Every summer, little Nahanni spends part of July staying with her Etsi. That is the Dene word for ‘grandmother.’
They do things outdoors, as much as possible. While Etsi catches fish in the lake, Nahanni splashes around on the shoreline. She likes to pick up rocks that are an interesting shape. Or she picks berries, on the bushes that grow near the edge of the water.
Little Nahanni is seven years old now. And she is a very curious little girl, always asking questions.
After sitting on the shores of Great Slave Lake, Etsi catches a nice, big pickerel. She suggests the two head home. As they walk across the grand rock formations that lead to Etsi’s cabin, she tells her granddaughter she will teach her how to gut a fish.
“Then we will start a fire in the pit outside, and I will teach you how to cook it.”
As they return from the lake, Nahanni asks, “Etsi, why do you always have that Christmas tree in the middle of your flower garden?”
It is an old, spindly Christmas tree. Its branches are made from strong metal. The fake pine needles are made from a heavy plastic. And it has a large, wooden base. There are some branches missing and the little tree is a bit crooked. Nahanni has always thought it is kind of funny looking.
“Etsi, it’s not Christmas yet. Why do you always have a Christmas tree in your yard?”
“I love that little tree,” Etsi tells her granddaughter. “Let me tell you why.”
She says that a long time ago, her grandfather used to go into the woods and chop down a Christmas tree each winter. Etsi says, at that time, her twin sister, named Rose, was still alive.
The two girls would follow their granddad into the bush, and he would allow them to pick a tree. But that tradition stopped one year, when Gramps won the little artificial tree at a bingo game.
“He brought that little tree home, and we were allowed to decorate it. We made strings of popcorn. We cut out snowflake shapes from paper and hung them. We made Santa Claus figures out of toilet paper rolls and cotton balls. And for the star at the top, Rose took some glue and construction paper and made a little star.”
Etsi gets sad then, and starts to cry. She tells little Nahanni that her sister Rose died later that same winter. The year that little Christmas tree came into the house.
“There was an accident on the lake, while we were skating,” Etsi says. “Rose went too close to some thin ice that nobody knew was there. I was too little to pull her out.”
Nahanni starts to cry as well. “You had a sister, Etsi? I never knew that.”
“Yes. Rose was your age, my grandchild. I remember all the times we played together, and laughed, and learned to skin fish, and learned how to make bannock over the campfire. ““Do you miss her, Etsi?”
“I miss her everyday. That’s why I keep that little tree up all year long.”
Then, Etsi tells little Nahanni that Rose loved to dance.
“My own grandmother had made her a beautiful jigging outfit,” Etsi says. “It was a shiny, red satin dress that had beaded roses along the neckline. After the accident, my own Etsi took that beautiful star that Rose had made from paper. She covered it with part of the red satin from the dress and she told me, ‘The reason I use the colour red is because that is the colour which will call the spirits.’ She told me that because Rose was in the spirit world now, she will always be with us, in our hearts. She also told me that Rose will always know how important she is, because that beautiful red star will always be hung at the top of our own Christmas tree from now on.”
Then, Etsi takes out an old tin biscuit box from the cupboard. Inside, and carefully wrapped, is that old red star. Precious and preserved.
“I still put that star on my tree in the house, at Christmas. But I leave the little tree up all the time. I want Rose to know that I always think about her. I still always say prayers for her. I don’t care that the little tree is old now. It reminds me of Rose.”
With that, Etsi gives little Nahanni a glass of blue Kool-Aid and a chocolate chip cookie. (Nahanni helped her grandma bake them, just last night.)
“Don’t be sad, little one,” Etsi tells her granddaughter. “I know our Rose still looks down from Heaven. I know she loves you. That’s why I teach you how to do the same things that my Rose and I used to do when we were little girls.”
After her snack, Nahanni goes outside to play. There is an old tire hanging from a strong tree limb. She uses it as a swing.
But today, before she begins her playing, Nahanni stops to look at the crooked little Christmas tree. She remembers what her Etsi has just told her, and she says a prayer.
Then, she goes to the flower bed and starts to pick some red petunia flowers and some red geranium flowers. Nahanni decorates the branches with these. She finishes by picking a big red rose. Little Nahanni places it at the top of the little tree and says, “I will remember you too, our Rose. And I promise to always tell good stories about you.”
Now, she knows that the little tree is a symbol of love. And that the colour red reminds us the spirit of the Christmas season is with us all the time.
But mostly, little Nahanni now knows there is no such thing as an ugly, little Christmas tree.
Carol Rose GoldenEagle is a former resident of Yellowknife, having anchored CBC TV Northbeat for 10 years. She is an emerging writer, having had no more than three publications as an author (two novels, Bearskin Diary and Bone Black, and poetry manuscript, Hiraeth). The Ugly Little Christmas Tree is a story about her own childhood memories, which was written while living up North when her three children were still little. She now lives in Saskatchewan.