A Cotton Christmas Tree–Not In My House

My favorite color is not green–most of the time.  Christmas amends the rule.  Christmas brings green and red from the color charts and predominantly marks them in my mind.  I want to see and smell spruce.  Christmas isn’t quite right without those two indicators that the celebration of the birth of Jesus is near.

Life in el Quindio, the center (eje) of coffee plantations of Colombia, South America, brings green into view everywhere.  You see the deep shining green of the coffee tree leaves and the more muted greens of the leaves of the platano and banana trees everywhere you drive.  But, the spotting of a classical North American spruce or pine is not only nearly impossible; it is illegal to harvest them in Colombia.  So, the evergreen Christmas tree is not a part of the decorations in Colombian homes during December.


The Watkins family always made a big deal about the search for the perfect tree.  Dad would grab his double-edged ax, and my sis and I would follow his big footsteps in the snow deep into the timber to find the right tree.  Of course, color, fullness, shape and height were the primary selection factors.

In Colombia, elaborate “pesebres” (nativity scenes) are front and center in most living rooms and churches.  If you see a “Christmas tree,” it is a simple limb severed from a hardwood tree and stuck into a five-gallon bucket.  Each square inch of every branch is then covered with cotton; and, you end with a white tree decorated with bulbs and lights.  For me, the “swab” tree is more irritating than helpful in creating the spirit of Christmas giving.  So, during our first treeless Christmas, my letters includes brief complaints about the lack of a “proper” tree.  In other words, in regard to Christmas trees, I am not adjusting well to my new culture.    I keep my discontent quiet around Colombians, but vented my feelings through writing.

As a rule, most North American churches have their share of sympathetic members.  They take the needs of missionaries seriously. Additionally, every church has one or two “can-do” people.  They make things happen.  Betty Frazier was one of those people.  She wrote us a letter nearly every week reporting on her family and the “goings on” at the church I had pastored before leaving for Colombia.  Simultaneously, we were sending our journals to Betty so she could understand our life on the mission field.  No doubt our letters often rested in the same post office going in different directions.

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Betty is distraught by our lack of a tree.  She buys a $150 tree on half price in January and spends a morning packaging it for the three-month journey by boat to Colombia via surface mail.  Betty is a very spontaneous person, capable of both bouts of empathy and anger.  Her postal clerk notifies her that the post office cannot mail her immense package to Colombia in one box.  Instead, the post office requires two smaller boxes.  This sets Betty into a spontaneous rant about the government’s unnecessary regulations and exploitation of the public, leaving the clerk in a nervous sweat in the middle of winter.

Later the same day Betty returns to the same post office, tugging her two boxes behind her.  She is not smiling when she pushed them over the counter and into the emotionally bruised chest of the reluctant clerk.  This time the packages meet the code for size and weight.  But the news that the cost for surface mail will be $78.75 stuns Betty.  That is more than she paid for the discounted tree.  Again, she delivers a blistering review of the United States Postal Service; and makes it clear that she wants her complaint passed to the proper authorities including Tennessee’s BB senators-Republicans, Brock and Baker.

The Christmas tree arrives in early July–two massive cardboard boxes, apparently gift wrapped with more than 100 postage stamps of small denominations, all carefully placed by Betty’s loving hands.  We gladly pay the $30 custom fee and return to our home knowing our 1977 tree will be green, the proper color for Christmas trees.


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