They're Here!

In a few minutes the bell would ring, and just like everyone else in my grade school class, I was busy taking off my coat and mittens and boots and hurrying to put them away.

There was only one problem.

Hanging up our coats in the little closet hidden by a sliding bulletin board was not as easy as it sounded.

Actually, hanging up the coats was easy enough — it was closing the closet door that proved difficult.

Each week, two people were assigned to open and close the coat closet. This week it was me and a boy in our class who was famous for getting the giggles.

When my classmates and I had worn sweaters earlier in the fall, the door slid down with the ease of Dad’s freshly-sharpened pocket knife slicing through the twine string on a bale of hay. Now that we all wore heavy winter coats, no sooner would we start to pull the door shut when one of the coats would fall off its hook. We would hang the coat up again, but as soon as we started to pull the door down, another coat would fall off.

At first our predicament was funny, although as the minutes ticked by neither one of us felt like laughing anymore. The rule was that the coat closet had to be shut by the time the bell rang to announce the start of the school day. And the bell had already rung about two minutes ago.

“Well, that certainly wasn’t a very good way to start off on a Monday morning, was it,” our teacher said when we had finally succeeded in closing the closet door and were settled into our seats. Then she smiled so we knew we weren’t in trouble.

It wasn’t just any old Monday morning, however. It was the Monday following Thanksgiving vacation. Coming back to school after the freedom of a weekend was always tough, but following the four-day break for Thanksgiving, well. . .let’s just say I would rather not be here at all. Not when I could be at home on the farm where there was always something fun to do: feeding the calves, or going to town with Dad to grind feed, or riding my sled down our driveway.

Earlier that morning while I ate breakfast, Mom had tried to make me feel better about school by reminding me that Christmas vacation was only a few weeks away. To me, the time seemed more like months — or maybe even years — rather than a few weeks.

As it turned out, closing the closet door was the highlight of the morning. After that it was the same old thing. Working on arithmetic problems, completing spelling book exercises to help us learn this week’s list of words, and filling out vocabulary worksheets.

When lunch was over, the second half of the day held even less promise than the first half. Especially after our teacher informed us that once we finished working in our reading groups, we would start the next chapter in the social studies book.

Most of the time the social studies book represented nothing more than a bunch of facts that had nothing to do with me. Senators? Representatives? Governors? The President of the United States? All of those people lived a long, long, long ways off, and it wasn’t as if I were ever going to see any of them in person.

The time spent in our reading groups, on the other hand, always went quickly. Maybe that’s because we took turns reading out loud and helped each other answer questions about the story. Any activity where we could work together was more fun than working alone.

We had finished answering the last question about the story and were considering asking our teacher if we could do the next story when she announced that it was time for social studies. Reluctantly, I picked up my chair and returned to my desk.

I was still trying to find my social studies book when our teacher asked for a volunteer to run an errand for her at the office. Two dozen arms shot into the air, waving wildly. The teacher selected a girl who sat right across from me, and as my classmate triumphantly left the room, I returned to finding my book, finding the right page, and wondering how long it would take to read the chapter.

I had managed to make it through the first page and had started on the second one when my classmate returned from her errand.

“They’re here!” she whispered, as she plopped down at her desk just across the aisle from mine.

I turned to look at her. So did some of the other kids who sat near us.

“What’s here?” someone finally whispered back.

“The Christmas trees,” she hissed. “I saw the truck parked outside. They’re starting to unload them!”

The Christmas trees!

Every year soon after Thanksgiving, a truck delivered Christmas trees to our school, one tree for each room, and soon the whispered refrain of “They’re here! The Christmas trees are here!” was making its way up and down the aisles.

Our classroom was on the side of the building facing the driveway, and if you sat close to the windows, you could accidentally wander by them on your way to or from the pencil sharpener. And suddenly it seemed there was an epidemic of dull pencils that urgently needed sharpening. Not everyone was lucky enough to sit close to the windows, and those who didn’t waited impatiently for the latest news.

“The principal’s standing on the sidewalk watching them take the trees off the truck,” came one whispered report.

“The janitor’s helping them, too,” came another report.

“The principal went back inside,” came a third report.

“They’re finished. The truck just left,” came a fourth report.

“I saw the janitor carrying a Christmas tree inside!” said a fifth.

We knew, then, that it was only a matter of time until we heard a knock on the door.

When that much-anticipated knock finally arrived, an uncharacteristic silence descended upon the class. Not a word was whispered, not a paper rustled, not a pencil tapped during those few seconds between the time our teacher opened the door until the janitor started backing into the room.

