The Perfect Christmas Tree

"'Deck the halls with boughs of holly.  Fa la la la la, la la la la.  'Tis the season to be jolly.  Fa la la . . .'  What's this?  A truly fine specimen of tree-hood if I ever saw one.  And I certainly have seen a few!"  Bernard Beaver laughed gaily at his own joke.  Bernard, or Bennie as his friends called him, used a lot of big words and was always making jokes.  But everyone loved  him because he was so happy and could make anybody laugh.

Right now Bennie was looking at a white spruce tree.  It was six feet tall and six feet around at the bottom.  The tree was a perfect triangle if you looked straight at one side.  Its base was a perfect circle.  The top was a perfect point.  From long experience with trees, Bennie knew that the tree was a perfect cone.  The tree stood in the middle of a small clearing in the forest.  Its shape was so perfect because it had plenty of sun and no other trees crowded it.

"I think we have found it, Daisy," Bennie said to the young deer carrying him.

It isn't usual for a deer to carry a beaver--they're both much too independent and they're usually going in different directions.  But this wasn't a usual occasion.  Bennie and Daisy and Cary Crow, who landed on Daisy's head when she stopped in front of the tree, were the advance scouts for the committee chosen to find the forest Christmas tree.

"The branches are sturdy enough to hold everything," said Cary, who knew a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of tree branches.

"And the clearing is big enough to hold everyone and small enough so no one will feel uncomfortable," Daisy added.

"Since we seem to agree, I would suggest, Cary, that you immediately dispatch your assignment," said Bennie.

Cary smiled indulgently at Bennie's formal language.  Cary's "assignment" was to fly back to the rest of the committee and lead them to the tree.  Since she could fly, Cary could get back to the others quickly.  Even though Daisy had long legs and could run very fast, she still had to go up and down hills.  Cary was careful not to scratch Daisy with her sharp talons when she took off.

Daisy and Bennie sat down to wait for the rest of the committee.  But Bennie, who could never sit still for long, was soon running around the clearing, tidying it up.  Daisy thought he was being a little silly, but helped him flatten down the grass so that the smaller animals could see the tree better.

Because they were busy, it didn't seem long before the others arrived.  It also helped that the animals who couldn't travel fast on their own were riding on those who could.  It was strange to see Raspberry Rabbit clinging desperately to Francis Fox's neck and Oliver Owl gently carrying Myrtle Mouse.  But then Christmas is a strange and magical time.

Each member of the Christmas tree committee had been chosen for a special reason.  Raspberry Rabbit (who preferred to be called just plain Berry, although when raspberries were ripe everyone forgot that because he would be drenched in the juice of his favorite berries) checked the forest cover around the tree to make sure that the small animals could find places to hide if they needed to.  Francis Fox made sure there were no signs that the tree was in a place where dogs or cats came.  Myrtle Mouse scampered around looking for anything that might be dangerous to the smallest animals.  And Oliver Owl, who had a good head on his shoulders, generally inspected the entire area from the air to be certain it was isolated enough for everyone to gather safely.

The committee finally agreed that Bennie had found the Perfect Christmas Tree.  It was as if this tree had been planted in this place just to be their Christmas tree.  The committee quickly worked out directions on how to get to the clearing from all parts of the forest and hurried off in all directions to tell the rest of the animals how to find the tree.

Animals who lived far away from the clearing and the Christmas tree soon began moving in with friends and relatives closer to it.  A group of young raccoons camped out near the tree.  Sammy Squirrel began counting the days left before he was to wake Bobby Bear and his family out of their winter hibernation.  Bobby had asked Sammy to wake them up three days before Christmas.  Since everyone knows that bears need their sleep in the winter, no one minded that Bobby and his family would arrive after a lot of the work was done.  But the bears didn't want to miss all of the parties and other Christmas festivities.

Preparations for the big day went on for weeks.  Bennie directed the construction of a small shelter just outside the clearing to hold the decorations.  Everyone helped to string the nuts and berries.  The birds wove miniature animals out of grass to hang on the tree.  The stack of decorations grew bigger and bigger until they were falling out the door of the shelter.  Bennie dispatched a crew of young beavers to begin work on an addition to the shelter.  The forest was filled with laughter and song all day and with parties most of the night.

Then, two days before Christmas, as everyone was scurrying around busy with last minute details, Cary Crow flew into the clearing screaming a warning, "Humans are coming!  Hide quickly!"  Almost before the last animal could hide, a man and a boy walked into the clearing and stopped in front of the tree.

"I think we've found it, Teddy," the man said when he saw the tree.

