My parents and myself were staying in a little, rented house that leaned to one side like a wet card board box. It was almost Christmas, the first Christmas I remember, and the images are stuck to my mind like dog hair to Velcro.
We couldn’t afford electricity. We had a kerosene lamp and candles for light. We shared a single bed. It was so small Dad would sometimes sleep on the floor with a blanket. Come day light he went out and worked, came back and slept and went out again. I have no idea what his job was then. Mechanic probably, or day laborer.
So, there we were in this house, and it came Christmas time, and my mother decided I needed a tree.
My father, growing up, never had but one true Christmas. It was shortly before his mother died. He was eight when she passed away, and he remembered that on that Christmas she gave him an orange and an apple and a couple of peppermint sticks. It was a great memory for him, not only because of the treats, but because it was a fond remembrance of his mother who he had but a short time. The rest of his life wasn’t so good. He went to work at eight, doing work no one consider a child capable of, let alone willing to do. Like picking cotton.
Once, he fell off a horse on the way to the fields and busted his ear drum. He rode the horse home, and my grandfather whipped him with a horse whip and sent him back to the fields where he worked a full day.
My Grandfather was a hard man, though my father never held a grudge. He felt his father was probably doing the best he could at the time. Grandfather Lansdale was dead when I was born. I’m glad. I don’t like what I know about him. I know that my dad was nothing like him, and like my mother he wanted me to have what he never had. Part of that was a Christmas tree.
Me and my dad drove out on a road in the dark, and by the glow of car lights shining through a barbwire fence, we picked a tree. My dad got out and with a hatchet and chopped it down. This may well have been illegal, but all I really knew was my Dad was trying to make sure I had what he never had. I remember clearly smelling and delighting in the aroma of pine sap.
We took the tree home. My mother brought out a roll of what we then called tin foil. We cut strips off of it to make icicles to hang on the tree. We cut colored construction paper into strips and pasted them together into rings, and linked them and made chains of them t hang on the tree. Mom had an official shiny Christmas star that went on top. We had to put thumb tacks in the wall and fasten twine to the tacks to hold the tree up.
We also had a string of lights. But, no electricity.
My father, somehow, hooked up a car battery to those lights, and what I remember was them popping on. It was like a magic moment. That moment when you are young and everything is bright and new. Santa Claus is real, living at the North Pole, driving a team of flying reindeer across the sky, delivering presents before the sun rose up. My mother put out a cookie for Santa, and at some point, I fell asleep, those lights behind my eyes, locked into my head like a sprinkling of fairy dust.
When I awoke the next morning, the cookie was missing. The lights were off and the battery was gone, but under the tree were a few packages wrapped in what we called the funny papers; colored newspaper comics that used to come tucked inside fat newspapers full of all manner of information. Things that are now tweeted and face booked and read off Yahoo news.
I don’t remember what I got for Christmas, though I’m sure it was something simple, which was about all our budget would allow, but more important than the lights and the minor decorations, or the presents, the adventure out in the woods cutting the tree, was the feeling of being safe and cared for and deeply loved.
Except for the Christmas’s my children enjoyed growing up, which were considerable better financed, there has never been a more wonderful Christmas to me than that simple East Texas Christmas with our stolen tree and battery powered lights, home made decorations, and presents wrapped in colored newspaper, and the grin my daddy gave me when he saw I was happy.
Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than a dozen novels, including THE BOTTOMS, A FINE DARK LINE, and LEATHER MAIDEN. He has received the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Edgar Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, and eight Bram Stoker Awards. He lives with his family in Nacogdoches, Texas. Mulholland Books will publish his next novel, EDGE OF DARK WATER, in March 2012.