upstairs in our loft because it had a vaulted ceiling. It was a good thing, because it never would have fit downstairs. I sorted the branches by size and then started building the tree. It was amazing. The bottom of the tree was almost eight feet in diameter! I had to keep pulling it out from the wall. It ended up being almost in the center of the room by the time I was done. It took me six hours to assemble the tree and get the lights on it. The boxes of ornaments we had been collecting for the last fifteen years were but specks on the enormous evergreen. But, don’t get me wrong, it was a beautiful sight. It was full and green and filled the entire room with the Christmas spirit, all on it’s own.   Standing back and looking at the tree, I felt a great sense of accomplishment and also a desire to leave it up til May to get the full use out of all my hard work.

Christmas was just a few days away and everyone was getting excited. New presents appeared under and in the tree everyday. The family liked to be sneaky and hide gifts in the farthest corner under the tree or up in the branches where no one would see them.

On Christmas Eve day, as I came into the room, I noticed that a couple of the tree branches were laying in the middle of the floor. My first instinct was to yell. I know, bad mom, but that darn tree had taken me all day to put together and the thought of one of the kids messing with it did not fill me with jolly happy thoughts. I called the kids in and asked the culprit to fess up. They all looked at me with innocent faces and swore they had not touched the tree. Mr. Nobody was a frequent visitor at our house so I wasn’t totally convinced. But, without a fingerprint kit or access to a security camera, I didn’t have any basis for an accusation so I just warned them all and released them into their own custody.  I replaced the branches and went on with my day.

Later that same day, I again came into the ‘tree room’ and found twice as many branches removed.  Some were on the floor while others were hanging in lower branches on the tree.  I called the kids in again and demanded to know who the prankster was. They were as surprised as I was. Nobody had done anything apparently. The kids even started calling each other out trying to find the mischief-maker but nobody caved. It was really frustrating.

When my husband got home that evening, I told him the story of the branches and shared a bit of my frustration with him. I took him upstairs to see the tree and, sure enough, there were more branches off the tree. Now, I was the one that was home with the kids and worked with them and did all the rule making and all that, but whenever dad was around, things seemed to get resolved a bit faster. We called the kids upstairs again and this time it was dad demanding to know who was messing with the tree. I was sure we would get a confession this time. But again, nobody would admit to anything! As we grilled the kids and threw consequences, not threats, at them, my youngest son suddenly pointed past us to the tree. We all turned and watched in amazement as one of the branches on the tree shook and suddenly fell to the floor. We were dumbfounded. We just stood there for a moment in amazement. Then, very quietly, we all circled round the tree and watched and waited. The tree was silent and still for several minutes and then, shake, shake, shake….and a branch fell.  There was a hushed gasp, but nobody said anything. We all just kind of leaned toward the tree. My husband whispered to my oldest son and he ran downstairs and got a flashlight. My husband took the flashlight and shined it into the hole where the missing branches had fallen from. Two shiny black eyes reflected back at him for just a moment and then they disappeared. We could hear a faint scurrying sound and then the whole tree started to shake. We all took a step back from the tree and my daughter started to squeal. If it was a mouse, could she please keep it as a pet? I just shot her a loaded look that said no, and so much more.

My husband was now on a quest. He was sending the boys for various capture devices. A shoebox, some string, plastic bag, cheese, garden gloves, a ham sandwich, well he was hungry, etc. He had concluded that a mouse would not be strong enough to dislodge the branches from the tree and it must be something bigger. My skin started to crawl at the thought of what ‘bigger’ might be. My younger son helpfully suggested a b.b.gun, but we assured him there was a better more humane way to catch the creature than by shooting it. He was disappointed but tried to be helpful anyway. We spent the next couple of hours trying to talk the creature into vacating our tree.  But it was no use. The little guy had found a warm comfy spot and he wasn’t about to move out.

It was getting late, and it was Christmas Eve and as a mom, I still had loads to do to get ready for the next morning. We decided to leave the matter til the morning and to put the kids to bed.  We gathered in front of the tree and had our traditional reading of the Christmas story and sang Silent Night. The tree was ominously still and quiet as we did our routine. After the song we talked again about the importance of Christ in Christmas and the role that Santa has in encouraging us all to be givers of self at Christmas time. My daughter set out the plate of cookies we had decorated for Santa and we all went to bed.

I finished my wrapping and stocking filling and staggered to be a few hours later. My husband was already settled in for his long winter nap when I made it to bed. I only thought about the germ ridden creature in the next room for a few moments before I too fell asleep.

The next morning, the kids bounded into our room at the crack of dawn and dragged us into the tree room. They were all talking at once and full of even more excitement than usual for a Christmas morning. As they calmed down enough to be understood, I saw what they saw. The cookies we had left, were mostly eaten and it was obvious they had been eaten by something with a rather small mouth. The tree was intact and only a few branches were lying on the floor. The amazing thing was that on top of those branches, one ornament had also fallen. It was an ornament that made up a set of ornament that represented the nativity. This one was the manger with the Christ child lying in it. The ornament had landed like it had been placed their intentionally. It sat nestled in the fallen branches perfectly.  We decided to just leave it like that for the rest of the day.  We had a wonderful Christmas morning and never ever saw that critter again. The tree didn’t have anymore branches fall and there were no more scurrying noises. The kids were convinced that the critter was one of Santa’s helpers that had gotten caught in the act and had gone back to the north pole.  Whatever had happened to him, I was grateful he had not caused any drama on this special day. All that he had caused was for a story to be born that would be told year after year at Christmas time. Remember the year we had one of Santa’s helpers stuck in our tree? It’s the stories that make it special.

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