From the Children’s Friend, 1948 –
Top of the Tree
By Jane Renshaw
“Christopher Blake, how could you?” sobbed Joan. “What will we do without Mr. Claus on the top of our Christmas tree?”
Flinging her Christmas packages on the sofa, Joan dropped down on her knees and gathered tiny scraps of red cloth and bits of shredded cotton from the rug into her lap.
Christopher hung his head. His white dustmop of a puppy whimpered and ducked behind the sofa.
“I didn’t do it,” protested the boy as he tugged the stray lock of blond hair that hung over his eyes. “It was Bouncer. I left him for a few minutes to get another box from the attic.”
“And what were you doing bringing down the ornaments two days before Christmas?” demanded Joan, sitting back on her heels and glaring up at her younger brother.
“I wanted to help. Mark was cutting kindling for the fireplace. You were shopping. Mom was making cookies with the kitchen door shut. I thought if I brought the boxes down –”
Joan wasn’t listening any more. With patient fingers she fitted the ragged red scraps together until they seemed to make a miniature coat, a tiny pair of trousers.
“Poor Mr. Claus,” she murmured. “His mouth will never smile again. His beard is gone completely. He’s been bobbing at the very top of our Christmas tree as long as I can remember.”
Christopher knelt beside his sister, and handed her a fragment of black boot, and a bent white button. “Jiminy, I’m sorry, Joan. I was just trying to do my share. Bouncer has no sense. He thought Mr. Claus was another of his stuffed animals to shake up and pull apart.”
At the mention of his name Bouncer poked a droopy ear and a beady eye around the corner of the sofa.
Christopher slapped his knee emphatically. “Bad dog,” he scolded. Ear and eye promptly disappeared.
Joan sighed and scrambled to her feet. “It’s no use, Chris. Mr. Claus won’t go back together. Does Mom know? She made him herself before Mark was born.”
“No,” confessed Christopher. “it just happened before you came in.” In a pleading voice he added, “Joan, I’ll give you the orange from the toe of my stocking if you won’t tell Mom – not until after dinner. She’s frightfully busy now and kinda cross. Please.”
Joan waited a long time to answer. Hopefully Christopher watched her as she marched to the sofa, slipped a package from its paper covering, and filled the paper with the remains of Mr. Claus.
“Take it,” she said, thrusting the crumpled paper at Christopher. “The secret’s all yours and Bouncer’s. I don’t know a thing about it.”
Like turtles and snails and all things slow the minutes until dinnertime crawled by. Christopher moped in the living room, not daring to leave the remains of Mr. Claus unguarded. When he forlornly circled the ornament boxes, Bouncer trailed him. When he sprawled on chair or sofa, Bouncer dropped beside him and feebly thumped his tail.
At last the dining room lights flicked on. Christopher heard Joan clinking the silver and clattering the plates. Now Dad came stamping in the front door, spanking the snow off his overcoat with his newspaper.
“Dinner ready?” he boomed in the same way Christopher had heard him a thousand nights. But this time he winced as Dad slapped his back and tweaked Bouncer’s ear.
Because Mark was always late for supper, Christopher waited to shadow his big brother as he shambled past the loving room into the buzz and chatter of the dining room. Slipping into his place beside Mom, Christopher felt Bouncer’s cold nose against his ankle. He was not quite alone.
How slowly the whole family ate this one night. To Christopher the meat seemed like leather. the potatoes were woolly and rough. The tasteless vegetables stuck in his throat.
When Mom nudged him and whispered, “Floating Island for dessert,” Christopher couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Mr. Claus is gone,” he blurted out. “Bouncer chewed him up. I didn’t stop him in time.”
Knives and forks glistened in mid-air. No one spoke. Christopher, shuddering, let the stray lock of hair droop over his eyes. Bouncer whimpered softly.
“Now you’ve done it, you and that crazy pup,” grumbled Mark. “How can we trim a Christmas tree without Mr. Claus? he just belongs on the top branch.”
Dad cleared his throat. “Son, what were you and Bouncer doing in the attic where Mr. Claus is kept?”
“They brought the ornament boxes down,” explained Joan.
“It was really a thoughtful thing to do,” added Mom.
Christopher flashed her a shy smile. It wasn’t as bad as he expected. Mom was on his side.
Dad rubbed his chin in that thinking way of his. “Can we patch the old fellow?” he wanted to know.
“Oh, no,” protested Joan. “He’s torn to shreds. show them, Chris.”
Sheepishly, Christopher inched the crumpled paper out of his lap. On the table cloth he dumped the scraps that had been Mr. Claus.
“He’s a goner, all right,” decided Mark as the family stared at the pathetic heap.
It was Mom who broke the gloom. “You know, children, I think you’ve outgrown Mr. Claus. When Dad and I were first married, we didn’t have much money for Christmas decorations. So I made Mr. Claus for the top of the tree. When you were small, he looked jolly bobbing on the top branch. But now you’re all growing up, and –”
Chris pushed the stray lock out of his eyes and grinned. Mom was calling him grownup after all the mess he’d caused.
