Christmas is in the air. Mr. Morton starts to teach the children carols and the store windows fill with “dolls and sleds and other toys.” In Francie’s neighborhood, there is the cruel custom of “chucking trees” that remain unsold at midnight on Christmas Eve. The vendor throws each Christmas tree, starting with the biggest. If a boy does not fall down under the impact, he can keep the tree. On the Christmas Eve when Francie is ten and Neeley is nine, Katie consents to letting them have their first try in this ritual.
The tradition of chucking trees is a kind of initiation ritual in this neighborhood, where nothing comes to anyone easily. Children whose families can’t afford Christmas trees, therefore, have to earn them by being willing to withstand abuse. The purpose of this, it seems, is to teach the children that they should never depend on generosity.
Francie has already picked out her tree and it is still there at midnight. At ten feet, it’s the biggest tree in the neighborhood and too expensive. The man brings this tree forward first. The neighborhood bully, Punky Perkins, steps up to take a chance on it. The man dislikes Punky and offers someone else a chance instead. Francie steps forward. The tree man laughs derisively while others snicker and guffaw. He tells Francie that she’s too little. She pulls Neeley forward and says that, together, they are not too little. Punky protests and the tree man tells him to shut up. He allows the siblings their chance.
The tree man laughs when Francie steps forward because the ritual is reserved for boys, to give them some indication of the difficulties that they’ll suffer as men. However, when Francie offers to withstand the impact of the tree alongside her brother, her act suggests that there is no difference between the hardship that they are currently facing or that they will face as adults.
The onlookers make a wavering lane. At one end is the tree man and, at the other, Francie and Neeley stand waiting. The vendor agonizes over throwing the tree at the small children and wonders if he shouldn’t just give it to them. Then, he surmises that they may as well get used to having to fight for the things they want. He throws the tree with all his might while cursing the lousy world. Francie watches the tree come toward her. There is “a mighty swishing sound” when it settles onto the ground. Everything around Francie looks “dark, green and prickly,” and there is pain on the side of her head where the tree has struck her. She feels Neeley trembling.
The vendor doesn’t want to throw the tree because Francie is a girl and because Neeley looks so small and vulnerable. The vendor rationalizes his act to himself by thinking that people are going to “throw hard things” at these children for the rest of their lives, so they may as well get used to it. He concludes that the world is “lousy” for forcing him to provide innocent, hopeful children with a lesson in disappointment.
When some of the older boys pull the tree away and find Francie and Neeley standing and holding hands. Blood trickles from scratches on Neeley’s face. The siblings, however, are smiling because they have won the biggest tree in the neighborhood! Some of the boys holler, “Hooray!” A few adults applaud. The tree vendor screams out for them to “get the hell out” with their tree and calls them “bastards.” Francie is not offended by this. Profanity is normal in Brooklyn among inarticulate people who use it for emotional expression. She knows that the man really means to say, “Goodbye—God bless you.”
The crowd cheers because the siblings have not gotten injured and they’ve won the tree. Smith’s explanation of how profanity is used in Williamsburg distinguishes between the upper-class’s perception of profanity’s use among the lower classes and the actual use of this language. Her explanation reveals how malleable and flexible language can be.
It’s difficult to pull the tree home. When Francie and Neeley get to their building, they call Johnny to help them get the tree up the narrow stairs. Johnny is so excited by the tree that he begins singing “Holy Night.” Neighbors gather on the landing, pleased at the sight of something so grand. To make Henny Gaddis smile, Johnny offers his sister, Flossie, the opportunity to be the angel at the top of the tree. Flossie might have normally made a joke about “the wind blowing her drawers off” if she were up so high. However, something about the tree, about all the smiling children on the landing, and “the rare good will of the neighbors” makes her ashamed of her unspoken reply. Instead, she modestly calls Johnny a “kidder.”
The scene that Smith illustrates is one of community and warmth on the eve of Christmas. Though these people are poor and lead difficult lives, they occasionally express great affection for each other. There is something particularly pure and innocent about this moment between them. Flossie’s thought about making a dirty joke fills her with shame because it taints the perceived purity and innocence of the moment, in which she and the others think briefly that anything is possible.
Katie stands alone at the top of the stairs, watching them and listening to the singing. Though this is a moment of joy for her children, she is thinking of how to get them out of a neighborhood where they must “make happiness out of filth and dirt.” She knows that money would not exactly make her children better. She thinks of how the McGarrity children have money but are selfish and mean toward other children. She thinks of Miss Jackson, who has no money but knows many things and works at the Settlement House. That’s when Katie realizes that education will rescue her children from “the grime and dirt.”
