The “Perfect” Christmas Tree

December 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

Mr. Willowby's Christmas TreeThis past weekend, we partook in one of our favorite family traditions: chopping down our Christmas tree and driving it home to trim. We started this tradition five years ago, when JP was one year old. I like the idea of my children understanding where their Christmas tree comes from; plus I enjoy supporting the family-owned tree farms in our area; plus, well, we all know that I love any excuse to unleash my urban children on a farm.

By now, the excursion has become fairy predictable. JP (eager to get his hands on a saw) begins by pointing to the first tree he sees and announcing, “This is the perfect one!” I meander deep into the fields, weaving in and out of the rows, sizing up each possibility and muttering oohs and ahhs. And my husband (who has carefully measured our nook at home and tried to set appropriate expectations before we left the house) rushes after me, chastising, “That one is too big! It won’t fit! You promised this year you’d be reasonable!” He has a point, my husband, but I can’t help myself. Something overcomes me out there in the crisp open air, beautifully manicured trees stretching out on all sides of me, and I WANT BIG.

I guess in this way I’m a lot like Mr. Willowby, the mustached tycoon in one of my favorite Christmas stories to read aloud to my kids (or, in the case of last week, to my son’s preschool class). Originally published in 1963, Robert Barry’s Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (Ages 3-8) was reissued last year with newly colorized pen-and-ink sketches that brim with delight. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree comes straight off the hills—“full and fresh and glistening green—/The biggest tree he had ever seen.”

There’s only one problem: the tree is too tall to fit in the parlor. In my house, that means the saw reappears and we shorten the trunk (I’m using the royal “we,” of course). But here, to stop the tree from bending at the ceiling, Willowby’s butler simply hacks off the top. The prophetic Baxter knows you don’t waste any part of a Christmas tree, and so he presents the topper to Miss Adelaide, the upstairs maid, who places it on a table where it too overshoots the ceiling, needs trimming, and becomes a contender for the gardener’s humble abode when the latter comes across it lying in the snow.

And so the story goes, the rollicking rhymes taking us on a journey from the gardener to a bear to a fox to a bunny to a family of mice living in the floorboards of Willowby’s parlor. Each family rejoices at the discovery of the perfect Christmas tree; each child-reader rejoices at predicting the problem said person or animal will face in trying to fit their perfect tree in increasingly smaller spaces. Equal parts sweetness and silliness, the tale touches with gestures of generosity (the bear hurrying home with the tree to surprise his wife) and clever humor (the mice making a star for the tree out of cheese). “Perfect” never meant so many things to so many people.

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

The gardener, upon coming across the tree top, takes it home, then fits it to size.

Other Favorites About Finding the Perfect Christmas Tree:
Christmas Farm, by Mary Lyn Ray & Barry Root (Ages 5-8)
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston & Barbara Cooney (Ages 5-10)

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