[Adaptation of a story by Joanna Erdody: not sure if she was the original author. I have a battered childhood copy that is not dated and has no ISBN number but before it was mine some old pencil lettering tells me it was once the property of Margaret Bradley, 48 Scott Road.]
The Vain Little Tree
The little tree thought to himself, again, how lucky he was to have grown so beautiful, and he felt sorry for the people who were trudging by, sighing over his perfect form. They couldn't take him to their homes. He had a card ticket tied to one of his emerald branches with a red silk ribbon. It spelt out the word RESERVED in gold lettering.
He felt sorry for the other trees who did not know where they would be sent. By the end of the day, some of the others also had tickets, though the card was thinner and they were tied on with string.
The tall grandfather tree held up his ticket and peered at it in the dim light.
'Ah,' he said. 'It seems I am to attend a Christmas Ball. Ah, yes.' He peered past his ticket, up to the stars in the night sky. 'Five hundred lights will shine from my branches, down onto the tables laden with fine foods. There will be an orchestra, and guests from all over the world in splendid costumes. Ah, yes.'
The almost identical twin trees each had a ticket. They showed each other their tickets and giggled, because their tickets were identical.
'Oh,' they chirruped, 'we are going to a children's hospital, which is such a nice thing to do. There can't be anything nicer than cheering up those sick children!'
'Yes,' said the little tree, 'that is quite good, but do remember that I, the first tree of all to be chosen, will be taken to a Duke's castle and treated like royalty and doted on forever.'
The other trees shook their branches in annoyance, but there wasn't much to say about it. It was true; he was booked for the castle. The address was written on the back of the smart card ticket, in gold lettering.
On Christmas Eve morning a horse drawn carriage arrived, driven by footmen in red and gold uniforms. They picked up the vain little tree, bundled his roots in a soft cloth bag, and laid him carefully in the carriage on silky cushions.
'Goodbye,' he whispered, while the other trees gawped. 'This is the life I shall grow accustomed to!'
The Duke and Duchess were very pleased with their tree. They planted him in a gold pot, and dressed him with shining crystal stars and thick red tinsel and admired the effect so much the little tree nearly popped with pride.
'The best tree we have had yet,' the Duke said.
It made the little tree so thrilled he couldn't sleep for ages, even though he was quite tired. The ornaments were rather heavy, and his branches ached, but there was a mirror on the wall and just enough light to see how incredibly magnificent he looked, how fine and rich and marvellous and fantastic! No wonder the Duke had praised him; it had to be true, he had to be the best tree they had ever seen!
Tomorrow was Christmas Day and all the children in the castle would come to admire him. Eventually, his daydreams of adoring faces faded into real sleep.
On Christmas morning the little tree was awoken by the bustle of the footmen, who carried him, along corridors lined with gold-framed paintings, to the Duke's grand hall. There he was placed in the very centre of the fabulous hall, on a carved marble pedestal. He could hear the children at the door, calling to be allowed in, to see the tree. His tree heart beat so fast! He held his tired branches out and prepared to dazzle his audience. The doors opened. A crowd of brightly dressed children ran in, delighted with the sight of the dolled up little tree. They ran around and around him, squealing with happiness.
'The tree! The tree!'
They jumped and laughed: the little tree basked in their attention. How lovely life is, he thought, how lucky I am to be so gorgeous that I am chosen to live in the castle and be treated like royalty and doted on forever.
The tree shone over all of the day's proceedings. The adults sat around on finely carved chairs, the children on velvet cushions, opening Christmas gifts. Silver trays of delicious food were offered around and a servant came to pour some water into the little tree's golden pot. Dinner was set at a table next to the tree. The table was draped with red and gold and decorated with candles set in crystal stars.
Oh, thought the tree, they have done that to match my outfit, how kind and clever of them!
In the evening the Duke and Duchess carefully tied candleholders to his widest branches. Servants brought gold and red candles, placed them and lit them, and the children sat under the tree's twinkling lights, playing with new toys, sighing with happiness, full of good food.
