Here is my favorite Christmas story, one I wrote as a gift for my parents several years ago. Perhaps my reminiscences will help you remember the magical Christmases of your childhood.
The cedar tree the father had brought from the pasture across the road stood crooked, and the silver icicles had seen better days. The ornament she had made at school hung there among fragile glass globes and strings of colored lights. The silver angel once again adorned the top of the little tree.
This Christmas, however, seemed unsettled and somehow too ordinary, a little less magical. She had all but concluded that her parents did most everything attributed to Santa Claus. A saucer, empty of the cookies piled there on Christmas Eve, always sat next to a note scribbled by the visitor from the North Pole. And last Christmas Santa had left a letter apologizing for the dolls that had mysteriously fallen from the sleigh. Her younger sisters did not recognize the similarity in signatures between jolly St. Nick and the father, nor had they noticed that the typed script of the letter was identical to that made by the mother’s well-worn Underwood.
Still, she loved the whirlwind of activity preceding the big day. This year she and her second sister would recite the Christmas story from Luke at Sunday School, and she herself was still practicing the poem about poinsettias for the December Grange meeting. The Christmas program at school, for which first graders through sixth would sit on the bleachers to form a giant tree for “Christmas Around the World,” had necessitated a mad dash to town on a school night to find appropriate attire for her and her fifth-grade, third-grade, and second-grade siblings.
Christmas cards from relatives, Army buddies, and former nursing school classmates arrived daily in the mailbox at the end of the lane. And, in her bulging purse, the mother kept a mysterious notebook with tiny name slips drawn last year for the gift exchange at this year’s family potluck.
She enjoyed the yearly bustle because tradition provided familiar grounding, even as she secretly longed for things unknown. In fact, she loved the first 24 days of December so much that she actually dreaded Christmas Day itself. No matter what gifts she received, the highly-anticipated Christmas morning signaled an end to the special feelings she wished could continue.
Thus, this Christmas of her eleventh year was as comfortably delightful as it was vaguely disappointing. She reveled in the predictable but also desired some unscheduled occurrence to carry her past the early morning hours of December 25.
And finally, there were the sisters huddling in their usual frantic knot at the top of the back stairs, dramatically agonizing at the father’s booming pronouncements about more coffee and maybe some work in the barn before opening presents.
True to tradition, magic flickered in the tree lights of the living room – the same living room, which mere hours before had lain in shambles, while the mother lectured about Santa’s certain refusal to leave new toys in a place so haphazardly strewn with last year’s deliveries.
But they had rallied, and now the wide-eyed girls entered the orderly room where their four child-sized chairs stood, covered with items requested and unexpected. She knew a pair of pajamas would be hanging over the back of her chair, with slippers close by. This year’s doll was there, for sure the last: girls in junior high didn’t play house. There were books – she always received books – this year a volume about outer space and a copy of Black Beauty.
A diary with lock and key and a jewelry box took her by surprise, Santa Claus demonstrating a certain savviness this year. In addition to coloring books and tea sets for her sisters, stacked on the little play table were new board games they would play on many an upcoming Sunday afternoon.
During the waning moments in their tree-lit fairyland, she mentally completed her holiday checklist. She spied the metal dish filled with mixed nuts and the pink glass bowl of hard tack The peanut brittle was present, as were the chocolate drops and candied orange slices – and a pile of oranges and tangerines. Looking at their brood with happily-tired faces were the mother – and no father? Had he gone to milk the cows before his annual benediction that “Ole Santy had been pretty good this year”?
Soon, however, he returned with a crate. Another present, one she hadn’t counted on. Perhaps the pony that had been on every wish list she had ever written? The father placed the light-colored, wooden container before the mother, who sat in stunned silence, her face illuminated by wonder and the glowing tree lights. With excruciating slowness, she opened the box. As she pushed aside scraggly packing material, the father’s loving surprise emerged: a set of gleaming gold-and-white china: large plates and small, coffee cups and saucers, as well as a bowl for sugar, a platter for meat, and a boat for gravy.
And it was that image, then – the mother with tears in her eyes, the father smiling quietly, and their four little girls together in an old house on a country road celebrating a blessed holiday morning – which would define Christmas magic for their oldest daughter in all of her years to come.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.