Noe Valley Voice December-January 2005

Florence's Family Album

Noe Valley is Treemendous!

By Florence Holub

The earliest Christmas I can remember goes back to 1923, when I was 4 years old. At that time, our family lived on a farm in the northern flatlands of Idaho, where the icy winds and snow blew down from Alaska during the long winter.

On the day before Christmas, the snow had piled up high around the house. Nevertheless, the daily chores had to be done. The animals out in the barn had to be fed and watered, the cows had to be milked, the hens' eggs had to be collected, and water had to be carried in buckets from the well, located outside (indoor plumbing had not yet been introduced).

Inside the house, a wood stove in the kitchen warmed our frozen fingers, as baking bread scented the air with its delicious aroma.

Everyone else was busy preparing for the holiday dinner, so my older brother Clarence, who was 9 at the time, took it upon himself to provide the household with a tree from the nearby woods.

With determination, he gripped his little hatchet and trudged across the drifts, his legs sinking deeper with each step. Hours later he returned, exhausted but triumphantly dragging the tree behind him.

My father quickly made a stand to hold the tree upright, and my mother began stringing strands of popcorn and cranberries to drape around it. As a finishing touch, she clipped to the branches a set of small tin candleholders, each with a new candle. That evening, Christmas Eve, we sat around the tree and watched the flickering candles, our faces aglow. Then we carefully snuffed the flames before going to bed. Fire was a constant danger in our rural area, which didn't yet have electrical service--we relied upon coal, oil lamps, and candles for light.

After my little brother Warde and I, already asleep, were carried up to our beds, the house became quiet. But during the night I awakened, hearing noises downstairs. I listened breathlessly, without moving, because we had been cautioned not to peek while Santa was distributing our presents or he would leave a lump of coal instead of a gift.

I could hardly wait until morning so I could tell everyone what I'd heard. And when I went downstairs, I raced to the stockings which Santa had filled with apples, oranges, and candy canes--proof that he had visited our house!

As I chattered on about Santa, my parents suddenly turned away with what appeared to be simultaneous coughing spells. I remember feeling rather disappointed that they didn't share my excitement.

After we moved to San Francisco, I continued to believe the North Pole story until the December day, when I was about 7, that Clarence led me into the basement and pointed up to a rafter supporting a canvas-covered bulge. He then lifted a corner to expose my present-to-be, a doll buggy.

I knew then who Santa Claus was. Perhaps I should have been pleased with the revelation, but instead I felt sad and deflated--something of great value had been lost.

After I grew up and had children of my own, I decided to give my boys a choice. When they were old enough, I told them the truth about Santa, but if they wanted to pretend for a while longer, I said, Leo and I would be happy to go along with it. All three opted to keep the fantasy alive.

We neglected, however, to inform our youngest child, Eric, at an early enough age. By the time he was 4, he had become so excited anticipating his presents that he was an annoyance to his teenaged brother Jan, who was a bit of a tease.

As we sat in front of the fireplace one December evening, Jan told his gullible little brother that when the sleigh landed on our roof, he was going to light a fire in the fireplace so that when Santa came down the chimney his whiskers would catch fire. Ho, ho, ho.

Eric, who was usually an even-tempered child, became so infuriated that he rushed at Jan with clenched fists, and his big brother had to hold him at bay with one hand.

But Eric got his revenge the following week when I took him to Hales, a department store in the Mission (it later became Giant Value), to see Mr. Claus.

Eric climbed up on Santa's knee, completely forgetting the presents he intended to ask for, and whispered into Santa's ear, "Jan's a bad boy!" He looked so smug that, although we knew it was high time to tell him the truth, I feared it might dampen his Christmas spirit, and we put it off another year.

We always bought a tree at Christmas, but the size varied from year to year, depending upon whether we had a grabby little crawler around. If we did, we would buy a medium-sized tree and set it up on the record case, out of reach. When the boys were older and wiser, we would treat the house to a floor-to-ceiling tree.

We had such a tree the year that Jan came home from college, bringing with him his small mixed terrier, Fred, who became the new kid in the house. Fred was as excited about Christmas as the boys had been years earlier--sniffing, pawing the presents, and biting the tinsel. But when he lifted his leg to establish his territorial rights, we knew we had to do something!

In the end, we shortened the tree and placed it up on the record cabinet, out of reach once again.

For the past few years, only Leo and I have been at home, and it seemed wrong to us that a tree should be cut down for just two people. So in 1990, when Walgreen's advertised a plastic imitation tree, it seemed like a good time to switch.

The first year, I decorated our man-made tree with the ornaments we already had, and when the lights were plugged in, the little tree served its purpose. When the holidays ended, I placed it in a box, decorations and all, covered it with a garbage bag, and stored it up in the attic. Such ease!

Since then, each Christmas we just get the box down from the attic, uncover the already trimmed branches, and plug in the cord. Then we sit and contemplate our small, artificial, miserable excuse for a tree.

But never mind, we have only to glance across the street to see the genuine article in all its glory. There stands an elaborately decorated tree growing in the side yard of Dr. Jerome Goldstein, a neurologist whose handsome Victorian home is located on 21st Street between Church and Sanchez.

A little after Thanksgiving, the doctor's partner, Tom Taylor, transforms their towering 25-foot Norfolk Island pine tree into a shimmering vision of Christmas loveliness. First the scaffolding goes up to accommodate his crew, who secure thousands of ornaments and hundreds of lights. A week later (if it isn't raining), the tip is crowned with a star of gold.

Each year Tom feels compelled to add something new and exciting. For many years, he has constructed enormous gift-wrapped boxes, some as large as 8 feet wide, to place beneath the tree.

Although the tree is difficult to photograph at night, it is breathtakingly beautiful, with its bright lights outshining the lit city below and the Bay Bridge sparkling in the distance.

Since Leo and I live directly across the street, we get to observe the many delighted visitors who stop to have their pictures taken in front of the tree. Standing next to the huge presents, the revelers look like tiny toy people.

A few years ago, Tom and Jerome posted a Christmas message for all to read:

Welcome to the Christmas Tree, an annual tradition. I keep my lights on from 5 to 11. I love to be in pictures, so feel free to snap away. I only ask that for each picture, you make a donation to a local charity, since I have so many presents. Remember to spread holiday cheer! Donate!
Love, the Christmas Tree

For the noblest of all Christmas sentiments, we thank you, Tom and Jerome!

This essay about the holiday pines and firs in Florence Holub's life was first printed in the December 1994 Noe Valley Voice.