This Side of the Pond – Dec. 29

By Sarah Pridgeon

During the season to be merry, I like to look around me for as many reasons as possible to smile. Whether it’s a giggle at something silly or the warmth of human kindness, it reminds me of the good things in this world of ours.

Perhaps my favorite of the holiday season so far is an article I came across in the New York Times about a gentleman who found an old, lost letter to Santa in his new apartment. It had been written almost a century beforehand by a young girl by the name of Mary, who seemed to have been living in poverty.

In that letter she asks for a wagon for her brother and that Santa remember to do something for the poor. When it came to requesting her own gift, she simply said, “whatever you think best”.

The man was touched by her selflessness at such a young age and felt compelled to look into her background. It upset him to find out that she was buried in an unmarked grave, her name never having been added to her husband’s headstone.

When he tried to remedy this, he was told that he needed permission from the buyer of the plot or a relative, but he could find neither. That was, until a distant cousin read the story in an Irish newspaper and sent over a letter of permission and a bag of soil from the small farm where the girl’s mother had grown up.

The gentleman returned to Mary’s grave this year, as he has done every year since he discovered the letter and was so touched by its contents. This year, he brought with him a stonecutter to engrave her name on the headstone, fulfilling his dream of seeing her properly honored.

Meanwhile, the Rockefeller Center reminded everyone this year that even the most glitzy of Christmas traditions often have meaningful roots. The giant tree that has graced its ground for many years was not always so tall, nor as bright.

The first Rockefeller tree was apparently decorated with old tin cans, garlands made of paper and pieces of fruit. It may not have had the same pizzazz as this year’s version, but it was placed there by the workers themselves, the New Yorkers who had been tasked with constructing the center.

They pooled their money to buy it as a way to say thank you for the 40,000 jobs the project had created during the hard times of the Great Depression. The tree today stands as a yearly reminder of how one huge building breathed life back into a suffering city.

I’m guessing nobody mocked that tree for its shortcomings, but the same cannot be said for Montreal’s official shrub this year. There’s certainly a lesson about jealousy in this story somewhere, for the tree was chosen specifically to compete with Manhattan’s giant spruces.

The poor guy who delivered the 88-foot fir in all its skinny, misshapen, lopsided glory tried to explain that very tall trees are always more emaciated than the short ones. Nobody was having a bar of it.

The poor tree was mocked the world over, with people suggesting that Charlie Brown must have been subcontracted to find it and wondering if it would start panhandling for spare change any time soon. It was called the ugliest tree of the season. It doesn’t even have an angel at the top.

Fortunately for the ugly duckling’s feelings, the worm quickly turned and the backlash began. A movement on – where else? – social media began to reprimand people for “tree shaming”.

It wasn’t long before the tree was being praised for its uniqueness and for representing the natural diversity of the forests. I’m sure the damage to that fir’s emotional health had already been done, but at least it’s nice to see people embracing the idea of “different” not necessarily meaning “bad”.

Christmas trees seem to be the most common bringers of a festive smile this season, although not necessarily for one lady in Melbourne, Australia. If the reward for not being good is to find coal in your stocking, one wonders what she must have done wrong this year.

According to news reports, she was admiring her beautiful Christmas tree as it stood in pride of place in her living room when she noticed that one decoration was not quite the same as the others. It was, in fact, a snake.

This adds further strength to my personal theory that I wouldn’t last ten minutes in Australia, where even the foliage seems determined to attack you.

Moving past the Christmas tree theme, I was also delighted to read a story about a group of students in Texas who found out that their classmate, who has special needs, couldn’t find shoes that were big enough for him. The poor soul was stuffing his toes into 10 ½ boots when he should have been wearing a size 13.

The students decided to fix the problem by selling candy and collecting donations until they had enough to buy him not one, but two pairs of sneakers. He opened them with a radiant smile and exclaimed, “You got my favorite kind, too!”

And finally, a heartwarming update to one of my favorite Christmas stories: the tale of the troops who laid down their arms at Christmas during World War I and enjoyed a festive game of football with the enemy. New research suggests that it wasn’t the only time.

On other Christmases, the troops exchanged bully beef for cigars and traded gifts. The truces weren’t even limited to the holidays, with a letter from one private suggesting it became so frequent that two of his fellow soldiers had been punished for meeting the Germans halfway across the lines for a chat.

A historian has now estimated that there were more than 100 truces across the fronts during 1915 alone. How wonderful to see that, even in the darkest of times, we humans want nothing more than to come together with a smile.