Reflections on ‘The House Without a Christmas Tree’

Families have December traditions, but so do individuals within those families—perennial routines that need not involve everyone in the house. Last night I engaged in one of those traditions myself. I watched a 90-minute Chritsmas movie that I would try to catch every year growing up. (I say “try to catch” because streaming movies wasn’t a thing back then. We had thirteen channels and a TV Guide, and we had to make our schedule work around whatever it was we wanted to watch at the time it was on.)

Based on a novella by Gail Rock, The House Without a Christmas Tree always resonated with me as a child, not because we didn’t have a tree, but because the relational dynamics in the home seemed all too familiar. A grouchy, emotionally constipated father has a rocky relationship with his young child, who just wants to be loved. Just wants to be accepted. Alas, I could relate.

It’s a sad flick in many respects, but it trudges onward, executing a few subplots along the way and dragging itself toward a satisfying conclusion, though not in a Hallmarky kind of way. No one is happily every-aftering at the end of this no-frills, low-budget production. The characters are simply in a better place to live healthier, more integrated lives in the future. It’s a step forward, not a leap, but things are looking up when the curtain comes down.

Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas) is a feisty, precocious 10-year-old in 1946 living in rural Nebraska. She can’t understand why her prickly father won’t allow them to have a Christmas tree in the home. James Mills (Jason Robards) doesn’t communicate well with his daughter. In fact, he can barely look at her most of the time, only grunting out terse corrections of the chatty child when his annoyance threshold has been crossed. Reading the newspaper always seems more important to him.

Fortunately, Addie’s grandmother, Sarah Mills (Mildred Natwick), bridges the gap between the two combatants. Grandma helps Addie see the situation from her father’s perspective, that of a man who’s stuck in his grief, still lamenting the loss of his wife from ten years ago, shortly after Addie was born. Simultaneously, Sarah counsels her son to see the impasse from his daughter’s point of view, and the importance of loving the ones who are still with us, even if deep down we wish things were different.

As Christmas approaches, it seems Addie will never get her tree, something she believes would bring a modicum of cheer to an otherwise gloomy house. But then an act of generosity touches her father’s heart and teaches him an important lesson about the spirit of Christmas. Indeed, a universal theme in literature makes an appearance in the movie—the loving sacrifice of the weaker party softening the callous pride of the stronger party, prompting a genuine change of heart.

Addie becomes the catalyst for her father’s epiphany. It’s her sacrifice that jolts him out of the selfish rut he’s been stuck in for the past decade. Fortunately, he comes to see that God has blessed him with a truly remarkable child, whom he’s been using as a repository for his pain all these years. 

I suppose I always connected with this movie because my own father was much like Addie’s. And I likewise held out hope for relief and resolution someday. Dad was not a widower, but he did carry a lot of personal pain for other reasons. That pain came largely from his being the child of two alcoholic parents who were harsh with everyone around them. Being poor didn’t help, either.

The ensuing strife led other family members to develop ties to the mafia, first as an escape, then as a quest for acceptance, and then as a way of life. For that reason, I never met most of my father’s family. He never talked about his parents or siblings, and I only ever saw his mother one time—when she was in her casket. He was protecting us from his family, which was an act of love on his part that we knew nothing about when we were children.

Despite his pain—or maybe because of it—my father trusted Christ for salvation six months before he passed away. He came to see the kindness of the heavenly Father toward him, and it captured his heart. Genuine transformations began to take place in his life, and he was growing in grace by the time he left us. I’ll take that over a Hallmarky ending any day.

Image Credits: pexels.com; fuzzy64.livejournal.com.

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