Poor! Too poor even to buy a Christmas tree. Mary sunk deeper into gloom as she heard a passing carriage outside the window of the small brick house she and her husband John had rented. She glanced up to see that the evening snow had begun falling. Mary felt guilty for the heaviness in her heart. Christmas is a time for joy, not sorrow and worry. It's a time to remember the birth of Christ, she reprimanded herself, and it can be done without a tree or gifts.
Mary had grown up in a well-to-do family. Her father had emigrated from England and had quickly built up a mercantile business in Heber City, Utah, and the family had never lacked. She had fallen in love with her father's head clerk—handsome John. They married, and after a few children, found that the store couldn't support everyone on the payroll. So, young and hopeful, she and John moved their family to Salt Lake City in hopes of a bright future. So far, the only work John had found was carpentry. [delete]
She remembered back to a few nights before. After the children had gone to bed, she and John sat alone before the fireplace in the parlor. "To make ends meet," John said grimly, "we will forego buying a tree. We have no money to buy gifts for the children, let alone each other. I'm sorry, Mary. This Christmas won't be what you are used to. I feel I have let you and the children down. I would have never left Heber if I'd know it would be this hard." [delete]
[make this real time, not a memory] She could feel her husband's tenseness and worry. "It's alright, John," she said, rubbing his tired shoulders. "Christmas is all about Christ's birth, not about trees and presents. We will be happy, you'll see." She reminded him that there would be gifts, and they were ready for Christmas morning. She had stuffed and dressed rag dolls for their four daughters, and John had cut and sanded woodblocks for the two boys.
"It's not much," was his only answer. [then he leaves to go outside.]
[make real time; more active] She had promised to be happy, so why did she feel so disappointed? Every time she passed the empty spot in the parlor where an evergreen should stand, and where her younger children now quietly played, it shouted the absence of a tree and echoed the void in her heart. She said a silent prayer. "Please, Father, forgive me. Help me remember that Thy son's birth is the best gift of all."
Mary came out of her thoughts when John entered the yard, and seeing him made her heart lighten. He was a good, hardworking and devoted man. [why are they so poor. Good place to put a very short reason.] She loved him and tried hard to wisely budget his meager earnings. After paying the rent on the house, there was barely enough left for food, let alone anything else.
Through the window she watched John lean his homemade ladder against the tall evergreen in the yard. The sight of the ladder sinking [at first pictured sinking into the ground] and almost disappearing into the tree's glistening branches made her rise suddenly from her chair. "That's it!" she said.
"What, Mother? What?" asked the children from the parlor. [need some reference to the children in the parlor sooner; introduce them into the story with name and age]
"Tomorrow is Christmas Eve," Mary called happily. "We have a lot of work to do to be ready."
[writing improves starting here; rewrite the first part with the same liveliness]
The next day, Mary took the children out scavenging in the nearby hills. They gathered evergreen boughs, mistletoe and all the berries they could find. [develop this scene, add some description of what each child did, include some lively dialog] "It's all a surprise for Father," Mary explained to the children. Home again, Mary went to work as the children chattered happily and thawed their fingers by the wood stove. Then they strung the berries, hung mistletoe, and cleaned the evergreen branches.
After dark, John arrived home exhausted and dragging the ladder. Mary flung opened [open] the front door. "John, don't put up the ladder. Bring it into the parlor," she called.
"Into the parlor? Does something need fixing?" he asked. The children stood hidden, the smallest ones behind Mary's skirt, shushing one another.
"No, John." Mary laughed. "Just bring it in."
John brought the ladder to the porch, shook it off a bit, and carefully lifted it through the front door. "Why would you want this old, ugly thing in the parlor?"
"Now don't be asking questions. Set it up here in the corner," Mary directed. The children, smirking now, stood back while John steadied the ladder. He turned and eyed the children suspiciously. "What's going on here?"
Mary took his arm and pulled him toward the kitchen. "We have a surprise and you mustn't see until later."
"It's a conspiracy, I know," John said. The children squealed and giggled as they pushed the door closed behind him.
After only a few minutes, and back in the kitchen, they all sat around the table, eating dinner, the parlor door closed. "You all act as if St. Nicholas himself is in there," John said, taking a bite of home-preserved peaches.
"You found out our secret," Wallace, the oldest said, feigning disappointment.
"We will show you our surprise later," Mary said, handing John the bread bowl. "But not until the evening chores are done." She had directed the comment toward the children. They moaned.
Finally, with dishes done, floor swept, and the children dressed in nightgowns and pajamas, the anticipated moment arrived. Mary opened the door only wide enough to slip through. "Wait here a moment while I get everything ready," she whispered to the children. "And make sure
your father doesn't peek."
In great excitement, the children took hold of John's legs and hands, and chanted, "No peeking! No peeking!" In a moment, the door quietly opened and the mood of the little family changed. They stepped lightly into the room, wide eyed and in awe at the sight before them. Evergreen boughs and strung berries now graced the old ladder, and candles flickered, balancing delicately in the boughs.
John stood, stunned by the awesome scene. "Mary, you're a wonder," he finally managed to say. "This is the most beautiful sight."
"Don't give me all the credit. The children helped, too."
John pulled his little ones around him. "Go get your stockings and we will hang them on the hearth." The children cheered and scooted out of the room. John pulled Mary close to him and kissed her firmly. "That's for making it a wonderful Christmas."
[from here] "I wish I had a gift for you," she said.
"This is the best gift—turning what looked like a bleak Christmas into a magical one."
The children returned. John lifted the smallest child so that she could hang her stocking with the others. Wallace brought the Bible to John and he read the account of the Savior's birth. When finished, he closed the book. "This is the true meaning of Christmas: that Christ
came to the earth to save all mankind."
There was a moment of silence as John's words settled into their hearts. Then Wallace began to sing "Silent Night" and they all joined in. The simplicity of the moment struck Mary as nothing had before. Her thoughts turned to a stable, a young mother, and a baby. No pomp had attended them those many years ago. Shepherds came, and later, wise men would find Him, bringing gifts. She listened to the angelic voices of her children, their faces glowing, and to her they sounded as heavenly as any angelic choir could have. Her children would have gifts in the years to come, but this year, they received the best gift—of knowing the true spirit of Christmas. Her tears blurred the candlelight with the last strains of the carol… With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth! [to here, is another story. This story is about the ladder tree; this part dilutes the impact.]
After putting out the candles, Mary tucked the children into their beds, and John, exhausted from his day's work, gladly crawled into his own. Mary carried the oil lamp into the parlor to have one last look at the beautiful "tree." Hearing footsteps, she turned to find Wallace standing beside her. "Mama, can we have a ladder Christmas tree every year? I like it lots better than a plain old tree everybody else has."
Surprised at his words, a lump caught in her throat. She whispered, "Yes, we can—every year, if you wish." [end here]
He hugged her and pattered back to his bed. Alone in the parlor, she whispered, "Thank you, Father, for giving us this precious gift."
Welcome, Christmas! Just as every year, even without the evergreen, Christmas had come again.
There's too much of an info dump at the beginning. Cut the second and third paragraphs. They're not really needed. Make it more active in the beginning. After Mary has her idea, it moves at a good pace.
What I liked best: The unique idea of making a tree from the ladder.
Magazine ready? Not quite, but very close. Although I've indicated it needs reworking, the parts that work are very good. I have no doubt you will be able to rewrite and polish to get into next year's edition of my imaginary Christmas magazine.