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.

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.

Image Credit: istockphoto.com.

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.

Image Credit: famouscelebirites.fandom.com.

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.

Image Credits: wuwm.com; pixhome.blogspot.com.