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.

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As White as Snow

A light snow has dusted southcentral Pennsylvania today, and it looks like shoveling will not be necessary. (I’m o.k. with that!) Is there anything more beautiful than nature’s white blanket covering our dead and dying trees and foliage? Isaiah’s image comes to mind whenever the white stuff falls from the sky:

“Though your sins are like scarlet, 
they shall be as white as snow.”
Isaiah 1:18b

Seven hundred years later, it all came to pass. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Christmas, then, deals a death blow to both moralism and relativism. 

Moralism says we can save ourselves through our own good works. That makes Christmas unnecessary. Why would God the Son go to all the trouble of becoming a human being to live and die in our place if we could fulfill the requirements of divine righteousness ourselves? His sacrifical death on our behalf would have been totally wasted and therefore totally ridiculous.

Relativism, on the other hand, says no one is really “lost,” so we can all live by our own light and determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. Sins are self-defined, so salvation can be self-achieved. Consequently, any higher power that might exist out there never would have bothered to be incarnated. Christmas is totally unnecessary in this scenario, too.

But Christmas is a thing because we need it to be a thing. God the Son did put skin on two thousand years ago. Indeed, God ignored our silly notions of moralism and relativism and came anyway. Thank God for that! I’m looking forward to the kind of weather that allows for sleigh rides—not because I have the equipment to go dashing though the snow in such a manner. I just like to contemplate Isaiah’s image when the snow extends as far as the eye can see. 

Speaking of sleigh rides, the first Christian album I ever bought after coming to faith in Christ back in college was Amy Grant’s Age to Age. Many of us went on to collect the rest of her albums, too, including her Christmas albums. Here’s a little gem of hers that gets me thinking about the joy of Christmas snow.

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From Humbug to Hallelujah: The Conversion of Mr. Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge is a name that has come into our vocabulary through the genius of Charles Dickens. If you haven’t read his classic novel, A Christmas Carol, chances are good you’ve seen it on stage or on television. Some of the more popular versions include:

  • Reginal Owen (1938)—one of the first productions in the modern era
  • Alastair Sim (1951)—still regarded as a classic, aesthetically pleasing rendition
  • George C. Scott (1984)—a rugged and highly regarded portrayal despite its various omissions
  • Michael Caine (1992)—a delightful children’s adaptation with the Muppets
  • Patrick Stewart (1999)—from a one-act play on the stage to a television movie
  • Jim Carrey (2009)—a noteworthy production with dark, realistic animation

Clockwise from upper left: Patrick Stewart (1999); Alastair Sim (1951); Reginal Owen (1938); Jim Carrey (2009); Michael Caine (1992); George C. Scott (1984).

Scrooge, of course, is the quintessential stingy old man who doesn’t want to be bothered with the feastings and festivities of Christmastime. He’s got a porcupine personality and scary looks to go with it. He’s got a hostile demeanor and a glaring eye to back it up. He’s got a roll of money in his pocket, but you will never get any of it. Yet, for all his material wealth, he’s a sad and lonely man. He’s a man in desperate need of redemption.

Scrooge has numerous modern descendants, too, both real and fictitious. Some know him as the Grinch who stole Christmas—the mean, green, furry creature who doesn’t know how to have any holiday fun, and doesn’t want anybody else to have any holiday fun, either. Some know him as the Abominable Snowman—the glacial beast whose mission it is to prevent children from giving and getting gifts on Christmas morning.  

Do you know Scrooge? Does a face come to mind even now? Maybe it’s a sour relative who’s grouchy and hates to decorate in December. Maybe it’s a cold-hearted friend who grouses about all the charity bell-ringers at the store entranceways. Maybe it’s an edgy parent who, with great irritation, follows you around on Christmas morning with a garbage bag so that scraps of wrapping paper never touch the floor. “Bah, humbug!” is the Christmas carol sung by such folks. They snort it out whenever they’re in the presence holiday warmth and good cheer.

But according to Dickens (and more importantly, according to the Scriptureswhich inspired the novel), such folks can change their tune. The dramatic conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge from a tight-fisted old grump into a benevolent big-spender and bringer-of gifts naturally warms the heart. Perhaps that’s because it’s what we all want for ourselves and our loved ones—a real change of heart. We may not like to admit it, but there is a little bit of old Scrooge in all of us.

