DRY CREEK, La. (BP)--"I know I tagged a tree in this area." Those are the words of my neighbor, Mitzi Foreman, as she walks through our Christmas tree farm on a blustery Sunday afternoon. Together we search through where she tagged her tree the previous week.
We cannot find it, so I say, "Maybe your tag blew off -- or maybe someone pulled it off."
"No, I tied in on securely."
The problem is that all of the other nearby good-sized trees are taken. However, we've learned to be prepared for situations like this -- several extra trees are tagged for such an occurrence.
I walk Mitzi over to a beautiful Leyland cypress in the southeast corner of our field. She loves it, and I quickly saw it down before she can change her mind.
Later that afternoon, Daddy joins me and we look for the missing tree. He points to an open spot, "Look at that."
It's the rough-cut stump of a tree. It's evident it was not cut with the level cut of our bucksaw, but rather the jagged cut of a machete or ax.
We now know what happened to the Foreman's tree -- someone stole it.
This both mystifies and frustrates me. Who in the world would steal a Christmas tree? I just can't quite picture a family sitting there on Christmas morning, opening presents, singing "Silent Night" around a stolen Christmas tree.
However, people will steal just about anything. In the gift shop at the Christian camp where I have worked, we had an ongoing minor problem with shoplifting. Ironically, the most stolen items are the W.W.J. D. bracelets. As you probably know, this stands for "What Would Jesus Do?"
Well, I know this much -- Jesus wouldn't tell you to steal a bracelet or, for that matter, a Christmas tree.
I make up my mind not to allow the tree burglar to kill my Christmas spirit. The birth of our Savior is about giving. It's a time to ponder God's gift to us in the form of His precious Son.
If we aren't careful the busyness of the season -- its commercialization as well as distractions such as long retail lines, bright lights and even stolen trees -- can kill our Christmas joy.
A few days after the stolen tree incident, I take my boots off at our front door. Hanging from the Christmas wreath is a scribbled note, "I cut a tree today." Attached to the note, held there by a clothespin, is a 20-dollar bill.
Pocketing that, I kneel to lift our doormat. Under it is another price tag and $20. Written on the price tag is "Wishing you a very a Merry Christmas."
Yearly, Daddy puts up a sign telling how we operate our tree business. I love his handwritten sign, posted at the end of our road: "If we aren't home, you can still get your tree. The saw is on the front porch. You can leave your tag, your name and money by the front door. Now go do your thing."
I especially love his benediction. "Now go do your thing."
Unbelievably, this system has worked well. We've found that when you put trust in people, they usually come through in an honest way.
In the week after the earlier stolen tree, we discover another stump. The thief has evidently returned, or someone else has sunk to their low level. I tell my three teenage sons, "We're going to catch the thieves if and when they return at night."
The next night about 10:30, my middle son Clint and I see the headlights of two vehicles leaving our driveway. We spring into action, dashing to my truck and taking off in hot pursuit.
We are dressed for battle -- I have on my pajamas and Clint in his boxers and a T-shirt. Speeding down the highway, we catch the escaping thieves before they've gone a mile.
At the stop sign where Dry Creek's only two highways intersect comes our moment of truth. As my headlights illuminate the rear of both vehicles, I tell Clint, "We've got 'em red-handed now."
There the culprits are -- my mother in her van and my dad in his truck. They'd left one of their vehicles at the Christmas tree farm before going to a basketball game. The headlights we saw were when they returned for the extra vehicle.
Clint and I both burst out laughing as we turn the truck around. Arriving back home, my wife DeDe is waiting at the door. After sheepishly telling our story, she asks, "Well, what would you boys have done if you'd caught up with the real thieves?"
We look at each other in our nightclothes, and I shrugged. "I guess I'd have taken off one of my house shoes and whipped them with it."
Stolen Christmas trees could make you cynical, but the joyful faces of families cutting their tree outweighs the frustration of any theft.
Our honor system works well, because the occasional person who takes advantage of us is greatly outnumbered by the folks who are as honest as the day is long.
I recall other signs of what I call "trustful hearts" in our community: a turnip green patch along the highway with a crude lettered sign inviting people to pick all of the greens they need and leave their money in the mailbox.
Another special long-time example of trust in our community is found at Farmer's Dairy. An empty butter dish serves as the bank for people who come for a gallon of fresh thick milk. This honor system has been in use for years and Mr. Matt Farmer told me it has worked well.
It's true -- in life, we find exactly what we're looking for. This is especially true at Christmas. Our attitude and outlook determines how we perceive the world around us. We can see every person as a potential Christmas tree thief or we can see him or her as the person who'll honestly cut their own tree and leave the money under the doormat. It's a choice, and the choice is ours to make.
We can either say "Bah humbug" or "Merry Christmas."
Personally, I like the sound of the latter much better.
Curt Iles (on the Internet at www.creekbank.net) is a writer and speaker based in his hometown of Dry Creek, La. His eight books chronicle life among the good folks in the Piney Woods of rural Louisiana. Iles is a deacon at Dry Creek Baptist Church and a trustee of Louisiana College, which is affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
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