“Where should I put your Christmas tree?” he asked cheerfully after he and the bushy evergreen had made it through the door mostly in one piece. The janitor’s cap had fallen off, and a few pine needles were scattered on the floor around his feet. I knew that later on, there would be a race to see who could reach the pine needles first. Those who were successful would crush them between their fingers to smell the pine scent.

Our teacher opened her closet and brought out a tree stand while the janitor selected several of the bigger boys to hold the tree upright while he crawled underneath to turn the screws.

The janitor who delivered our tree was none other than Mike Flynn. Each year on St. Patrick’s Day, Mr. Flynn brought his shillelagh to school and visited all of the rooms to tell us he wasn’t Mike Flynn that day but had been turned into a leprechaun overnight.

Since most of us were of Norwegian or German descent, the first time Mike Flynn said he had been turned into a leprechaun, we didn’t know what he was talking about until he explained that he and his shillelagh could do magic. At least for St. Patty’s Day. None of us had ever seen a shillelagh. The polished walking stick Mike carried obviously had been a small tree branch at one time, but now it was so smooth to the touch that you could just about feel the magic radiating from it.

Mike Flynn almost certainly played a prominent role at Christmas, too. On the last day before Christmas vacation, Santa Claus would mysteriously appear in our midst to deliver small paper bags of candy and peanuts to each classroom. Although we were pretty sure it was Mike Flynn in a Santa suit, complete with a long, white, curly beard and a couple of pillows to fill out the jacket, he made the most convincing Santa Claus we had ever seen.

In a few minutes, Mr. Flynn and the boys had put the tree into the stand.

“Let’s set it back in this corner for the time being,” said the teacher, leading the way.

“And would you be sure, now, that this is where you want it?” Mike asked as he peered through the branches at our teacher.

“Yes, this is fine,” she said.

Mr. Flynn set the tree down and then he turned to leave. “I’ve got six more to deliver, so I’d best be on my way. Merrrrrry Christmas!! Ho-ho-ho!”

“Thank you, Mr. Flynn,” said our teacher, giving us a meaningful glance.

“Thank you, Mr. Flynn,” we chorused.

“You’re ever so welcome!” he said, striding jauntily to the door.

Mike Flynn was not an especially tall man, but what he lacked in height he more than made up for in personality.

By the time the janitor left, our teacher knew it was useless to continue with social studies. So instead, she started directing the rearrangement of our desks. Other years we had pulled our desks forward to make more room for the tree in the back, or else we had pushed our desks backward to make more room in the front. This year, we put our desks into a circle. Then the teacher called on a couple of boys who pushed, pulled and dragged our Christmas tree until it was in the center of the room.

When we were finished rearranging our desks and moving the tree, it was almost time for the final bell.

“We’ll decorate our tree tomorrow,” the teacher announced.


At first I thought I must have misunderstood. Last year, our teacher had insisted that we wait until Friday afternoon, even though the tree had been delivered on Wednesday. As excited whispers of, “she said we could decorate the tree tomorrow!” swirled around me, I knew my ears hadn’t been playing tricks.

The next morning, I was ready and waiting for the bus about ten minutes earlier than usual. Normally I did not feel much of a sense of urgency about going to school, and my mother often had to prod me into finishing my breakfast, brushing my teeth and getting dressed.

“Are you sure you feel all right?” Mom asked, as I stood in the living room next to the picture window. Because of the way the road and the hills were situated, we could see the bus when it was still on the main highway a little more than a half a mile away, leaving me just enough time to walk down the driveway to meet it.

“I feel fine, Mom. Why?” I asked, turning toward her.

She shook her head and shrugged. “Because you’re ready so early, that’s why. And since it’s out of character for you — you must be sick.”

“We’re going to decorate the Christmas tree today, remember?”

A bemused smile touched the corners of my mother’s lips. “You are? I guess I do seem to recall that you mentioned something about it last night. I didn’t catch all of it.”

In reality, I had dominated the suppertime conversation by giving a full account of the tree’s delivery to our room and the way in which we had moved our desks into a circle. I had also informed Mom and Dad that our teacher said we could decorate the tree on Tuesday when our teacher last year had made us wait until Friday. Most of our teachers believed that we could not concentrate very well on Friday afternoons, so they reserved the last half a day of the week for activities such as spelling bees, math games, word games — or decorating the Christmas tree.

After I caught a glimpse of the bus on the main highway, I hurried out of the house and down the hill. Then I waited impatiently until the bus pulled up. Even before the door had opened completely, I was already climbing the steps.

Our farm was one of the first stops on the route, which meant I had a long ride to school. Although nothing out of the ordinary occurred (no flat tires; no cows out in the middle of the road; no slippery spots that caused an unexpected side trip into the ditch), it seemed as if we were never going to reach our destination.

