Advent and Christmas is a time of storytelling. After all, Christmas is the greatest story ever told. God sent his only son to be born in a manager only to ultimately die on the cross for our sins so that we could all be saved. So, the best Christmas stories have a spark of Divine love. Like in the first Christmas, sometimes there is pain or deprivation but in the end, there is the love of God and promise on Christmas morning. And angels. A good Christmas story needs angels.

Below is a touching Christmas memory that Matthew Manion shared in the book, Amazing Grace for the Catholic Heart, a collection of inspirational stories.  It has all the right ingredients to warrant retelling each Christmas season.

The Angel Tree by Matthew Manion
Catholic Leadership Institute

The year was 1944. America was at war and everything that year was rationed or in very short supply – including Christmas trees. My father was four-years-old and earlier that year; his mother had a very difficult pregnancy. The baby was born, but did not survive. Three days later, on Good Friday, his mother died from complications associated with the delivery. It was a very difficult year for my dad, his father, and his five brothers and sisters.

Photography © by Andy Coan

My grandfather, John, worked for the post office and was, as usual, extremely busy as Christmas approached. He would work the midnight shift, come home and do his best to care for his six children, get some rest, and start over again; all while working through his own grieving process. In prior years, he always took off on Christmas eve. The family would buy a Christmas tree and decorate it together in the afternoon. They would have dinner and then go to bed early so they could make it to the solemn 5:30 am Mass to celebrate Christ’s birth. Given the shortage of workers caused by the war, John had to go to work on Christmas Eve morning, 1944.

By then, dad’s older brothers, Jack and Franny, realized that they needed to go shopping if the family was going to have a tree. They scoured the town, but all of the lots were empty. There was not a tree to be found in all of Philadelphia. Discouraged and sad, they returned home empty handed. They put on a brave face, so that their four-year-old brother would not realize what was going on. It was going to be hard enough to face Christmas without Mom and the empty space in the tree stand was just another visible reminder of the void they all felt.

When my grandfather came home from work, Jack and Franny gave him the bad news about the tree. He told them not to worry, that he was going to Church for confession. “Confession?” they thought. “How in the world is that going to get us a tree?”

My grandfather walked the three blocks to St. Barnabus feeling very distraught. He had no idea how he was going to find a tree. He talked to his wife, Catherine, in heaven, and asked her to talk to God and find some way to help him out.

The pastor, Father LaRue, heard his confession and at the end could tell something was still wrong. “Is there something else, John?” he asked.  My grandfather told him he was without a tree for his children and he didn’t know what to do. Well aware of John’s loss of his wife, he was immediately overcome with a sense of “we can’t let this happen.”

Fr. LaRue left the confessional telling John to follow him.  He took him to the entrance of the church and said, “Take one of these.”  Guarding the entrance to the Church were two evergreens, standing like great sentinels 15-feet tall. Father LaRue helped John cut one next to the Church and drag it to the sidewalk.  He then returned to the confessional.

While their dad was at confession, the older children helped put the younger ones to bed, with their heads full of the normal Christmas expectations. Jack and Franny were sitting in the living room, when their older sister, Mary, shouted from the front door: “Come quick! It’s Dad and he’s carrying something big!” They sprang up and ran out to meet him. The three of them then dragged the huge tree the rest of the way home.  They had to cut it just to get it into the house.  The giant tree filled the void in the stand and covered the living room in Christmas green!

The older children set about decorating the tree and after they had hung the last ornament, their Dad got out a special box of angel hair. Everyone remembered how Mom always put the angel hair on last, putting a clump on the tree to tell the younger children that Santa’s beard must have gotten caught in the tree while he was leaving gifts.

That year, as my grandfather hung it, he could not help but think of his angel, his wife Catherine in heaven, and the role she must have played in getting a tree for her family.  That Christmas tree in 1944 told John, Mary, Jack, Franny and the others that even without Mom, things were going to be all right.  It was clearly a message of hope.

Our family continues the tradition of hanging angel hair as the last tree decoration on Christmas Eve. As we place it, we remember Catherine and John and all of our family and friends in heaven – the angels we believe are praying for us in heaven.

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