A Civil War Fir Tree
Back during the Civil War, a mother lived with her two children in a small cottage in the Manassas area, and tried to survive such troubled times. The boy, Jacob, was eight years old, and the little girl, Melissa, was six, and they longed for their father, who had been away for over a year, fighting in the war. The family was very poor, for soldiers from both armies had taken their farm animals, and most of their other food too. They survived on the kindness of their neighbors, who weren't much better off themselves. It is often this way, that those with little to give are the most generous.
Now, wars are hard on people, but they're hard on forests too. All the woods around Manassas had been badly hurt by cannon fire and musket fire, and soldiers cutting down trees for fires and fortifications. In the woods near Jacob and Melissa's house, a battle had destroyed many of the great trees, but a very young fir tree had been left standing, untouched, because he was so short that the cannonballs had flown quite over his head.
He had been sad to see his elders die such rough deaths, but it is the fate of all trees to die someday, and many trees long to be useful first, being transformed with human help into houses or boats or fences. He dreamt of being cut down to be used as a mast for a fighting ship - what a fine destiny for a tree, he thought! He imagined the sails that would hang from him, and how, even in the worst storm, he would be dependable and never break, and all the sailors would praise him. But he was too little to be a mast, or even to cut for fortifications. And no one wanted him for firewood, since there were so many other trees already broken and ready on the forest floor. So he felt rather useless, and that the whole war might finish, and nothing exciting would happen to him.
The weather grew colder, and the tall soldiers who passed the little tree looked hungrier and more tired, and his heart went out to them. But no one noticed him, until one day, a strange woman came to the forest, accompanied by a small boy and a smaller girl, who was bundled up and kept coughing harshly in the cold. "It's such a little one," said the boy, who was Jacob. "It's all that I can carry on my own, said the mother. And then, to the tree's utter delight, she took her ax and chopped him down. "What an adventure!" thought the tree. "Perhaps she makes boats, and will use me as - well, as a very small mast in a smallish kind of boat."
Jacob and Melissa's mother dragged the tree back to her cottage, with the children following, and placed him upright in the corner inside. "What am I to be," wondered the tree. But when they took their old toys - for they had few decorations - and bits of ribbon, and began to decorate him, he realized that he had become a Christmas tree. Very few families had Christmas trees then, but the mother and father had come from Germany where Christmas trees were a tradition.
Now, on the one hand, thought the little fir tree, there is no finer destiny for any tree than to become a Christmas tree, if it's the sort of tree who wants to be transformed into something useful. But on the other hand, he really had wanted to do something exciting and important, with lots of shouting and wind and waves. However, it appeared that he had little choice in the matter, so he drew himself up as tall as he could, straight as the mast on the finest sailing ship, and held out his branches for the toys, being careful not to drop a one.
That night, which was Christmas eve, the mother explained to Jacob and Melissa that she had no money for presents, but they did have a good dinner from food that their neighbors had shared. Yet Melissa could hardly eat, and she lay down on the couch after dinner, gazing at the tree, still coughing. The mother would have summoned a doctor, but all the doctors had gone to help in the war months before.
And in the candlelight, the mother said that even though there were no presents, she could give them stories. So she began telling stories - everyone she could think of - family stories, and stories from the Bible, fairytales and even one ghost story, as Jacob listened and Melissa finally fell asleep. And the tree listened and remembered every word, because trees have the best memories of all the plants, far better than the ivy, who remembers only what it wants to, or the grass, which forgets everything.
The next few days, the family kept the Christmas tree up in the main room of the cottage, but he didn't see Melissa much at all, for she was sick in her bed. The mother looked worried all the time, and he wanted to help her, but all he could do was to hold up the toys and stand straight as a mast. He felt his first needles drop, a kind of itchy feeling but not unpleasant, just part of being a Christmas tree.
The next morning, Jacob and his mother removed the toys from the tree and took him out to the shed. "Don't cut it up yet," said Jacob. "It's such a little tree, it won't do very well for firewood anyway." And the mother agreed, although the family had very little wood left, and she didn't have a lot of time to go chop more. Every minute she was at Melissa's side, for the child had developed a fever and chills.
The little fir tree looked around the shed, where he was laying on his side, and met the gaze of a family of mice. "You don't look very good to eat," said the youngest mouse. Even the mice had a hard time during the war, with the grain taken away from the houses.
"I don't think I'm the least good to eat," agreed the tree, who had never heard of a tree whose destiny was to be eaten by mice. "But I might be rather useful as a house, and my needles - which are falling all over the floor, I see - will make a warm bed for your whole family." The mice thought that a capital idea, and the family moved into the very heart of the tree. That night, in the silence broken only by a shutter banging in the wind, the youngest mouse couldn't sleep, he was that hungry. "I can't give you food," the little tree told him, "but I know the best stories anyone ever heard." And so the tree told him all the stories he had heard the mother tell Jacob and Melissa, until the mouse fell asleep on the trees needles, and snored a tiny mouse snore. And the tree fell asleep too, because he was drying out, which made him very drowsy.
Two days later, all the wood in the shed had been used up. "They'll burn you next," said the father mouse, warningly.
"Do you think so," said the tree, who was half-asleep all the time now. "How exciting! I'll do my best to make a great fire, if only I can stay awake." And soon, the mother came in, with an ax, and cut the tree up into pieces.
She built a great fire, and brought Melissa near to it. "If only the fever will break," she said, and the little fir tree, who was not sure if he was dreaming or awake - plus there were so many pieces of him now - burned as hot as he could, and as long as he could, all through the night, keeping the child warm.
The next day, Melissa's fever was gone, and even the cough was better. In the fireplace, nothing was left - not even a morsel - of the little fir tree. He had burned himself into ashes, until he was just a dream of a Christmas tree, and a memory and story for the children to tell on future Christmas eves.