For one thing, Scrooge is a businessman, and the drive for profit has become for him an obsession. How many of us today are motivated by the almighty dollar (or the pound, or the franc, or the yen)? Making the big bucks in Merchant Square has eclipsed any other goal in life. Scrooge’s focus is the bottom line, regardless of the human cost or the social implications. As a result, Scrooge is incapable of neighborly love. He lacks empathy and compassion. He’s callous and coarse. To put it bluntly, he’s a selfish pig. And that selfishness comes out in many ways throughout the novel.  

On the personal level, Scrooge is indifferent to the basic human needs of his own employee, Bob Cratchit, who exists for him only as a means to a financial end. He exploits Cratchit as much as he can, going so far as to save a few pennies on coal while Cratchit freezes in the next room over. Cratchit’s financial dependence on Scrooge makes him vulnerable to abuse, including the fear of losing his job at the slightest whim of his nasty boss.

On the social level, Scrooge rejects an earnest appeal for charity on behalf of the poor and the destitute. In the novel he says, “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” He suggests that the poor belong either in prison or in the workhouse. When told that many would rather die than go to either place, he replies, “If they would rather die, they had better get to it, and decrease the surplus population. Scrooge’s language is blunt, but the sentiment he expresses certainly finds harsh echoes in today’s political debates about many social issues.  

Nevertheless, while Dickens is a brilliant social critic of 19th-century England, his primary concern in the novel is not the conversion of his country but the conversion of Scrooge’s heart. Before societies can change, hearts must change. Scrooge’s own nephew gets it right early in the book. The spirit of Christmas, he says, teaches men and women to think of people below themselves as if they really were “fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” How incisive. 

I saw a commercial on television one time where the announcer said, “Here is one place where class and skin color don’t matter,” and the screen showed a hospital maternity ward with dozens of multi-national babies wiggling around in their incubators. “And here is the other,” said the narrator, voicing over the scene of a quiet, green cemetery with dozens of tombstones. “Fellow passengers to the grave”—all of us. That itself should be enough to get us converted. It sure got Scrooge’s attention.  

Evangelicals often criticize Dickens because Scrooge’s transformation in the novel is not explicitly Christian. There’s no tent revival, no altar call, no baptism, and no clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. There’s just a brilliantly crafted self-discovery followed by genuine remorse and a change of lifestyle—sort of like the old television program Touched by an Angel, where Jesus was seldom, if ever, explicitly mentioned.

I’m sympathetic to that critique, but it should also be pointed out that: (1) Dickens was a poet, not a preacher; (2) Scrooge’s nephew cries out, “God save you!” to his wretched uncle, and reminds him that Christmastime cannot be separated from its sacred source; and (3) Dickens has told us clearly in his novel that Scrooge’s transformation comes only after intervention from heaven. 

  • It’s the Ghost of Christmas Past that connects Scrooge to his own childhood suffering and therefore softens his heart a bit. 
  • It’s the Ghost of Christmas Present that connects Scrooge to the impending death of Bob Cratchit’s special-needs son, Tiny Tim, and his own responsibility for that death.  
  • And it’s the Ghost of Christmas Future that connects Scrooge to his hellish destiny—the fate of a wretched man with an uncaring, unconverted heart.  

Had the heavenly realm not invaded Scrooge’s life, he never would have changed. He never could have changed. He would have remained heartless.

When we leave the world of this classic novel and enter the world of real life, we can easily fill in the gaps, for the Scriptures likewise teach that only truth revealed from heaven can tell us the true condition of our souls and reveal what God has done about that condition.  

The Christian canon is about God showing us our hearts, softening our hearts, capturing our hearts, and regenerating our hearts. It’s about how God intervenes to save us. And God does not save us by sending us three ghosts. He saves us by sending us his Son, Jesus Christ. Indeed, God’s Christmas present to the world was himself wrapped in skin. Because of Christmas, we can say with confidence, “God bless us, every one!”

How well do you know ‘A Christmas Carol’? Take the quiz here.

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A Holly Jolly Family Night

The family gathered last night to celebrate the birthday girl, and also to decorate the family Christmas tree in the newly renovated living room. (We don’t even have curtains yet!) This is the tree that gets the homemade ornaments and various other decorations that represent our interests or were given to us over the years, each bearing some special significance to us. I then fell asleep during the movie. Ooops! Too much grub at Longhorn’s, I guess! Hopefully, the “Hallmark” tree in the family room will be finished later this weekend.

The “family ornaments” Christmas tree.
First fire in the new fireplace.
An ornament I made in elementary school.
Placed on the bottom branch because the Phillies are usually at the bottom of the standings.
The goggles look more like sunglasses. And I’m breathing to the left, which my coach wouldn’t like.
An ornament made for me by a cousin who lives in Connecticut.