Katie stands apart from all of this because she doesn’t want to be swayed by it. The beauty of the tree and the communal spirit of Christmas do not allow her to forget that she’s living in a tenement where she has to scrub floors for the family to survive. She is not a materialistic person, so she knows that money will not make them happier or better people. However, education improves people’s lives by helping them understand what’s going on around them.
Katie imagines how Francie will go to high school one day because she is smart. However, she thinks that Francie will grow away from her as a result of education. She knows that Francie does not love her in the way that Neeley does. She fears that Francie will be ashamed of her or try to make her different. Katie fears that she will be mean to Francie because she will know that her daughter is “above” her. She worries, too, that Francie knows how much Katie prefers Neeley. What Francie doesn’t know is that Katie prefers him because she knows that Neeley needs her more. She recognizes that Neeley has music in him, but she insists that he will be educated and will become a doctor. Singing fine doesn’t help; after all, it never helped Johnny, whom she still loves sometimes but finds worthless.
As much as Katie wants education for her children, she worries about it creating separating her from Francie. Though Katie knows that Francie is “smart,” she has higher hopes for Neeley because he’s a boy and she’s determined to turn him into her idealized vision of Johnny. Thus, she wants to steer him as far away from a musical career as she can. Strangely, she doesn’t worry about Neeley one day thinking that he’s “above” his mother, which suggests that Katie may feel a sense of competitiveness with her daughter that she would never feel toward her son or any man.
That week, Francie tells another lie. Aunt Evy comes over with tickets to a Protestant celebration for the poor of all faiths. Initially, Katie demurs because the family is Catholic. Evy urges tolerance and Katie finally allows Francie and Neeley to go to the party. In the large auditorium, girls sit on one side and boys on the other. The Christmas play is “religious and dull.” After some singing, a lady comes out onstage and announces a special surprise: a beautiful doll. The doll is a foot high and has real yellow hair and blue eyes that open and shut. The lady says that the doll is named Mary, after the little girl who is giving her away. Mary wants to give the doll to a poor little girl named Mary. There are plenty of Marys in the audience, but none want to admit to being poor. Francie raises her hand before the woman can hand the doll back to its donor.
The doll that is brought out onstage resembles the little girl who Francie made up in her Thanksgiving story. Her life-like qualities make Francie feel like she could have a companion in the doll who, unlike real children, would not make fun of her for the way she speaks or judge her for having an alcoholic father. Though there are certainly other little girls in the audience who covet the doll, their aversion to charity prevents them from raising their hands to claim it. However, Francie’s desire for companionship and for the ownership of something beautiful overrides her pride.
The woman invites Francie onstage. Francie delivers her full name as Mary Frances Nolan. The beautiful little girl who is giving away the doll places it in Francie’s arms. She then extends her hand for Francie to shake. As Francie walks back to her seat, the others lean toward her and hiss, “Beggar.” She thinks that maybe she should not have gone up to get the doll but written a story about it instead. Still, having the doll is better than imagining having it. When everyone stands to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Francie sits with her face pressed to the doll’s. She holds one of the doll’s hands and thinks that she feels it twitch. She almost believes the doll is real.
The other children have contempt for Francie for deigning to admit that she wanted the doll so badly that she would take a handout. The problem is that Mary, the little girl giving away the doll, comes from a class of people that would normally denigrate Francie and other poor children. Though she’s kind, the children in the audience wouldn’t think to separate her from the middle-class children who gain the favor of their teachers or who think it okay to spit upon them.
Francie tells Katie that the doll was a prize. She knows that her mother hates charity and would throw it away if she knew the truth of how Francie got it. Neeley doesn’t tell. That afternoon, she writes a story about a little girl who wants a doll so badly that she gives over her immortal soul to Purgatory for eternity. This makes her feel no better; neither does the possibility of doing penance in confession. Then, she thinks that she can make the lie a truth. When confirmed, she will take the name Mary! After their nightly readings of a page from the Bible and Shakespeare, Francie brings up the proposal to her mother, who refuses. When Francie asks why, Katie tells her that her first name is already Mary, after her grandmother. Francie takes the doll to bed with her. It will be her first and last doll.
Katie, like the poor children in the audience, also has too much pride to allow Francie to keep a doll that she obtained through charity. Francie’s story helps her deal with the moral complexity of her taking the doll. She has told another lie to get it—this time, believing that she has falsified her identity. She imagines that the lies will compromise her soul. When her mother confirms that she was already named after her grandmother at birth—a woman who epitomizes goodness to Francie—Francie is pleased to learn of the happy coincidence.