“A splendid idea,” applauded Dad. Fumbling in his pocket he drew forth three crisp one dollar bills. “We’ll leave it up to you children what goes on the top of the tree this year. I’m giving each of you a dollar. Let’s see who buys, borrows or makes the best Christmas tree topper. tomorrow evening’s the deadline. We’ll take a family vote before we hang the treasure on the top branch.”
Joan and Mark reached for their dollar bills. Dad had to clap Christopher’s into his hand and shut it tight.
Before Christopher tasted his heaping plateful of Floating Island, he leaned down and patted Bouncer affectionately. The whole family chuckled as the tap-tap-tap of Bouncer’s tail echoed through the room.
Bouncer’s tail kept right on tap-tap-tapping the next day, so pleased was he to be back in good graces, so delighted was he at all the hustle and bustle that filled the Blake house. By afternoon Christopher could no longer chuckle at Bouncer’s excited tail. Instead a worry wrinkle puckered his two grey eyes very close together. he hadn’t thought of a single thing to buy, borrow, or make for the top of the Christmas tree.
“Come, bouncer,” he whistled to the pup. “Let’s walk down Main Street. In all those windows there’s got to be the right thing to take the place of Mr. Claus.”
Carefully Christopher folded the dollar bill and tucked it in one corner of his snow suit pocket. On top of it he lay a clean white handkerchief for safe keeping. Impatiently Bouncer scratched at the front door while his master tugged on boots and buttoned down his ear muff hat. Neck-deep went Bouncer into the snow as soon as the front door opened. Like a delighted fawn he leaped up in the air and down on the pillow of snow.
“Oh, no you don’t,” scolded Christopher, taking out his handkerchief and dusting the snow from Bouncer’s whiskers. “We’re not playing in the snow this afternoon. You and I have business to attend to – Christmas tree business.”
The stores, all hum and buzz with pre-Christmas excitement, beckoned to Christopher. They seemed to be waiting for an important customer with a whole dollar to spend. Christopher reached in his pocket to pay his wealth. His fingers felt no crispness. He heard no reassuring crinkle. The dollar couldn’t be gone!
Down on the snowy curbstone plunked Christopher. While Bouncer licked his face, he turned his pocket inside out. Only a wet handkerchief lay on his lap.
“Oh, Bouncer, Bouncer,” he moaned. “We’ve done it again. First Mr. Claus. Now Dad’s dollar. They’ll think we’re babies now for sure.”
Swallowing hard, Christopher turned to retrace his footmarks in the snow. he had wiped Bouncer’s face with the handkerchief. Maybe the dollar had spilled out then. Someplace along the way there must be a crumpled bit of green lying on the white snow.
Christopher saw nothing ahead, so low was his head, so fixed were his eyes on the ground. Without warning, something hard hit him head-on. Like an Indian club he toppled over. Snow filled his nose, his mouth, his eyes.
Rolling over, pushing up to his knees, Christopher stared at the wet face of Stefan Capowski from his own grade at school. Both boys opened their mouths to speak. nothing but snow spilled out. Bouncer growled, sniffed Stefan’s worn coat, then wagged his tail.
Christopher caught his breath first. “I didn’t see you, Stefan. I was looking down and –”
“Me, too,” chuckled Stefan. “See what I just found. I was looking and looking to be sure it was real.”
Stefan stretched out his red, rough hand. On the palm lay a crisp green dollar bill. Christopher’s dollar bill. The dollar to buy the special ornament for the top of their Christmas tree.
“I can’t believe it,” confessed Stefan. “Now I can buy Mama a Christmas present. An eggbeater that spins and shines, that will help her cook every day.”
“But it’s my dollar,” protested Christopher. “I just lost it –” The last words slurred together as Christopher saw Stefan gulp, dig hastily at his eyes that were filling with tears.
“What did you say, Chris?” pleaded Stefan as he closed his fist over the green bill.
“What were you going to buy your mother?” asked Christopher, shoving his mittened hand in his pocket. He couldn’t take the dollar. Not yet.
Stefan’s eyes were clear again as he explained. “Every year Mom makes Christmas cakes for us and hangs them on the tree as decorations and presents. I want to surprise her and buy an eggbeater. Then she’d be in on all the fun.”
“Christmas cakes? Don’t you get toys? Why an eggbeater?” The questions tumbled out of Christopher’s mouth before he could stop them.
“Well, you see –” started Stefan, brushing the snow from his ragged sleeve as he talked. “There are seven of us. Too many for toys. But Mom makes the most special cakes. Crisp like your cookies. They are in all the Christmas shapes – camels and donkeys and lambs, wise men and shepherds. The best cake is the enormous star she hangs at the top of the tree. It’s covered with silver sprinkles that make it sparkle. This year I can try to win the star for my very own because I’m nine,” and Stefan sighed a deep, happy sigh.
“It sounds wonderful,” agreed Christopher, pushing Bouncer’s wet nose away from his face. “How do you win the star?”