At last, the bus stopped in front of the school. I jumped to my feet and jostled my way down the long aisle with all of the other kids who were also trying to exit the bus as quickly as possible.

Eventually I made it to the sidewalk. Just before I reached the door of the school building, I heard someone shouting my name. It was one of my classmates.

“Look what I’ve got,” she said breathlessly, running to catch up. She was carrying a large, brown paper bag. Nestled in crumpled sheets of newspaper were red, green, gold, blue and silver glass ball ornaments. The bag was nearly full.

“Where did those come from?” I asked.

“My mother said we could have them for school,” my friend explained. Then she grinned. “That’s because Mom wants to buy new ones for at home.”

When we walked into our classroom a few minutes later, we discovered that several other kids had brought ornaments from home, too. Not nearly as many as my friend had brought, but enough all together so that we would have a ‘real’ Christmas tree rather than one which was decorated only with paper ornaments that we had made.

“Can we put these on the tree right now?” someone asked.

“Can we?”

“Pretty pleeeeease?”

“With sugar on top?”

Our teacher stopped writing on the blackboard and turned toward us. When she smiled, we exchanged eager, hopeful glances.

But then she shook her head.

“In the first place, MAY we–”

“MAY we put them on now?”


“Pretty pleeeeease?”

“Let’s wait,” she suggested. “We’ve still got to make the rest of our decorations.”

“When are we going to do that?” someone asked.

“And what kind of decorations are we going to make?”

“Can we start now? I mean, may we start now? Pleeeease?”

She shook her head again. “No, no. We’ve got to at least get a little work done this morning. The tree can wait until this afternoon.”

Somehow we made it through math and reading and music and lunch time.

When we were all settled into our desks again following the noon recess, some of my classmates set to work making chains out of slips of royal blue construction paper. In other years, the paper chains were always red and green. This year, our teacher said we could have red and green or else we could choose from royal blue, a pretty lilac purple, or bright pink. We took a vote, and royal blue had won by a solid majority.

While the paper chain crew worked at the counter, other students cut snowflakes from white paper. Still others strung popcorn our teacher had popped at home and had brought to school for us. One girl’s mother had sent two bags of whole cranberries, so some of us (me, for one) strung cranberries instead of popcorn.

When everything was ready, we started decorating the tree. First came the snowflakes. Those who had made snowflakes carefully hung them on the tree by white strings that they had tied to the top.

Then came the ornaments. While the students who had brought them placed them on the tree, the rest of us kept a sharp eye on their progress so we didn’t end up with too many in one place. The girl who had brought the paper bag full of ornaments asked the teacher if she could let everyone help. There were enough so that we each could put one on the tree. When we had finished, four were left, and we all agreed that the girl who had brought them should finish putting them on.

After that came the strings of popcorn and cranberries. My mother had told me that when she was a girl, they used to string popcorn for their tree at the one-room country school a mile from our farm. I had never heard of anyone stringing cranberries, and after we arranged them on the tree, I decided I very much liked the way they looked — red against the green, a little like a cardinal sitting in a pine tree. I had only seen one cardinal perched on a pine bough, and that had been at the back of our farm.

Last came the royal blue paper chains. By now the glue had dried, and the chains stayed together very well. One of my classmates had suggested setting them by the heat vent so they would dry faster, and it had been a brilliant idea. Last year the glue hadn’t been dry, and the chains kept falling apart as they were placed on the tree.

One girl’s mother had also sent tinsel, although at first our teacher said we couldn’t use it. “It’ll make such a mess, especially when the janitor takes the tree out of the room,” she said. The beseeching looks of two dozen kids promising with all their hearts to remove every bit before the tree was taken down eventually overwhelmed her reluctance.

After the last strand of tinsel had been carefully placed, we returned to our desks. As we gazed at the tree, you could have heard a pine needle drop.

“Isn’t it pretty?” someone finally said in a quiet voice.

“Lots prettier than last year when our chains kept falling apart,” someone else said.

“I bet it will be the prettiest one in the whole school,” declared a third.

No one said anything for a minute or two.

“How come you let us decorate the tree today?” someone asked eventually.

“Yeah, last year we had to wait until Friday.”

“And today is only Tuesday.”

The teacher shrugged “What else are we going to do with a perfectly good Christmas tree? If we waited until Friday, we would have just that many fewer days to enjoy it.”

As I turned my attention once again to the snowflakes and ornaments and blue paper chains and popcorn and cranberries and tinsel that decorated our tree, it was as if someone had pulled open curtains to let bright sunshine into a darkened room.

The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas really was only a few short weeks, even though yesterday morning it had felt more like months.

But then, yesterday morning we didn’t have a Christmas tree in our classroom.

Today we did.

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