The little girl sat at the living room window, nose pressed stubbornly against the cold pane as she strained to see any sign of her father's car coming up the cobblestone street.
It was Christmas Eve, yet the little girl was not thinking about presents or Santa. How could she? She turned from the window and looked at the spot by the fireplace where the family's Christmas tree usually stood. How could Santa come if there was no tree to put presents under? Her dad promised just that morning, as he left for work, that a tree would be up by that night. But the little girl wasn't so sure. What she was sure of was that things were different this year.
Her mom and dad spent a lot of time whispering; the one word the little girl always heard escape from those secret conversations was "money."
The little girl's mother called down to her to get dressed for the family Christmas party at her grandparent's house. Papa and Grandma lived a few blocks away, next to just about everyone else in her family. Her mother said Dad was running late at work and would meet them there.
The little girl's heart sank, how could they leave the house on Christmas Eve without a tree? What if Santa came while they were gone?
The walk to Papa's was frightful; all the little girl could think about was the Christmas tree. By the time they reached Papa's house, she had worked herself up to a flushed pink face covered with frozen tears that stung when she entered the warm house.
Soon the smells, laughter and hugs filling Papa's house pushed away her agony. Her grandmother's hugs swallowed her in warmth and love; the smells of foods she loved teased her senses and her anxiety melted a bit.
The little girl watched her dad come in as her aunts, uncles and cousins danced and sang. She noticed his face was flushed and a smudge of dirt ran along his left cheek. She ran over and hugged him but did not ask about the tree. Dad looked tired. It seemed that every time she asked him about the tree the past few days, it made his eyes sad.
The little girl ran back to sit with her cousins but not before noticing the burs sticking to the back of her dad's winter jacket.
Long after midnight, her relentless energy expired, the little girl's dad carried her to the car. Half asleep, she stirred only slightly as she caught the scent of pine in Dad's coat.
Morning came and the little girl awoke with all the excitement that comes from knowing it is Christmas. But then she remembered there was no tree. She buried herself back under the covers. Soon her parents' laughter and the smoky smell of her mom's coffee lured her out of bed.
The little girl's mom called to her to come downstairs to see if Santa had visited.
Warily, she walked down the long staircase to the living room. As she made the bend, she could feel the lights from the tree almost before she could see them.
Beside the fireplace was the best Christmas tree she had ever seen. She did not notice that it was crooked -- or that it bore a striking resemblance to the pine tree in her neighbor's backyard.
To the little girl, it was perfect: Her mom and dad sitting beside it, laughing, drinking coffee, with a pile of Golden Books under it.
To the little girl, it was always the tree that made Christmas. It brought together the people she loved and as they sat next to it, they always had a look on their faces, a glow, that comforted her and made her love them even more.