In place of my usual essay, I offer the story of a teenager’s Christmas some five decades ago…
Although Lizzie had been thirteen all summer, she still felt twelve. Her parents ignored the fact she was now a teenager, treating her as if she were nine or ten like the middle girls or as young as her first-grade sister.
She certainly was not living the life pictured in teen magazines. Her wardrobe was a woefully-small collection of not particularly fashionable clothing. And all four girls shared one room in the unheated upstairs of their old farmhouse. Should an almost-freshman be expected to room with juvenile siblings?
It was Lizzie’s last year at the school she had always attended. Recently she had visited the large, centrally-located high school constructed a few years before across several former cornfields.
For this year’s Christmas concert the music teacher was organizing a candlelight procession with district eighth graders joining the high school choirs in “Silent Night.” Everyone would wear black and carry a battery-operated candle.
The production required a rehearsal at the high school, and Lizzie arrived home filled with details unshared during her father’s stunning announcement. The landlady had sold the farm, and he no longer had a job. Even worse: They had to move. Before Christmas!
Moving day turned out to be both hectic and bittersweet. Aunts swooped in to pack the kitchen, and uncles arrived in trucks and on tractors to load, well, everything.
With the other girls shipped off to Grandma’s house, Lizzie helped wrap everything from drinking glasses to dinner plates in pieces of newspaper.
She slipped away to gaze down the field-lined back lane and to walk once more past the winter-bare cherry tree and dormant lilac bushes. She stood one last time at the creek crossing and then visited their sledding spot in the corner of the pasture field.
The family reunited late that evening to marvel at the new house with its hardwood floors, wall of bookshelves, and fireplace. Lizzie still did not have a room to herself, but the four sisters would sleep in two upstairs rooms warmed by central heating.
Their father eventually found a suitable tree in the woods behind the house. The box of Christmas decorations was nowhere to be found, so Lizzie helped the girls make a pretty chain of interlocking loops cut from old Christmas cards discovered during Mother’s search for her Betty Crocker cookbook.
Lizzie saw few gifts under the tree, although her sisters seemed not to notice. She realized the family would be scrimping for the foreseeable future on Mother’s meager paycheck from the nurse’s aide job she had taken several months earlier.
As for gifts from Santa, Lizzie figured on new pajamas and house slippers all around, dolls for the girls, and maybe a board game or two. She had already worn her present to the Christmas concert: a black wool skirt with box pleats she paired with a black sweater on loan from her cousin.
For classroom gift exchanges, Mother found paper dolls on sale at the dime store for the younger girls to give, and she planned to bake loaves of nut bread for their teachers. Lizzie used her 4-H money from the county fair for the bottle of Frosted Primrose fingernail polish Mother helped her buy for her best friend, whose name she had drawn.
Lizzie expected another book from the exchange, as had happened for seven years straight. She was the best reader in the class, so it was an easy gift. Oh, she loved the copies of Heidi and Black Beauty she had received, but just this once…
The eighth graders traded gifts after their test on prepositional phrases. Lizzie’s friend was over-the-moon with her nail polish. Lizzie’s personal disappointment turned to unbridled joy when she discovered in a larger box a small case containing pearl earrings to slip over her earlobes. The gift – from her best friend – would be perfect for the dance that night.
The junior high had traded their school-day party for a nighttime dance with a mixture of Beatles, Elvis and Christmas music their teachers played on the school record player.
It was Lizzie’s first grown-up party to which she had expected to wear her Christmas concert outfit. Instead, she entered the gym that night wearing her new black skirt – and the even newer pale pink sweater Mother had brought upstairs as she dressed.
Her first school dance would forever remain a blur of music, twinkling Christmas lights – and total breathlessness from circling the gym in the arms of the tallest boy in the seventh grade.
Christmas actually lasted one extra day that year. Mother drove all four girls, dressed in their Sunday school clothes, without explanation to the city, where they entered a movie theater with its marquee lights illuminating the film title: The Sound of Music, Mother’s final gift during that slim Christmas.
Lizzie lost herself in the story of love and family and Austrian danger. When she finally and reluctantly exited the theater, she suddenly felt – for reasons unclear to her – at least fourteen.
Maybe it had been the hasty move or the visit to her future school. Could it have been the unexpectedly-perfect gifts or her dance with that boy? It might even have been Mother’s quiet acknowledgement of her teenage status.
Lizzie, of course would not understand until years later her first adult lesson from the book of life, that Christmas is not about trees or dances or gifts. Christmas, after all, happens in the heart.