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Alvin! Alvin! Alvin!

We put up the remaining Christmas trees tonight, cheered on by the holiday music of Alvin and the Chipmunks, another family tradition from my childhood. The group comprises three anthropomorphic rodents named Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, courtesy of David Seville. It’s all very silly but part of my past, so it brought some smiles.

Two trees are now completely decorated—the green one in my mother-in-law’s addition (a.k.a., the Granny Flat) and the aluminum tree in our bedroom, described in a previous post. The two remaining trees—one in the living room and one in the family room—will be completed later this week, along with the rest of the inside and outside decorations.

Undecorated Christmas tree in the living room, with room on the mantle and bookshelves for seasonal decorations. It was nice of the chairs to share their space.
Undecorated Christmas tree in the family room. It was nice of these chairs to share their space, too. (Sorry about the glare. Better lighted pictures coming soon.)

So, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas—truly the most wonderful time of the year. And to top it off, Alvin has now given way to Britney Spears’ “My Only Wish (This Year)” on the Music Choice Channel in the background. After choking back tears all morning during worship, it’s nice to end the day with a bit of lightheartedness. Besides, tomorrow is dissertation day, on top of a whole lot of grading as the semester winds down.

Christmas candle flower arrangement in the family room.

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Getting Our Gleam On

Here in the Valentino home, we usually put up three Christmas trees every year. The first one goes in the the family room, and it has a formal look. It’s a 7.5-ft. green tree with white steady lights, red and gold ball ornaments, pine/pinecone/berry decorations, and a string of gold beads. When finished, it looks like something that might win a bronze medal in a Better Homes & Gardens magazine contest.

The second one goes in the the living room, and it has a homey look. It’s a 7-ft. green tree with multi-colored blinking lights, garland, and a variety of ornaments. Many are homemade or were hand-crafted by the kids, but all have some sort of special significance to the family. This tree is always cute and charming, but it probably wouldn’t make it into anybody’s magazine.

The third one goes in our bedroom, and it has a space-age look. It’s a 6-foot aluminum tree with a glittery gold rotating base, a rotating color wheel with four lenses, and a slew of vintage Shiny-Brite ornaments from the mid 20th century. In one sense, it’s a bit gaudy, but in another sense, it’s personally magical because it represents my entire childhood in a single decoration. Yes, this is the Christmas tree my parents had when I was growing up in Reading, Pennsylvania. If it ever made its way into a magazine, it would probably be one published by NASA.

Evergleam aluminum Christmas trees, which were originally produced in Manitowoc, Wisconson, were all the rage beginning in the early 1960s and beyond. Today, they’re seeing a rise in popularity. There’s even an aluminum tree exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. They’re also hot on eBay every year with certain models selling for well over $1,000.

The Evergleam Christmas tree display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
Museum display showing our model. We still have this exact box to store our branches.

This year we put up our aluminum tree right after Thanksgiving dinner as “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” was playing in the background. We removed the curtains and placed it in the corner of the bedroom so people outside could see it from two different directions. (The other two tress will go up in the coming week or so. More pictures forthcoming.)

Everything in our setup is original except the color wheel and approximately one third of the vintage ornaments. We had to replace those items because of normal wear-and-tear, along with the fragility that comes with age. But all are exact replicas. I was especially determined to match the color wheel because it fascinated me when I was a boy. I found an exact duplicate on eBay about ten years ago, and I refused to be outbid for it.

The Valentino Evergleam in all its glory.
The magical rotating base.

I haven’t been able to find an exact match for the rotating base yet. Hopefully, that won’t be necessary, as mine still works fairly well, but it’s quite old, and I keep waiting for it to conk out. I’m not sure how much longer it can last. The tree trunk is also a bit rickety, and it lists a few degrees off plumb whenever it wants to. The silver paper wrapping around the trunk is also peeling off at places.

The family always lets me place the first ornament, which we call the “Bethlehem ball.” It’s a white glitter/aqua-blue scene of the Magi following the star to go see Jesus, painted onto a shiny silver surface. It was my brother’s favorite. He died in 2004, so we hang it in his memory, as well as my parents’. We store it in a special container during the year so it preserves well.

The Bethlehem ball, a family favorite that gets stored separately in a special container.

Christmas, of course, is the commemoration of God coming to earth 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus Christ. God sent his one and only Son—the very best he had to give—in order to redeem us and make us his own. That’s how valuable we are to him. He, too, refused to be outbid.

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