Sunday, December 7, 2014

Getting Real

"Ugly Beauty"
- cactus along a wilderness trail -

At this time of year, many communities all across America put up an annual holiday tree in the center of a city square. Beautifully decorated with bright lights and colored ornaments, the tree is a symbol of "Yuletide festivities" and Christmas cheer. 

A few weeks ago, the city of Reading, Pennsylvania put up their Christmas tree in the central square - by all accounts it was probably the ugliest tree in America, a laughingstock, the butt of jokes. In fact, that evergreen tree hardly even looked like a tree at all--misshaped with large gaping holes and scrawny branches. One city resident said that the tree was so ugly that even the birds refused to set down on its branches.

The uproar over the ugly tree got so loud that the city leaders decided to take it down and put up something more appropriate, more beautiful and festive looking. But somehow the ugly tree never got removed. In fact, an odd thing happened - the people of the city began to embrace the scrawny  old tree. They somehow "fell in love with it." 

Last evening, thousands of city residents proudly gathered around their "ugly tree" as it was decorated with one single bright red ornament. "It's the best tree we ever had," proclaimed one resident. 

After the ceremony yesterday, the city mayor told a reporter that if we removed everything that was imperfect in our city, the place would be empty. I've been thinking about the mayor's  remark. It seems to me that this is probably why the people of that city so embraced that very imperfect tree- it was an icon of themselves and a reminder about what is "really real" in everyday, ordinary life. 

A Christmas tree is after all, supposed to be beautiful and perfect- just the right size, just the right shape, no flaws in its beautifully decorated branches. Lots of  people aspire to be just like that perfect tree, a highly-prized, awe-inspiring, flawless thing of beauty. But, "in reality" everyone knows they are never all that perfect. We all have lots of big gaps in all sorts of places--broken bodies, blotches and warts, sorrows and disappointments, secret sins. 

So maybe that's exactly why the ugly tree came to be embraced by the folks in Reading, Pennsylvania and why the story of that tree has gone "viral" all across America. The Christmas tree in that city square was something that was "real." It wasn't even close to being perfect; but it had nothing to hide, no pretensions, there weren't even any decorations to cover up the flaws.

The story of the ugly Christmas tree reminded me of another story that I have read over and over again in my life- a little children's fable about a stuffed toy, a "Velveteen Rabbit," who one day had  a conversation with another toy, the "Skin Horse." 

'What is real?' asked the rabbit one day while they were lying side by side in the nursery.
'Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you.
When a child loves you for a long time, not just to play with.
but REALLY loves you, you become real.'
'It doesn't happen all at once.' said the Skin Horse. 'It takes a long time.
That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily,
or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are REAL, 
most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, 
and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.
But these things don't matter at all because once you are REAL
you can't be ugly.'

This is a wonderful time of the year for "getting real." 


  1. Yesterday my 93yo parents were putting up their Christmas tree. Last year I had bought them a replacement tree for 80% off (Dad would only tolerate it if it was a bargain!). Unfortunately, I did not look inside the box when I got it, and it turned out to be so ugly and scrawny it made the old tree look magnificent. Mom was very upset and wanted to get rid of both of them, Dad wanted to put both of them up, and the usual bickering of 73+ years of marriage ensued. In the middle of it, I read this blog and sent it to them. A couple hours later I got a phone call, with Mom singing "O Christmas Tree" and both of them happy and peaceful and glad to have
    read your piece. Thank you.

    1. thanks for share this- what a great story!