As the child of anthropologists, I learned about origin myths at a very young age. For those whose parents may have been molecular biologists, let me explain that an origin myth is a story developed by a culture to explain how a particular aspect of reality (or reality itself) came into being. Origin myths typically describe the natural world, but they can also be used to describe the social world. I like to think of my book THE CARPENTER’S GIFT as an origin myth.
When I began working on THE CARPENTER’S GIFT, I visited the archive at Rockefeller Center to learn as much as I could about the most famous Christmas tree in the world. I found out that the first tree went up in 1931, while Rockefeller Center was still under construction. It was erected by workers, presumably because they were deeply grateful to have jobs during the depth of the Great Depression. The tree was decorated with strings of cranberries, garlands of paper, and a few shiny tin cans. How that particular tree came to be at the work site and who specifically put it up are details lost to time. But wouldn’t it be fun to know?
Contradicting none of the (few) known facts, THE CARPENTER’S GIFT offers one possible explanation, in which Henry and his out-of-work father give the tree to Frank and the other construction workers on Christmas Eve. Perhaps there are more likely theories, but this story attracted me because it embraced a truth about why people have flocked to the tree in Rockefeller Center these past eighty years, and why Tishman Speyer, the owners of Rockefeller Center, now donate the tree annually to Habitat for Humanity so that lumber milled from its trunk can be used to build a home for a family in need.
I tried to imagine what those workers in 1931 would have been feeling, and I kept coming back to gratitude, especially the kind of gratitude that motivates a person to pay his good fortune forward. The story of THE CARPENTER’S GIFT couldn’t have ended with the erection of the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree because Frank and the other workers wouldn’t have let it end there, not without doing something for someone less fortunate than themselves—such as Henry, whom they learn lives with his family in a drafty, dilapidated shack.
As you’ve probably guessed, I actually slipped a second origin myth into the book—one for Habitat itself. The story of how Frank and his friends visit Henry’s family on Christmas morning to help them build a new, decent house evokes my own feelings about the organization—that no matter how much you give, you always get more back.
Screenwriter Randall Wallace, who won an Academy Award for BRAVEHEART, called Habitat “a perpetual-motion miracle,” and I think this chain of giving and receiving is what he had in mind. It takes Henry a little longer than it does Frank to realize this, but eventually he pays “the gift” forward, too, and the miracle moves on. David Rubel is a nationally recognized author and speaker whose work focuses on making American history accessible to a broad audience. His children's books THE SCHOLASTIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE PRESIDENTS AND THEIR TIMES and THE SCHOLASTIC ATLAS OF THE UNITED STATES have become grade-school standards, selling more than half a million copies each in multiple editions.
© 2012 David Rubel. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. 'Tis the Season to Break With Tradition: Reinvent Your Holiday Book List Putting Books to Work: Selina Alko's DADDY CHRISTMAS AND HANUKKAH MAMA