My father finally fulfilled his dream of operating a hardware store when I was fifteen years old. He named it “Hawthorne Hardware” (check out the photo above). During the next few years, the life of every family member revolved around the struggle to start a small business from scratch. My father had to have a full time night job to support us, so my mother opened the store for business in the morning. My dad would wake up about ten and spend the next few hours dealing with wholesalers, stocking the shelves glazing windows customers had left for repair, and trouble-shooting the myriads of challenges that confront a small business owner. As I remember it, he had to go to work in the middle of the afternoon, and my mother took over again for an hour or so. Then, whichever of the four brothers was old enough (Bob and I in the beginning, then the younger sibs, Ed and Dave) would come home from school and run the store until closing time at 6 pm..As a teenager, I took it all as part of life, and I was still able to enjoy lots of extra-curricular activities. But both my parents suffered from ulcers that first year, so I can imagine what they were going through.
Saturdays were big days; Dad was able to be there all day long, and one of us boys usually helped him, waiting on customers and making deliveries. All the do-it-yourselfers seemed to make at least one visit to the local hardware store that day, and we knew most of them by name.
However, the biggest day of the year was Christmas Eve. We sold tree-trimmings, lights and ornaments. Everything electrical was in demand, from extension cords to fuses. And where did a negligent husband go to do last minute shopping for his wife’s gift? Today, he’d head to a nearby mall, where there are a variety of stores and they’re all open late. In 1953 there was one option — that local hardware store where the owner was hungry enough to wait for the last minute shopper. Our house was attached to the store, so we stayed open as long as people kept coming. What could a man find for his wife in our store? We didn’t have lingerie or perfume, but we had lots of pots and pans and kitchen gadgets. After all, we’d tell him, it’s the thought that counts.
One particular Christmas Eve, probably around 9 p.m., a man burst frantically into the store. His family tradition was that Santa would set up and decorate the Christmas tree when he delivered the gifts, so he had put off buying a tree until now so his kids wouldn’t see it in the garage beforehand. Unfortunately, this particular year the tree lots had sold out a couple of days earlier, and he had been all over town looking in vain for some scraggly leftover. The only store he found open was ours, and, as a last resort, he stopped to beg for help or advice. My dad thought a minute and remembered a small silver artificial tree* we had bought a few years earlier. We had never used it again because it seemed like such a betrayal to put our gifts under a phony silver tree. Dad sent a couple of us up to the attic to search for it, and after a while, we found it, a little the worse for wear and covered with dust. We’d never seen a happier customer. I don’t remember what my dad charged him, but I think he would have paid whatever he asked.
The next morning we all opened our gifts in front of our real tree that half-filled the room. After having breakfast, we set out on our pilgrimage from one relative’s house to another, which was an essential part of our family’s tradition and lasted until late in the evening. I don’t think I had a thought, throughout our busy day, about the family that gathered around our castoff little silver tree.
Looking back, I wonder if the man’s wife chewed him out for waiting until the last moment and settling for such a pitiful excuse of a “tree”; or if maybe the kids saw the tree as special and were impressed that Santa had been so creative this year, and the wife gave him a spontaneous kiss on the cheek for his thoughtfulness; or if someone in the household had been very depressed but was cheered up by the little tree’s brazen affirmation that Christmas means renewed hope.
So, right now, I’m saying a prayer for each member of that Little Silver Tree family, not knowing anything at all about them, but believing in the Good News of Christmas, announced to the shepherds by an angel:
“Behold, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: To you [Little Silver Tree Family] is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*Fake trees made of aluminum were briefly a fad during the late 1950s.