The after-Christmas tree

Until Mom couldn't stand sweeping under the rapidly shedding branches of our Christmas tree any more, my sister and I continuously returned to the pine-scented living room to gaze at the wondrous fir - proof of the most dreamlike of holidays.

This went on every year.

''Christmas can't last forever, girls,'' Dad would finally say, lifting the dirt-filled pot that held the treasure. ''Time to take the tree out.''

Suddenly the living room would become quiet as though a thief had stolen something precious.

We would run after our father to the compost pile to which he always brought the tree and from which we always rescued it. It was our ritual. We buried its trunk in the soft earth, rehung the limp, half-broken popcorn string and the wrinkled, browning strand of cranberries.

''I've all the broken ornaments from the trash,'' my sister would tell me.

''And I've got the ones we made.'' I pulled wadded balls of shiny gum wrappers from my pocket. We also had the stockings which, this time, we filled with stones.

Our second Christmas in January would be almost as glorious as the one in December. In the misty, fog-shrouded California central valley, Jan and I possessed our own private sunshine - a sparkling tree lovingly redecorated with trash, topped with a star made from an old cardboard box, painted with my new watercolor set.

During World War II my sister and I had just finished decorating the old tree New Year's Day, when Billy, a new boy in the neighborhood appeared in the empty lot next to our house. ''What are you doing?'' he asked.

''Playing Christmas,'' I answered. ''Do you want to play?''

''How dumb! Christmas is over - and that old dead tree looks like a mass of junk!''

I suddenly saw the tree as it looked to him. Doubt stabbed my delight. I blinked, staring first at the drooping branches, then at Billy, who had brought reality to us.

''What did you get for Christmas?'' he asked. ''Grandma bought me a bike.''

I never knew how to answer him, but Jan always spoke her mind.

''We got a lot more than you, Billy,'' she bragged. ''A lot more.''

''Like what?'' A frosty cloud rose over his blue knitted stocking cap.

Before I could warn her she held up the tumbling, turning, wooden monkey strung between two sticks.

''That costs 10 cents at Woolworths!'' Billy jeered.

''We got candy, too,'' Jan protested, starting to pick up her lumpy stocking when Billy grabbed it. ''Give me some.''

The stones, filling the stocking, spilled out on the ground.

Jan hesitated, ''. . . We . . . already ate the candy.''

''You never got any. You dumb Okies! You and your stupid tree!'' He jumped on his new bike and rode off laughing. My eyes grew hot with tears. Though we again filled our old stockings with stones and continued to play, the tree had lost some of its magic.

None of the neighborhood children who normally played Christmas with us into February came over because of Billy's teasing. Every time he saw us he hollered, ''those dumb girls got stockings full of stones for Christmas!'' My ears burned. Our popularity sank to nothing, except with the squirrels, who loved, and gradually stole, the popcorn and the cranberries.

One morning Dad mentioned, ''A dog must have knocked down your tree.'' Dog? I knew it was Billy. Often that month we'd go out to play and find our tree fallen over, the ornaments scattered through the empty lot.

Every time I'd plant the tree again by the compost pile, deeper than before, while Jan scoured the lot for our decorations. That Year of Misery we lost five cardboard stars and I used all the red and green squares in my watercolor set painting new ones.

''I'll bury our tree every day until next Christmas if I have to!'' I swore. After a time Billy grew tired of his game and let us alone.

In the spring, Jan and I watched the jays and other birds swoop around the tree, taking tinsel for their nests. In April it was time to start the vegetable garden.

''We don't have to move our tree, do we?'' I questioned Dad as we followed him to the compost pile with the wheelbarrow full of gardening tools. Our lifeless tree, with branches broken off, stood defiantly in the rapidly growing weeds. Six strands of amazingly shiny tinsel still hung from the bare limbs.

''Never,'' Dad answered. Then he hesitated. ''But look here!'' he said in an altered voice.

The end of his shovel pointed to the compost pile about two feet from the after-Christmas tree. A tiny green pine branch no bigger than my thumb was poking its feathery head from the molding leaves.

Dad showed us how the shoot traveled by some miracle from the baby tree back to the buried end of our Christmas stick. ''Someday this may be tall enough for a real Christmas tree,'' he said.

Jan and I grinned at each other. Our tree had refused to die. In that moment a special spirit touched my heart, one that sparks to life again every time I see a new green shoot break through the earth.

Dad understood the importance of the delicate green feather. ''I'll leave this section of the compost pile alone and we'll see what happens.''

All that summer we watched the shoot grow, nourished by nature and our love. The little tree grew and grew. It was our visible manifestation of hope and love. When we moved from Fresno the tree was taller than I could reach. The very year when we had needed hope the most that tree had come into being. Miracle enough for me.

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