Expressway: A tree, presents and the meaning of Christmas

Christmas tree

Christmas tree (Credit: iStock)

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I grew up in Central Islip before World War II. The village was small, and the residents all knew each other. The village did not have a wealthy residential area, nor did it have any slums.

My family had a store called the Blue Bird on Carleton Avenue at Smith Street, near an entrance to Central Islip State Hospital, where most residents worked to care for patients with mental problems.

The back of the store was a restaurant that had beer on tap. My dad, Sam Davidson, was a brewmaster. The front of the store had an ice cream fountain, candy case, newsstand and sold milk, butter and other necessities. Our customers were mostly hardworking Christian people. Many were Irish immigrants. We knew their life stories.

We were one of the few Jewish families in town, and in late December our home did not have a Christmas tree or decorations. However, Santa did manage to fill stockings in our home and somehow left presents for us at the home of the Koch family, who owned the building the store was in and lived above it.

One year when I was 10 and my sister, Arlene, was 6, we decided we wanted a Christmas tree. We saved our money and, without saying anything to our parents, bought a small tree from a widowed neighbor who grew a few each year. She cut it down, and we took it home while our folks were working at the restaurant. We mounted it in an empty wooden Coca-Cola box.

Luckily the tree stood upright. We made decorations and even had a small string of lights. All this was accomplished the afternoon of Christmas Eve. We were delighted when we turned on the lights, not knowing or truly caring what our parents would think. We even put a few presents under the tree -- unused toys from other occasions.

We awaited our parents' reactions as new snow topped the old snow outside.

My very wise mother, Dora, came home and saw our masterpiece.

"Oh," she said. "You are celebrating Christmas. How nice!"

We were surprised by her reaction.

Then she reminded us about a customer with a young daughter who lived above a local business.

"They have very little money for the holiday," Mom said. "I have gotten some things to give them."

And she went to her room and brought out packages.

"Girls," she said, "the true spirit of Christmas is giving, not getting."

She asked if we would consider giving her gifts and our tree to the woman and her daughter.

"Yes," we said, without hesitation.

 

We loaded the tree onto a sled and walked the few blocks to the one-room home. The girl and her mother were astounded when they opened the door and saw the tree and presents. They were so overcome with emotion they could not speak at first. When they regained control, their eyes filled with tears and they hugged us and thanked us.

We went home with empty hands but hearts full of thanks and love.

Although we are not Christians, it was the most memorable and meaningful Christmas of our lives, and taught us the true spirit of the holiday.

Reader Claire Siegel lives in Patchogue.

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