Oh, thought the little tree, what lovely memories we will have of this first day together! There will probably be a painting of it, a gold framed painting hanging somewhere important.
'The day is over now,' the Duchess told the children, when the hot chocolate was all drunk. They cast one last fond look at the best tree they had ever seen and sighed off to their cosy beds.
The candles were gently blown out, and the little tree was left in the hall for the night. His branches hurt from the weight of his adornments but he didn't mind it. He was very tired and quickly dropped into a dream that the Grand Emperor had heard of this flawless tree and offered the Duke so much money, but the Duke would not part with the tree, for it was better than money. In his dream, the Duke and all his family were crying at the thought of losing the excellent tree, when suddenly it seemed that the Emperor's men had come to steal him away.
The vain little tree woke in a panic.
It was true! Someone was pulling him out of the gold pot!
It was one of the footmen!
What strange plot was this? All his finery was ripped from his branches, onto a sheet laid out on the floor; all of his crystal and all of his tinsel and rather a few of his leaves; and he was dragged out of the hall!
Oh no! The little tree tried to scratch the thief. The Duke and his family will be heartbroken, he thought: how cruel to take their perfect tree away from them!
But in spite of his fiercest efforts, the little tree was bustled out through the corridors, through the busy kitchens, out of the castle and down a path.
Oh no, the little tree thought, I am really being stolen!
But then, he was dropped on a rubbish heap.
'Christmas,' huffed the footman, 'always so much work to do!'
And then he turned and walked away, leaving the best tree the castle had ever seen to rot on a heap of garden waste.
The vain little tree cried and cried. His thick leaves protected him from the coldest nights: not from the cold sadness that crept through his heart. He was sure this must be a mistake. Why, he wailed, did none of the kitchen servants stop the thief? It was all so terrible! He lay on the rubbish heap all day, but no one came. Towards the evening he heard voices, and listened for the Duke, and hoped that he had come to rescue him and punish the cruel footman and the stupid kitchen servants.
It was not the Duke, nor anyone from the castle. A shabbily dressed little girl was calling to her brother.
'Look, look; a tree, a real Christmas tree! Let's take it home!'
And they took hold of an end each, and ran excitedly to their small cottage.
'Mother! Mother! Look!'
A weary woman appeared at the door. When she saw the tree her face lit up in happy surprise.
'Beautiful!' she exclaimed. 'I'll get a pot, and we can make some decorations, how lovely!'
So they did just that; scrabbling around the tiny rooms of their teeny cottage to find what they could to set out their prize; and the children of the neighbourhood came to marvel at the unhappy little tree. He stood in a humble earthen pot, with paper stars tied to his branches, which didn't weigh him down, but he felt heavy with sadness anyway, and took no notice of their compliments.
'After this party,' he thought to himself, 'these people will throw me away again. Whether the stars are crystal or paper, it makes no difference, the tree is not important at all. I am not important at all.'
All night he wept quietly, feeling so sorry for himself.
The very next morning, the mother untied the paper stars while the children sat at the bare wooden table, eating their plain porridge breakfast.
'Can we keep the tree?' The little boy asked.
'No dear,' the mother said. 'Trees can't live indoors. Why don't we have a lovely bonfire and burn him up?'
The vain little tree was stiff with fright.
'Not indoors,' the little girl piped up, 'and not burnt: we could plant him, couldn't we? Then every year all of the children here would have a tree, wouldn't that be wonderful?'
The mother looked at the tree, then at her children's hopeful faces, and she nodded.
'Very well,' she said, 'that would be the best thing to do, you are quite right. We will share our good fortune.'
The little tree thought he might cry with happiness.
'Thank you,' he whispered, 'Thank you so much! Each Christmas I will grow my brightest leaves, I will love my paper stars, and always try to bring you as much joy as you have given me.'
The children smiled. He felt certain that they had understood him.