Author: Gloria Houston
Illustrator: Barbara Cooney
Publisher: The Penguin Group
Audience: Elementary and up. Story is wonderful for all ages but book is lengthy and might be difficult for preschool age children to sit through.
Summary: The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree is a fictional Appalachian Christmas tale passed down from the author’s own grandmother and mother. It is the story of Ruthie and her mother and father who live in the valley of Pine Grove. It is many months before Christmas and this year it is Ruthie’s family’s turn to provide all the people in the village a Christmas tree for Pine Grove Church. Ruthie and her father ride their horse up to a high cliff on Grandfather Mountain and tag the perfect tree to cut down when Christmas arrives. But that summer, Ruthie’s father is called away to war and while he is gone the family must live on very little money. They cannot afford new clothes or extra food or toys. Christmas Eve arrives and Ruthie’s father has yet to return so the preacher from Pine Grove Church comes to the house and tells them that someone else has offered to provide the town Christmas tree. Ruthie’s mother insists that they gave their word and will provide the tree and she and Ruthie climb up the hill late at night with a horse and a big sled to cut down the tree. They sneak it into the church while everyone is sleeping and on Christmas day townspeople gather together to celebrate the tree and watch the Christmas play. Each child then receives a gift and Ruthie is overjoyed when she is given the beautiful angel from the top of the tree, which her mother had secretly made for her the night before. She is so distracted by her new doll that she doesn’t see her father standing outside the church as they leave to go home. The story closes with Ruthie hugging her family as the townspeople sing Silent Night and the narrator says, “That’s how it happened. The Christmas of the heavenly angel and the perfect balsam Christmas tree. Grandma Ruthie told me so.
Literary elements at work in the story: The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree is an Appalachian Christmas tale told by a third-person narrator who heard the story from Ruthie herself (“It happened this way. Ruthie told me.”). It is set in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina in the valley of Pine Grove, beginning in the spring and then moving into the days before Christmas when the valley is covered in snow. The first pages of the book indicate that the text and illustrations were both well researched to ensure they authentically represent the Appalachian Mountain culture during the time of the setting of the story. The story is wonderfully told, incorporates Appalachian language, and includes a great deal of dialogue between the main character, Ruthie, and others. The illustrations are beautiful acrylic paintings that perfectly capture the Appalachian culture of the time.
Perspective on gender/race/culture/economic/ability: In this story, we see how people with very little money and resources work hard to keep the promises they have made and give of themselves to bring joy to others. Instead of simply telling the preacher that someone else should provide the tree this year because her husband is off at war, Ruthie’s mother follows-through on her husband’s promise and hikes high up on the mountain to cut the tree down and place it in the church. Her mother also knows how badly Ruthie wants a new doll for Christmas and uses the silk stockings her husband sent her to make a beautiful angel that is given to Ruthie after the Christmas play. We also see the important role women played during times of war as Ruthie’s mom, with a great deal of help from Ruthie, had to survive and care for her family with very little money and a lot of hard work.
Scripture: Psalm 89:34, Luke 10:27, 1 Thessalonians 5:14-19, Luke 1:1-4, Luke 2:1-20, Matthew 1:18-2:12
Theology: Times are hard for Ruthie’s family. Her father is away fighting in a war and they have very little money as a result. But her mother believes if you make a promise, you see it through no matter how tough it may be. Ruthie’s father promised the town a Christmas tree and Ruthie and her mother make sure they get one. Ruthie’s mother further sacrifices to make sure her daughter has a beautiful costume for the Christmas pageant and a new doll on Christmas day- this kind of self-sacrifice ultimately brings Ruthie’s mother more joy than the material possessions could ever have brought. The children in this story are not showered with lavish, expensive gifts on Christmas Day. Each house is not adorned with decorations and each family does not have its own Christmas tree. On Christmas, the villagers gather together and celebrate in the town church, with one Christmas tree and one gift for each child. The point of Christmas, they understand, is not gifts but rather the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. In the midst of difficult times and suffering, the villagers are filled with joy and hope.
Faith Talk Questions:
- In the village of Pine Grove one family gave a Christmas tree for all of the people in the town each year. Why do you think the village had this custom? How do you think a family felt when it was their turn? How is this different than what we do for Christmas today?
- Ruthie’s father must leave his family and travel across the sea to be a soldier. What did that mean for Ruthie and her mother? How did things change when Ruthie’s father left? Do you think it was hard for Ruthie and her mom?
- Ruthie and her mom are very poor while Ruthie’s father is away but they never complain. Why not? How do they get by?
- Ruthie’s mother insists on providing the town Christmas tree even though Ruthie’s father is away. Why do you think it was so important to her?
- After Ruthie goes to sleep on Christmas Eve, her mother stays up all night making her a dress and a beautiful new doll. Why do you think she did that?
- Describe what happened on Christmas at the Pine Grove church. Is this the way you celebrate Christmas? How is it different? How is it the same? What did you like about Ruthie’s Christmas?
Review prepared by Erin Mills, MACE, Entering Cohort Fall 2007