For a dozen Decembers now, I’ve read Gloria Houston’s “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree” – to my children when they were young, to a couple of elementary school classes, sometimes to myself. The story almost always chokes me up.
Houston died March 21 at her daughter’s house in Florida. She was 75 and had been fighting cancer for a couple of years. When I heard the news, I dug out my book, which Houston autographed for my kids. It’s my favorite picture book.
If you’ve been a child or read to a child in the past quarter century, you, too, may be acquainted with Houston’s remarkable books. Best known is “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree,” set in the North Carolina mountains during World War I, about a little girl and her mother carrying on while her father is away at war. Houston set most of her books in the mountains, drawing from the family stories she absorbed growing up in Avery County. For decades, her parents ran the much-loved Sunny Brook general store near Spruce Pine.
Houston was a broke graduate student when she got the idea for the book in December 1984. She named her main character, the little girl Ruthie, after her mother. It was her mom’s Christmas present that year. Since publication in 1988, the book, illustrated by a Caldecott-winning artist, has become a holiday classic, with some 3.5 million copies in print. It’s been adapted into a musical, an opera and ballet. Ministers have used it for their Christmas Eve services.
I should point out that even though this book makes me cry, it’s not sad at all. Just the opposite. Which is why my kids always rolled their eyes when I choked up. But when I interviewed Houston and told her this, she wasn’t surprised. The story never makes children cry, she said. They’re not sentimental. But adults – that’s another story.
She herself only cried once, she told me, while watching a dress rehearsal of the stage version at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. It’s the scene where Ruthie’s mama, who has no money, decides to sacrifice her wedding gown for Ruthie, who needs a dress to play an angel in the church Christmas pageant. When Mama ripped that wedding dress, Houston broke down.
“People cry at different places,” she told me. “Where do you cry?”
For me, it’s near the end. Ruthie has played the Christmas angel in the church pageant. St. Nick has presented her with a tiny angel doll. As she leaves the church, she’s so mesmerized by it that she doesn’t notice the man in an Army uniform – her father, waiting for her.
“Let me look at you, my pretty young’un,” said Papa’s voice. And he hugged Ruthie, Mama, and the tiny angel all at the same time.
Houston taught in the public schools and in Western Carolina University’s Department of Elementary and Middle Grades Education, where she was author-in-residence. Her obituary says she often identified herself as “first, last and always, a teacher.” A funeral was held April 3 at the Pine Grove United Methodist Church, the inspiration for the church in the book.
Reprinted in edited format with permission of The Charlotte Observer.