Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree

Author:  Gloria Houston
Illustrator:  Barbara Cooney


1918: the Christmas Ruthie has longed for all her life and the Christmas she will never forget.

This is the year Ruthie’s family has the honor of giving Pine Grove its tree. Last spring before he left for the war, Papa chose the prefect balsam tree from high on a rocky crag. But now, as Christmas draws near, Ruthie and Mama wait impatiently for the Appalachian mountain train to bring Papa home. Even with news of the Armistice there’s no word from Papa. Soon it’s Christmas Eve, and Ruthie and Mama can think only of seeing Papa again. But despite that, Papa promised the townsfolk a tree, and now–with Papa or without him–Mama will see that his word is kept.


Gloria McLendon Houston’s story of the courage and power of a family is as joyful and timeless as Christmas itself. And exquisite, jewel-like paintings by two-time Caldecott Medal recipient Barbara Cooney capture all the story’s warmth and mountain flavor.


This is a lovely old-fashioned Christmas story with exquisite illustrations by one of my favorite illustrators, Barbara Cooney.   It’s a must if you are collecting Christmas books for your home library.

Ruthie, a young Appalachian girl,  has the honor of playing the angel in the Christmas Eve play at the village church but has no dress worthy of the occasion.  Ruthie’s mother stays up all night sewing a beautiful angel dress out of her own wedding dress and making a small angel doll to match with the scraps and the silk stocking Ruthie’s father sent as a Christmas gift from the war.

This is a lovely story with beautiful illustrations and both can be used to encourage conversations with your child(ren).  If you are not comfortable using conversations to extend critical thinking skills, below are some questions to get you started.   Choose one or two and see where the discussion takes you.  Listen carefully and simply give responses that encourage continued discussion.  Don’t answer the question for your child and don’t look for what you consider to be a correct answer.  You are helping your child(ren) develop deeper thinking skills and that takes time, maturity, and practice.  Keep reading great books aloud, asking open-ended questions, and listening for thoughtful responses.

Oh, and if you have something nearby and can record your discussion without it hindering the flow – do it!  It is sure to be a treasure in the future.  I promise!

Deni Corbett

Some conversation starters:

  1. How was the season different when Ruthie and Papa first went in search of the perfect Christmas tree? Look for clues in the pictures. What kinds of things were going on during this season? (Beehives, etc.) Talk about how what you do differs from Ruthie’s experience.
  2. When Mama and Ruthie reach the train station, how do you think they feel? How do you think they feel when they see all the men getting off the train?
  3. What did Ruthie’s family do for a living? What was Papa’s job? What kind of hardships did Ruthie’s family endure because of the war? What was Mama and Ruthie’s dilemma on Christmas Eve? How did Mama and Ruthie solve the problems they faced on Christmas Eve?
  4. How did Ruthie and Papa find the perfect tree? Where did they go to find it? How did they mark it so they would know which one to get when they came back? Why couldn’t they just cut the tree down right then and there?
  5. When Mama and Ruthie went up the mountain to get their tree, Ruthie became frightened. How did Mama help her get over her fears?
  6. Where do you think Mama found the cloth to make Ruthie’s dress and her doll’s clothes? What do you think Mama used to make Ruthie’s doll?
  7. If you were to describe Mama, what words would you use? How about Ruthie? Or Papa?
  8. Why do you think the people in church laughed when St. Nicholas gave all the deacons a lump of coal and a willow switch?
  9. What did Ruthie get from St. Nicholas? What surprise was waiting outside the church? Which gift do you think was the best one? Why?
  10. Can you tell who was telling the story by the end of the book? Is it someone different than you predicted at the beginning? How do you know who is telling the story?
  11. Besides being a gift to Ruthie, what part does her doll play in the story? (i.e., could it be a symbol for hope, love, tradition, faith, triumph, etc.) What does the family do with Ruthie’s doll every Christmas from that time on?