The Best Branch on the Tree

Gracie lay quietly – perfectly still for what seemed like forever. Her snow hat tickled her auburn hair. Her dress – with the oversized snowflake front and center – felt worn and wrinkled, though she couldn’t be sure with her surroundings so dark. Something sharp was poking her in the back.  Above her, below her, to the right and to the left, Gracie sensed the color and glitter and shine of nearby objects.  She could not move to see them but Gracie knew they were there. After all, when you’re a Christmas tree ornament you know what it’s like to spend almost a year in a cardboard box.

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Without warning a door opened.  Gracie held her breath, as this basement closet was home to more than just Christmas things.  But then she heard happy voices and boxes being shuffled about.  There was a quick trill of sleigh bells followed by the friendly clack-clack of Christmas light bundles.  Then there was a jolt – a bit of an earthquake really! – and the sensation of being lifted and moved.  Yet it wasn’t until Gracie sensed she was going up the stairs that she knew for sure.  Yes, yes – it was time!  December was here again!  Gracie smiled (though she always smiled no matter how she felt).  In all her excitement she tried to push back the qualms; those uneasy feelings that entered her mind every year at this moment.  Would she make it to the best branch on the Christmas tree?  Would she make it to the tree at all?

Other ornaments came to life slowly around her, yawning and stretching (those that could move, closer to the top of the box).  There was the excited chatter of anticipation.  Who would be chosen first?  Who would face the fireplace with its brightly decorated garlands and stockings?  Who would hang from the lowest branches, where you could almost reach out and touch the presents?  And which lucky ones would journey to the highest branches, standing guard just below the Christmas angel?  “Oh, hurry, please hurry,” thought Gracie. “Let us out into the light!”

Suddenly all of the movement stopped and the box top was removed.  Bright light filtered all the way down to the bottom where Gracie lay impatiently.  As the ornaments above her were removed, Gracie’s thoughts still tormented her.  Was the tree big enough?  Did it have good, solid branches?  Did they still love her enough to include her?

At long last Gracie saw hands reaching down and removing the ornaments closest to her.  Away went the Star of David.  Away went the little wooden rocking horse.  Away went the gingerbread man with his one eye missing.  Finally the whole box was upended, and Gracie and the remaining ornaments came tumbling out into a messy pile on the table.  “This is awkward,” she giggled, sprawling almost upside down.  It would take some untangling if she hoped to get noticed.

To the sound of Christmas carols and laughter, Gracie watched from the table as one after another of the ornaments were carried to the tree and placed carefully on the branches.  She had only just arrived, yet the tree was already looking complete!

“Oh no”, she worried, “I’m a little girl but I’m pretty big for an ornament.  Will there be any branches left to hold me?”

Then Gracie heard the words she dreaded most. “Okay children,” someone said, “I think that’s enough for this year.  Let’s stand back and have a look.”  And sure enough, the children danced in front of the tree, so happy and clapping.  The tree was complete and with the best of the ornaments.  Gracie felt a tear form on her cheek.  She spied Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Dorothy hanging together halfway up the tree; the perfect view of Christmas everything.  Her Wizard of Oz friends made it to the best branch on the tree this year.

Gracie felt so sad.  She wished she’d never even seen the tree.  Why hadn’t they noticed her this year?  Christmas could be so cruel!  She watched helplessly as leftover ornaments were placed one by one back into the box.  But just as she was scooped up along with a tangle of older ornaments, a wee voice cried out from somewhere below the table, “No, Momma, no!  Snow Angel needs a place on the tree, doesn’t she?”

Gracie held her breath.  Was she really a Snow Angel?

There was a long pause; nothing but silence really.  Momma looked down at the ornaments in her hands, thinking.  And then she smiled.  With a little bit of untangling Gracie was lifted from the pile.  She was placed carefully in a little girl’s hands, who promptly marched to the tree and searched in vain for an open branch.  Seeing none, she slid around to the back of the tree, facing the windows and the snow-covered fields outside.  “Here is where she belongs, Momma,” the little girl said proudly.  “Snow Angel will be the first ornament to know when Christmas comes!”

And so, there would be a Christmas for Gracie after all.  She smiled as she glanced at the branch above her and kept watch through the windows (though Gracie always smiled no matter how she felt).  Thanks to the little girl, Gracie made it to the tree this year.  Come to think of it, she also made it to the best branch of all.

Grim Reader

While visiting my parents last week, I was delighted to find a few dusty old children’s books on a quiet corner shelf in the family room.  The books carry sentimental value because they once occupied a shelf in my grandparents’ house.  They were the same books my father read when he was a child.  And as we grandchildren were expected to be “seen and not heard”, these books were our refuge, stoking our budding imaginations with dozens of characters and places we longed to be a part of.

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One book in particular – The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature – stands out as a literary beacon of my childhood.  The stories within included Aesop’s Fables (i.e. The Hare and the Tortoise), the tales of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (The Emperor’s New Clothes), and the works of The Brothers Grimm (Rumpelstiltskin).  The collection oozed with fantasy and adventure and innocence.

I reread a few of these stories last week and came to an unquestionable conclusion: The Brothers Grimm were a couple of messed-up dudes.  On the one hand the Grimms authored Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Rapunzel, which Disney sanitized and gave a more positive spin.  But more likely, you know the Grimms for their famous “fairy tales”, like Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.

Fairy tales.  Doesn’t the term conjure up images of enchanted forests and candy castles and magical sprites?  That’s what I thought too, but Hansel and Gretel would vigorously disagree.  These kids endured a nightmare on par with today’s R-rated horror flicks.  Take ten minutes and read their story (you can find it here).  The only detail I recalled was the house in the forest; the one made of cake and candy and spun-sugar glass.  But this time around I couldn’t get past the other aspects.  Within the first three paragraphs we read that H & G’s mother’s solution to a lack of food is to abandon her children in the forest.  Even after they find their way back to the house the mother finds another (more successful) way to leave them behind.  Later on, an old woman holds the kids captive in the candy house and prepares to “slaughter and boil” (and eat) Hansel.  Gretel gets to watch.  But the kids surprise the old woman by pushing her into the oven, and then she burns to death.  A celebration ensues.

Little Red Riding Hood (which you can find here) is no less violent.  A little girl in red may sound adorable but the story is really about the murderous wolf.  Not only does the wolf consume LRR’s grandmother, he has LRR herself for dessert.  And it doesn’t end there.  A huntsman happens by, recognizes the wolf, decides not to shoot him because “maybe the grandmother is inside”; then cuts open the wolf and pulls out the grandmother and LLR alive and intact.  Seriously?

The Treasury introduction says “eight, nine and ten is the fairy tale age”.  The Treasury also says “many a child will haul the volume from the shelf and spend countless happy hours…” are you kidding me?  This is gratuitous violence disguised as bedtime stories!

I used to cringe at the thought of my young children watching a PG-rated movie.  Not anymore.  There are over half a million copies of The Treasury out there in the world.  I need to find them all and have a bonfire.  Those Grimm images go to the grave with you!