My Grandmother Put Up Her Tree On Christmas Eve. Here’s Why That Was Such A Gift

vintage tree

On Christmas Day, a tiny decorated tree appeared at my grandmother’s house. Carefully-wrapped presents were stacked underneath it. I never expected her tree to be up the day after Thanksgiving or even the week before Christmas. There was something magical about the petite tree with its strand of bubble lights and homemade ornaments. 

Now, Christmas trees and decor are on sale months before the holiday. There’s a wide range of options – artificial, living ones with balls for planting later, flocked, pre-lit ones. The cost can skyrocket into the thousands. People decorate with multiple trees, Pinterest mood board trees, ones that match their decor. I put my own tree and exterior lights up the day after Thanksgiving. It’s a long process and it somehow feels like I need to have it all out for as long as possible. 

However, the Christmas trees I remember the most are the smallest and ones that were out the least amount of time. The Charlie Brown trees. The ones with handmade and kid ornaments. A tree that arrived overnight like magic. 

My grandmother’s Christmas tradition was to put a small tree out during the night on Christmas Eve. There were no Santa pretenses attached; he came to my parents’ house. We’d all go over to her house on Christmas Day and bring paper chains made at school to add to the tree. There would be popcorn and cranberry garlands to make and a strand of antique bubble lights draped with old-fashioned icicle tinsel that dripped down the tree. 

As a kid, I thought it was an extra-special gift to find the decorated tree and presents on Christmas Day. As an adult, I know now there were probably other reasons that the tree went up during Christmas Eve night. It may have had to do with money. From her depression-era childhood when trees and decor were a luxury she didn’t have, putting the tree out was a way for her to share it with us too. Her gifts to us were practical ones – gloves, a sweater, coloring books. The tree on Christmas Day was a way to extend the gift-giving. 

Southern Living Christmas Tree Branch

Her small house was sparsely decorated and the tiny tabletop tree was a bright spot. Despite being practical and frugal, she loved pretty things – she painted her kitchen cabinets pink and loved Cherries in the Snow lipstick. The Christmas Day tree was a reflection of her softer side that appreciated beautiful objects. 

The Christmas trees I remember the most are the smallest and ones that were out the least amount of time. The Charlie Brown trees. The ones with handmade and kid ornaments. A tree that arrived overnight like magic. 

Having the tree as a Christmas Day event meant that we spent more time doing things together and less time focusing on gifts. There was also less mess. No pine needles scattered through the house. No tree dried up or had to be watered every day for a month. 

My grandfather was a long-haul truck driver and he often was gone right up until the holiday. I alway suspected she also put out the tree later, so they could enjoy it together. When he arrived with extra produce on Christmas Day, the tree was there waiting for him as a surprise. 

Looking back, there was another possible reason for when she put up the tree. We usually attended a midnight or late Christmas Eve church service. My grandmother left the tree up through Three Kings Day or The Feast of Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas that happens on January 6th. By not having the tree out before the holidays, it arrived like the baby Jesus, creating a stronger focus on the spiritual side of Christmas Day.

I wasn’t without holiday trees in the month preceding the holiday. There was always a wonderful tree at my family’s house and I worked at a Christmas tree farm as a teenager. I helped people choose their live tree and was around the smell of pine afterschool and on the weekends. We sold trees to shoppers through Christmas Eve, with the often-straggly leftovers available at half-price. Those late shoppers were just as excited to have a tree as the ones that arrived the first day we opened on Thanksgiving weekend. 

Decades later, my mother-in-law was going through cancer treatments and had no time or energy to put up a tree, even though she loved holiday decor. My husband, the kids, and I went to a Kmart and bought the last tiny living tree available, along with a few strands of lights and miniature ornaments. It sat on my mother-in-law’s bedside table, quietly glowing, a reminder of the season and hope. 

Now, I find myself holding on to the  artificial tree that my husband and I bought when we got married over twenty years ago. It’s scratchy as I put it together and the little colored tabs directing where to put each branch are long-since worn off. There’s a wide variety of nicer and newer trees in craft and big box stores, but there’s something about our wonky tree that takes me back to the Christmas Day tree at my grandmother’s house.