“By telling the Christmas story best on Christmas Eve when the whole family sits around the tree and listens. I was practicing the part ‘I bring you tidings of great joy’ when I looked down on the snow and there was the dollar bill. Mama sure will like her eggbeater, unless –” and Stefan studied Christopher with his serious blue eyes – “unless you meant what you said about the dollar. Is it yours, Chris?”
For a moment Christopher didn’t answer. The dollar bill didn’t matter for his own Christmas tree. Joan and Mark would find something to take the place of Mr. Claus. But for Stefan’s tree –? That was different! Without the dollar Stefan couldn’t buy the eggbeater at all.
“I don’t know, Stefan,” said Christopher, slowly lifting himself from the bank of snow. “It might be mine and it might not. Maybe I left my dollar home on the table. You’d better put it in your pocket. Finder’s keepers, I always say.”
“Oh, Chris, that’s swell. This is going to be the best Christmas ever. Jiminy, I’ll have to hurry and do my Christmas shopping.” Stefan wrung Christopher’s hand. he patted Bouncer’s head. neither boy nor dog had time to call good-by. Nothing was left of Stefan but blurred tracks in the snow.
Remembering Stefan’s smile, Stefan’s warm handclasp made Christopher happy all afternoon. Not until dinnertime did the funny shivers start up and down his spine. What would he do when Mark and Joan brought out their surprises to take the place of Mr. Claus? How could he explain to Dad about the dollar?
Tree-trimming time came before Christopher found the answers. Then everyone needed him everywhere. He couldn’t think at all.
“Chris, hand me a red light,” called Dad from his corner maze of little green wires and brown holders.
“A few long icicles up here,” shouted Mark from his teetering post atop the stepladder.
Joan thrust a bright blue ball in his hand. “Hold this, Chris, while I cut a piece of string.”
“Oh, Christopher,” directed Mom from her seat of honor on the sofa, “move that small red trumpet over a branch. It’s much too close to the green one.”
Bouncer tried to follow his master and gave up with a grunt. Wearily he curled up at Mom’s feet and blinked his eyes to sleep.
At last the ornament boxes were empty. Mark climbed off the stepladder and clapped it shut. Joan snuggled up close to Mom and gurgled, “It’s the nicest tree we’ve ever had.”
“Except for the missing Mr. Claus,” grumbled Mark.
Dad rubbed his hands together. “The time has come to change that. My children, produce your tree toppers here and now.”
Joan giggled and slipped from the room. Mark lounged behind the sofa and brought forth a mysterious box. Christopher stood very still and waited. Rubbing his chin, Dad stared at Christopher. Then, as Joan reappeared with an armful of tissue paper, he went on with the ceremony.
“Mark first,” was the command.
Quickly Mark took off the cover of his box. Proudly he displayed a miniature wooden stocking studded around the edge with Christmas tree lights. “I made the stocking with my jigsaw,” he told them, “but the lights were bought with Dad’s dollar.”
“Splendid, Mark,” applauded Dad. “And now, Joan, unroll that mass of white fluff and show your surprise.”
The tiny china doll Joan held up was beautifully dressed in soft green silk with a bright red sash. In her make-believe hair were sprigs of holly and mistletoe. Her hand held a fairy wand.
“I call her the Christmas Spirit,” explained Joan. “She’s a little more grownup than Mr. Claus, don’t you think? Of course I had the doll, but I bought the clothes with Dad’s dollar.”
“Why, Joan, she’s a little jewel,” praised Mom. “How shall we ever decide? Come, Christopher, make our choice ever harder.”
“Where are you hiding your topper, son?” asked Dad. “Must be in your pocket or underneath your shirt.”
Christopher hung his head. The stray lock was in his eyes again. ‘I lost my dollar,” he mumbled. “I haven’t anything to take the place of Mr. Claus.”
So still was the room after Christopher’s announcement, the whole family jumped at the sharp peal of the door bell. Skidding out of the room, scattering the throw rugs as he went, Bouncer answered the door with a shrill bark. Mark shambled after him, scolding all the way, “Stop it. Down, boy.”
The door knob rattled. The barking stopped. it was Stefan Capowski’s voice in the hall.
“Christopher here? I have something for him.”
In his first bewilderment Christopher saw only the enormous star cake, all white and silver. Then Stefan’s red fingers became attached to the star’s green cord. Stefan’s rosy face glowed above the highest of the five points.
“Oh, Chris, I won it this year,” crowed Stefan. “I won the star cake just now for telling the Christmas story best. I brought it to you. I’ve been thinking. Maybe it was your dollar after all. Mama loved her eggbeater. We all had a turn spinning it. Here’s the star.”
If Mom’s face looked puzzled, if Dad cleared his throat strangely, if Joan and Mark gulped a little, Christopher and Bouncer understood Stefan’s tumbled words.
Brushing the lock of hair out of his eyes, Christopher moved towards Stefan and the star. “Of course I’ll take it. It’ll be my best prese4nt. I’m going to hang it on our Christmas tree.”
“And there’s only one place on a Christmas tree for the Christmas star,” put in Dad.
“Of course,” agreed Mom.
“We’ll never miss Mr. Claus at all,” murmured Joan.