Years ago my father, for the first of several times, quietly stated to me: “Christmas was spoiled for me the year my mother asked me to put the presents out for the younger kids.” It was only recently, however, that I came to understand what he really meant.
We all knew by heart his annual Christmas morning benediction: “Well, Ol’ Santy was pretty good to you girls this year,” a pronouncement that came as no surprise. He frequently alluded to the difficult times during the Great Depression – his boyhood years.
He often described the butter sandwiches he took to school for lunch and the hand-me-downs he wore with patches on top of patches. And occasionally we heard about Christmas during the depression years, especially the time he and his several siblings each received an orange from the landlord along with a rubber ball and a tin cup from Santa. Somehow our own modest River Road Christmases seemed extravagant by comparison.
Sparse and spare as those tough years were, my grandmother’s request somehow flattened my dad’s Christmas joy. Likewise, since the magical yuletide celebrations of my girlhood, my own experiences have also progressively deflated. Clichéd or not, my current holidays simply are not what they were in the good old days.
The last really notable Christmas happened in 1966, as my dad transitioned from River Road tenant to Ford Road landowner. The entire experience caused upheaval and stress, but our major gift that Christmas – the family trip to a Springfield movie house for The Sound of Music – was the perfect way to celebrate.
Slowly, however, college and jobs and marriage changed the tenor of our celebrations. My brother’s late arrival to the family circle reintroduced the joy of children, extended by the offspring of my siblings. Our parents wisely shied away from hard-and-fast expectations for Christmas Eve or Day attendance. Whenever the big “do” happened, we were loud and had fun and ate bunches. But those were not the Christmases of my youth.
As time marched on dragging us along, it became increasingly difficult for our parents to host the festivities. We began to congregate at the roomier home of my Urbana sister – and the assemblage grew larger each year, what with greats and grands joining our celebrations. The distances most attendees traveled also increased as younger members of the Scott clan settled all over the country. But travel everyone did. Mother and Daddy anticipated and treasured our annual family gathering – as we all did for them.
Now that our parents are not physically with us, we no longer gather around any one tree. The original Scott kids are great or grand themselves, trying to organize events with their own growing families in far-flung locations. My own tiny get-together will include the three remaining Urbana residents enjoying a lovely meal and each other’s company. But that will in no way resemble the holidays so firmly held in my recollections.
Although I cannot imagine the Christmases my father so missed after his mother’s request for help, I can describe in intricate detail the Christmases I still cherish.
Back then, the season began the day we found the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog in the mailbox at the end of the lane. Oh, the little-girl flights of fantasy in the hours we spent poring over that publication, pointing and dreaming.
December was a month of preparation. At church we memorized “parts” for Sunday School programs: one year my sister and I recited in tandem the Christmas story from Luke. There was always a program at school, too. As a fourth-grader, I portrayed a grandmother in shawl and rocking chair delivering ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to the first-graders seated in front of me. In our classrooms we decorated trees with red/green construction paper chains. From milkweed pods and pine cones we created all manner of tree decorations to take home. And how we anticipated party day when that year’s room mothers served cookies and cupcakes to accompany our gift exchange.
It was not officially Christmas, however, until Daddy brought from the woods across the road a small cedar tree of some description. We dusted off our motley collection of decorations: fragile balls and bells, strands of well-worn garlands, and mangled strips of aluminum foil serving another year as tinsel. A few strings of multicolored lights completed our Charlie Brown-esque tree, long before Charles Schulz ever put pen to paper.
Christmas Eve finally arrived with its fitful few hours of sleep. But soon enough we piled into a transformed living room and hustled to our chairs arranged in birth order. There we found our new pajamas and house slippers as well as dolls, books, and puzzles beside a small array of other items wished for and surprising. Elsewhere we discovered board games to share, perhaps miniature doll buggies, one year a doll house for me and a barn for my sister. The seeming magic in the low light of the living room those long-ago mornings became the source of Christmas wonderment still so dear to my heart.
And now I know what my father and I shared all along. The Christmases by which we measured all subsequent ones took place during our years of childhood innocence, before we had to explain life to ourselves. Thus began our loving and longing for those magical days when all we had to do was believe…