The tree had been beautiful.  Now it was magnificent.  The beavers and the squirrels had carefully pruned a little dead wood out of the tree.  The birds had washed every needle.  Because it hadn't snowed yet, the deer had eaten the grass in the clearing so that it was a smooth, short carpet around the tree.  If you didn't know better, you would say that the tree glowed with happiness and pride.

The boy's eyes danced with joy.  "When can we get it, Dad?" he asked.

"Not until tomorrow afternoon, son.  I have to go to town in the morning.  But at least we found it."  The man seemed as excited as his son.

The animals were stunned as they crept out of their hiding places.  They knew that the people would be coming back the next day to cut down their beautiful Christmas tree.  Bobby Bear and his family were still groggy since they had only been awake for one day, but they were eager to fight the people to defend their tree.  Every badger and weasel immediately volunteered to help and Francis Fox and his relatives bared their teeth in silent agreement.

Bennie wanted to fight, too.  Even though his business was cutting down trees, he could not stand the thought that this beautiful tree would soon be cut down in its prime and become nothing more than dead wood to be tossed on a fire.  But Bennie was a little more realistic than the animals who wanted to fight to save their tree.  He knew that if they fought, the man would come back with traps and a gun as well as an ax.  Teeth and claws were no match for a gun.

So, even though he hated to admit defeat, Bennie sided with the rabbits and opossums and other animals who didn't have even teeth and claws with which to fight.  The animals slowly realized that their Christmas was over.

A very sad group gathered around the tree.  Bennie needed to be alone and left the clearing without even trying to cheer up the other animals.  Daisy lay down in front of the tree and stared at it as if she were trying to memorize every detail.  Myrtle Mouse, who wasn't normally fond of trees or high places, timidly asked Oliver Owl to give her a ride so she could lay wedged on a branch against the trunk.  The rabbits silently gathered to comfort each other.  Francis Fox and his friends, who were generally not very sentimental, kept brushing away tears between growls.  It seemed as if even the tree itself was sad.

It was just after dawn when Connie Raccoon woke up miserable.  A white blanket of freshly fallen snow covered the clearing.  In the snow Connie could see the paw and hoof prints of all the animals who had come to say good-by to the tree during the night.

Connie sat down near the edge of the clearing.  She couldn't look at the tree without crying and she buried her tear-streaked face in her paws.

Suddenly Connie heard something heavy thrashing through the forest.  It made too much noise to be an animal so Connie knew it had to be one of the people who were going to cut down the tree.  But she was too sad to hide.  Nothing seemed important to her except the tree.  A minute later the boy from the day before burst into the clearing almost on top of Connie.

The boy stopped in his tracks when he saw a crying raccoon sitting in the clearing making no move to escape.  Teddy was really rather sensitive (for a human) and he suddenly realized that the raccoon was too sad to run away.  He didn't know what was wrong, but wished there was some way he could help.  He loved animals and had a dog and three cats and helped his father with the cows and horses and had even nursed a robin with a broken wing once.

"What's wrong?" asked Teddy gently.

"You are!" Connie replied angrily and buried her wet face as she started crying again.

Teddy was startled.  He hadn't really expected an answer to his question because everyone knows that raccoons can't talk.  But then, as far as he knew, animals can't cry either.

"What have I done?" asked Teddy defensively when he recovered from his surprise.

"Why, you're going to cut down our Christmas tree!" Connie almost screamed.  "And we've spent so much time making it beautiful and we love it and it doesn't deserve to die!"

For the first time since entering the clearing Teddy looked at the tree.  It was covered with a thin coat of snow.  It looked more like a Christmas tree with that simple decoration than any Christmas tree he had ever seen.  Then Teddy saw the snow in the clearing with the tracks of all the different animals.  Teddy was as surprised that animals had Christmas trees as he had been when the raccoon spoke to him.

Teddy didn't know what to do.  He wanted the tree very much, too.  He found it hard to believe that animals would have a Christmas tree, or would care if a tree was cut down.  He didn't even bother to wonder how or why the raccoon had spoken to him.  Finally he decided to go home and talk to his parents.

"Bet I know where you've been," teased Dad from the breakfast table.  "Up at the crack of dawn to see the tree!  Did it make it through the night?"

Teddy burst into tears.  When he stopped crying he told his parents the whole story of his morning adventure.

"Well, I guess we'll just have to find another tree this afternoon, Teddy," said Dad.  He didn't seem surprised, just sad.

"No," said Mother.  "I thing we can share this tree.  You two have things to do to keep yourselves busy, don't you?"  She almost pushed them out the door.  "Just be sure to be back here at noon."

