Every year, a short time after giving thanks in November, my entire neighborhood becomes decorated with large red bows, fastened with ribbons tied around our curbside trees.  Across our diverse ethnicities and faith traditions, my neighbors and I are part of something that brings cheer to us and to those just passing through at a time of year when the skies are often gray.

Some of our neighborhood’s trees are small, recently planted by our city to replace unhealthy trees or cement. Many neighbors have joined the city’s efforts to make our neighborhoods greener—literally and figuratively. Some of the trees on my street are over half a century old, most of them evergreen species of live oaks or deciduous species such as the pin oak. Without a doubt, the biggest challenge for the elves who decorate our trees is the one at my curb: a cork oak that the city inherited when our neighborhood was built over farmland in the mid-1950s. Its girth is far too large for someone’s arms to reach around. This tree is a two-person decorating challenge. But it is also the recipient of the hugs it takes to affix the bow and ribbon.

These are not the only hugs that our cork oak receives during the year. Its deeply creviced bark captivates young children, who pet it, poke it, and embrace it while their parents look up through the branches to appreciate just how majestic it is. The littlest visitors lean carefully out of their strollers, extending a hand to our neighborhood’s gentle giant.

This time of year, the tree’s year-round residents scurry from base to branch, over the ribbon and on their way. In the past, the elves have not always anticipated just how strong a squirrel’s claws will be, and the ribbon has come loose. As the tree’s guardian, I know my job is to refasten the ribbon, then to step back and let the western gray squirrels get back to their busiest season’s work: harvesting acorns from the street’s other trees, digging a spot for some in my gardens, and nibbling away at others from the safety of a branch that is thirty to fifty feet above. They scarcely notice the ribbon that straddles their thoroughfare; they’ve dealt with this seasonal inconvenience for generations.

Shortly after the first of the new year, the elves will return to gather the bows and ribbons for safe storage until that time when we pause again to give thanks. Between now and then, our cork oak will serve as a way station for migratory birds, an outlook for crows, and a point of interest for hummingbirds. More children will stop by, unable to crane their necks nearly enough to see just how grand a tree they’ve found, only to see (and feel) how magnificent each crevice and ridge are at the foundation.

And I will smile as I look on these scenes because I know a gift when I see one, even when it is not wrapped in a bow.