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The Burdens’ Christmas Tree, by Ann Romines

The Burdens’ Christmas Tree, by Ann Romines

This has been a very special year for me, because, as we’ve celebrated the centenary of My Ántonia, I’ve been privileged to hear and read so many of your “Ántonia stories” and have learned more about how and why other readers have valued this treasured book. This last week in December, I’ve spent a lot of time gazing at the tall, shining Christmas tree my sister and I decorated together, for yet another year. Each ornament tells its own story. A tiny glass fruit is the one remnant of my mother’s childhood tree and of Mother’s stories of the candles they lit on that tree—while her watchful father stood by with a bucket of wet sand, in case the tree went up in flame. A glass Santa and a baby Jesus are the earliest ornaments my sister and I remember from our childhood, mixed with angels and tiny houses our mother stitched over the years. A glass typewriter recalls my first published book; a Virgin of Guadalupe recalls the figure I first met in Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. And almost every branch bears a gift from a friend or student who has visited this tree in past years. There’s the straw angel a student’s mother sent me from Germany, the carved elephant a Hindu student brought from her home in India, a glass Big Ben from a neighbor’s latest trip to London, the silver snowflakes our parents placed in our Christmas stockings for thirty-some years. This shining tree is decorated with memories, which grow more precious each year.

As I gaze at our tree, I always think of the Christmas tree in “Book I” of My Ántonia, one of my favorite passages in the novel. It too is a tree of memories. Snowed in, Jim Burden and his grandparents and the two hired men decorate a little cedar tree with things they have on hand. The tree itself is cut by hired man Jake, who remembers the Christmas trees Jim’s father used to cut for him in Virginia; this is the only memory of his dead parents that Jim allows himself in his book. Grandmother hunts up her “fancy cake cutters,” surely brought from Virginia, and bakes “gingerbread men and roosters” to decorate the tree, along with “strings of popcorn” and homemade candles. They spread cotton under the tree, “for a snow-field,” and Jake contributes one of his few personal possessions, a pocket mirror, “for a frozen lake.” But the tree’s “real splendors” emerge from hired man Otto’s “cowboy trunk.”

From under the lining he now produced a collection of brilliantly colored paper figures. . . . sent to him year after year, by his old mother in Austria. There was a bleeding heart, in tufts of paper lace; there were the three kings, gorgeously appareled, and the ox and the ass and the shepherds, there was the Baby in the manger, and a group of angels . . . camels and leopards, held by the black slaves of the three kings. Our tree became the talking tree of the fairy tale; legends and stories nestled like birds in its branches. Grandmother said it reminded her of the Tree of Knowledge.

To decorate this “Tree of Knowledge,” the members of the Burden household—an orphaned boy, his transplanted grandparents, a raw young hired man newly arrived from Virginia, and an Austrian immigrant who had become an American cowboy—have all brought out their private memories to adorn their shared Christmas tree, which they obviously cherish. Many years later, as the adult Jim Burden writes his story, this scene, as the tree is decorated, has become a vivid and treasured memory for him. “I can see them now, exactly as they looked, working about the table in the lamplight.”

On Christmas Day, the Burden household is joined by a visitor, Mr. Shimerda, come to thank them for their Christmas gifts to his immigrant Bohemian family. When he sees the lighted tree, Shimerda, a Roman Catholic, “rose, crossed himself, and quietly knelt down before the tree, his head sunk forward.” Grandmother fears that her Baptist husband, “rather narrow in religious matters,” might object hurtfully to Shimerda’s worship at the tree. But “Grandfather merely put his finger-tips to his brow and bowed his venerable head, thus Protestantizing the atmosphere.” When the visitor has departed, Grandfather tells his grandson, whom Shimerda has blessed with a sign of the cross, “The prayers of all good people are good.”

The Burdens’ Christmas tree celebrates the varied pasts of the household and their visitor; it becomes a shining, multicultural vision that they all can share, and that Jim shares with us. It also allows us to see Mr. Shimerda as happy as he will ever appear in this novel. Of course the tree cannot solve everything; only a few weeks later, Mr. Shimerda will be dead, a suicide. But his memory will persist for Ántonia and Jim, as vivid and compelling as the figures on the Tree of Knowledge.

Soon, this special centenary year will end, and soon my own Christmas tree must be dismantled, the ornaments packed away until next December. I fear that the coming year will bring news as sad and troubling as the news of Mr. Shimerda’s death. But we will still have the memories of the “talking” Christmas tree, full of “legends and stories” that so many different people have created and shared, in a world where “the prayers of all good people” are still “good.” We will still have My Ántonia, ready for another century of loving readers.

Author’s Bio

Ann Romines, professor emerita at The George Washington University, is the author or editor of several books and many essays on Willa Cather She is a member of the Board of Governors of the Willa Cather Foundation, an editor of the Willa Cather Review, and co-director of the next Willa Cather International Seminar, to be held in Cather’s Virginia birthplace in June, 2019.