Dad looked at Teddy and shrugged.  Neither of them knew what she was thinking or how they could share the tree with the animals.  But Teddy felt happier as he went to the barn to do his chores.

At exactly noon Teddy and Dad appeared in the kitchen.  Mother was just closing the cover of a very large box.

"My, aren't you both punctual today," she smiled.  "Ready to visit your tree?  Who wants to carry the box?"

Dad picked up the box.  "This is heavy!" he whistled.  "What's in here anyway?"

"You'll see when the time comes," Mother answered mysteriously.

Teddy enjoyed the walk through the snowy forest with his parents because he knew that Mother had solved the problem.  She always did.  The snow made the forest seem very quiet.  He didn't even hear a bird.  Then Teddy suddenly realized that the animals thought they were coming to cut down the tree.  "They're still sad," he thought, and immediately he was sad again, too.

When they reached the clearing, Dad sat the box down next to the tree.  As Mother opened it she began talking.

"I know that you are all hiding around here somewhere," she said softly.  "And I know that you can understand me just like you can make us understand you.  We aren't going to hurt you and we aren't going to cut down your Christmas tree.  But we would like to share this tree.  We've brought some decorations that you might like."

She started pulling strings of popcorn and berries and bird seed shaped into bells and pieces of suet and oats and apples and cheese and Christmas cookies out of the box.  There was even a pot of honey.  There was something that each animal who lived in the forest would like.  Teddy and Dad hurried to help Mother place everything in or around the tree so that each animal could reach the things he or she would like most.

"We're almost done," Mother finally said.  "There's just one more thing."  She carefully took an angel out of the box.  Teddy had never seen the angel before.  He looked closely at it and realized it was made of down Mother must have gathered from abandoned bird's nests.

"Oh, no!" she said.

"What's wrong?" asked Dad.

"How are we going to put it on?" she replied.

Teddy and Dad looked at the tree.  Although it wasn't any taller than Dad, Teddy realized that he couldn't put the angel on the tree without destroying half the work they had done.

Suddenly a large bird flew into the clearing.  The big bird was followed by a flock of all kinds of smaller birds.  Teddy was startled.  When he looked around he saw that animals, including foxes and bears, had silently ringed the clearing while they were working.  He thought the animals were attacking and started to run away, but Mother just stood very still.  The large bird settled gently on her shoulder.  Mother looked around at Cary Crow, said "Thank you," and held the angel so Cary could take it in her beak.  Cary took the angel and flew to the top of the tree.  Still flapping her wings so she could balance on the tree's weak top branches, Cary carefully held it in place while the other birds, who each had a piece of dead grass or other building material in his or her beak, fastened the angel to the tree as if they were building a nest.

"Now, if you will permit me," Mother said to the watching animals, "For our share of the tree."  She reached into the box again and took out a camera.  She began taking pictures of the tree from every side.  Finally she turned to the animals and asked, "Does anyone want to pose for me?"

At first no one moved.  Then two raccoons pushed a third one forward.  She walked shyly into the clearing and sat down beside Teddy.

"Is that her, Teddy?" Mother asked.

"I don't know," Teddy admitted sheepishly.  He was very much ashamed of himself for not knowing if this was the raccoon to whom he had talked.  "I was so surprised and she was all wet from crying."

"But I'm not crying now," said Connie.

"No, you're not," said Mother.  "Smile for your picture!"

When Mother had taken several pictures of Connie, the other animals came into the clearing and posed for their own pictures.  It was a festive group again.  They waited patiently several times while Mother changed the film in the camera.  When she had finally gotten pictures of all the animals, Dad picked up the box and took her by the arm.  Teddy reluctantly followed them out of the clearing.  This place had taken on a very special meaning for him.  They all turned around for one last look at the real tree and the animals around it.

"I'm glad we didn't cut it down," said Teddy.  "It's too beautiful to kill."  His parents just smiled at each other and Mother patted the camera she was still carrying. And, although neither the humans nor the animals seemed to notice, the tree sighed from the tips of its highest branches to the depths of its deepest roots.  In fact, its sigh seemed to reach from the heavens to the depths of the earth.

As sleepy as he was, Bobby Bear was the first to inspect the decorations on the tree after the people left.  He thought he might have fallen asleep again and was dreaming.  But when he stuck his paw in the honey jar, he knew that it was real.

"Come on, everyone!" he called.  "Let's get to work and add our own decorations!  We're going to have Christmas after all!"

As the animals ran to get their decorations, they heard the woman's laughter again as she called back to them, "Merry Christmas, everyone!"