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He found Christmas spirit in the story of a puny tree

Jim Moorhead’s journalism captured everyday delights, including his own.
Jim Moorhead on a Christmas morning with gifts and, framed near his feet, a piece he wrote for the Evening Independent about finding a Christmas tree.
Jim Moorhead on a Christmas morning with gifts and, framed near his feet, a piece he wrote for the Evening Independent about finding a Christmas tree. [ Courtesy Molly Moorhead ]
Published Dec. 21, 2020
Updated Dec. 21, 2020

Every year on Christmas Eve, McKell and Molly Moorhead got to open one present before settling in to listen to their dad read.

In varying order each year, he turned to the second chapter of Luke in the Bible, telling the story of the baby born in the manger.

He recited Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

And he’d read a piece he wrote for St. Petersburg’s Evening Independent, published Dec. 17, 1969. The headline: “Last night, we adopted this tree.”

Jim Moorhead spent 18 years writing for the Indy — from news to editorials to movie and theater reviews to columns that captured the people, lives and memories of the community, including his own. He left the paper shortly before it closed in 1986.

“He never fell out of love with newspapers,” said daughter Molly, herself a former Tampa Bay Times journalist now at The Penny Hoarder.

Mr. Moorhead died Nov. 23 of natural causes. He was 84.

But his tradition will continue with his family this year. And with this newspaper. Here’s Mr. Moorhead on what happened when he and his wife went to pick out their first Christmas tree.

Jim Moorhead was a reporter, editorial writer, theater critic and columnist for the Evening Independent. He loved the theater, popcorn, his family, the Florida Gators – simple things, his youngest daughter said. "He was deliberately unpretentious."
Jim Moorhead was a reporter, editorial writer, theater critic and columnist for the Evening Independent. He loved the theater, popcorn, his family, the Florida Gators – simple things, his youngest daughter said. "He was deliberately unpretentious." [ Courtesy Molly Moorhead ]

Last night, we adopted this tree.

By Jim Moorhead

We bought the tree last night. In the true spirit of Christmas.

It was resting all alone on the shopping center asphalt, like an exile from the rest of the man-made forest.

“How about this one?” I asked her half in jest. She, who would do most of the decorating and most of the vacuuming — and all of the apologizing — for the tree, smiled faintly, half in appreciation for my joke and half in resignation. We both have wide sympathy streaks.

I held it up by its denuded spire and its bottom end dangled a good 3 feet off the ground. “We’ve got to get a small one,” I observed. “We’re putting it on top of the television.”

“Stand it up next to this one,” she said, holding a cone-shaped beauty of greater, but tolerable, height.

It was no contest.

I returned the waif, tenderly, to the leaning grove.

Jim Moorhead with his daughters, McKell and Molly, in their St. Petersburg back yard.
Jim Moorhead with his daughters, McKell and Molly, in their St. Petersburg back yard. [ Courtesy Molly Moorhead ]

By then she had spotted another beauty. And then another. And each one had an advantage over the one before it. Finally, we were in a quandary. It was impossible to decide which one was best.

I returned to the castaway dwarf. “It sort’ve grows on you,” I pleaded with a laugh. I stood it up in a demonstration stand and balanced it precariously. It fell, but barely. Its squatty bottom branches propped it up like a mangled umbrella.

“What else can we do?” I said brightly. “It’s the only one that’ll fit in the car.” The Bug sat nearby, ogling this other ugly thing we were about to buy.

I was right. It fit easily in the back seat. It just sat there like a tumbleweed, touching nothing.

Jim Moorhead, right, with two of his best friends from the Evening Independent, Frank Quine, left, and Don Addis. After leaving the Indy, Mr. Moorhead went on to freelance and build a second career at St. Petersburg College.
Jim Moorhead, right, with two of his best friends from the Evening Independent, Frank Quine, left, and Don Addis. After leaving the Indy, Mr. Moorhead went on to freelance and build a second career at St. Petersburg College. [ Courtesy Molly Moorhead ]

It cost $1.88, the lowest among the supermarket’s colored tags, but no bargain at that.

Nevertheless, we protested when a clerk said the store was closed, that we’d have to come back the next day. It was as though we really believed THAT tree might not be there. The clerk relented, thinking we had a real dilly outside.

At home, in the light, we looked at it, not believing what we had bought. It was in the middle of the living room rug, looking like something a tree surgeon would send to the pathology lab. It was as though someone had fired a 12-gauge shotgun into a fir hammock and this had emerged on the other side.

Molly, Jim, McKell and Sharon Moorhead. Mr. Moorhead grew up in Ocala, and at the University of Florida, joined the staff of the Florida Alligator. Sharon Moorhead died in 2018.
Molly, Jim, McKell and Sharon Moorhead. Mr. Moorhead grew up in Ocala, and at the University of Florida, joined the staff of the Florida Alligator. Sharon Moorhead died in 2018. [ Courtesy Molly Moorhead ]

We got out the stand and inserted our bedraggled urchin. It didn’t reach to the spike. Removing limbs that were obstacles was a risk. It only had so many.

We compromised with the removal of four scraggly appendages, then a good shove on the tree from the top. It barely reached the spike. Then the screw-on pins kept missing the shriveled trunk. The tree wound up more or less propped against them.

Up on the television it went.

We backed off for a look. The twisted limbs gnarled ceilingward, like the hands of a beggar in supplication. The whole thing looked not like a tree, but like something a sloppy bird would build in one. Out of 360 possible turns, it took 349 to reach an acceptable angle of display, hiding the holes, deformities and other cruel tricks of nature.

Jim Moorhead hams it up with his grandsons, Kepa, left, and Luca Sessa, and daughter Molly through the window at his nursing home in October.
Jim Moorhead hams it up with his grandsons, Kepa, left, and Luca Sessa, and daughter Molly through the window at his nursing home in October. [ Courtesy Molly Moorhead ]

“It’ll look better in the morning,” I said, “after it’s soaked up the water in the stand and gotten over the bends. After all, it probably went into shock when it got picked ahead of all its cousins.”

“It looks so glad to be inside and warm,” she said, casting all the jokes aside.

We stood there watching it turn greener and taller and straighter, thinking if it got any prettier, we wouldn’t have to decorate it.

Feeling the Christmas spirit is going out to the tree lot early and buying the runt of the litter.

A framed copy of Mr. Moorhead’s Christmas tree column hangs in his daughter Molly's home. She’ll read it this year on Christmas Eve to her two sons.
A framed copy of Mr. Moorhead’s Christmas tree column hangs in his daughter Molly's home. She’ll read it this year on Christmas Eve to her two sons. [ Courtesy Molly Moorhead ]

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