This time of year causes people to be nostalgic about the Christmases past. It made me think about which Christmases stood out in my mind more than the others. My mother used to hide our presents in the attic and the access to it was from my parents’ bedroom closet. Even if we knew where the presents were, there’d be no sneaking a peek. As folks just barely getting by, there weren’t too many presents to wrap and my mother saved that duty for when we were asleep the night before the big day. It was no easy feat getting kids asleep on Christmas Eve.
Once we were soundly asleep, we heard a ruckus that involved falling plaster and a multitude of cursing. Not tiny hooves on the rooftop, but we still sprang from our beds to see what was the matter, only to glimpse my dad’s jean-covered legs waving madly as they hung from our living room ceiling. My mother garbed in a ratty robe that had seen better days shooed us to our room, threatening us with the possibility Santa wouldn’t visit if we weren’t in bed.
Holidays ushered in seldom-seen relatives. My paternal grandmother would arrive like a tornado touching down, much to my mother’s consternation. She came unannounced and unlike a twister, came bearing gifts. While the gifts might not be the popular toy of the year, she had a sixth sense about what each child wanted. One year she gave me a black and white panda I slept with for years. Another year she gave me a birthstone ring against my mother’s wishes who insisted I was too young for real jewelry. Along with my grandmother, my dad’s side of the family would show up with six-packs of beer, buckets of chicken, and high spirits. One uncle played the piano while we ran through all the Christmas songs we knew. My mother fluttered in the background, biting her lip, hoping the new arrivals would leave before somehow infecting us with their sinful ways.
I always loved these unexpected visits because the relatives brought fun with them through jokes, laughter, and playing charades. These were not people who attended the Church of No, the name I gave our conservative church, since they focused on everything we couldn’t do. Daddy’s siblings didn’t see why kids couldn’t stay up late especially on Christmas Eve, eat too much candy, or watch television. In my mind’s eye, I can see my mother bristling. As a child, I didn’t understand how their arrival put a strain on my mother’s orderly plans and modest meals. What I did observe was my father enjoying their infrequent visits.
The Christmas I remembered best was when my father had just hired on as a welder at Jeff Boat. A fall at work caused him to break his arm and miss work when a strike happened. Despite being part of the union, he was on sick leave when they chose to strike and was denied strike pay. This was the death knell for our Christmas. Living on a farm provided us with staples such as chicken, eggs, milk, and everything my mother had canned in the summer. My mother tried to prepare us telling us Santa might not be able to bring us much this year. I’m not sure if this made much of an impression because everyone knew Santa was magical.
Our old dolls vanished and my mother became very interested in creating tiny doll clothes she insisted were for my cousin’s doll. My father took advantage of scrap lumber and hammered together tiny doll cradles and dollhouses when he wasn’t helping neighbors who repaid my father with livestock feed, dog food, and occasionally, venison. The dog food came in handy because we had four large Germans Shepherds, the result of my mother’s attempt to get into the dog breeding business without success.
That Christmas Eve we could stay up late and watch It’s A Wonderful Life and munch on an oversized box of cheap chocolates a neighbor passed on. Could be my parents knew this was the most they could offer us. We trooped off to bed sleepy, but hopeful that Santa would come through for us.
I remember standing at the window and peering outside at the moonlit snow hoping to spot in the distance a sleigh and reindeer without luck. Eventually cold drove us under the covers dreaming of what might be. Sometime later, a cacophony of dogs barking mingled with a woman’s shriek had us kids sprintng to the window only to see a car reversing down our driveway chaperoned by German Shepherds, who raced them back to the road.
My father ran outside barefoot, clutching his rifle. From our second-floor window, we watched him pick up a stocking out of the snow. Mother joined him and carried in wrapped packages that had been abandoned in the driveway when the dogs came charging out of the barn. Without saying a word, the three of us knew not to mention what we had seen.
The next day we were pleasantly surprised with stockings and gifts. Even my mother and father received a gift and the dogs got a large can of dog bones. For years, we never knew who our generous visitors were and in some ways, that served us. Anyone we met, from neighbors to church members, could be our secret givers. Believing anyone was capable of this kindness made my world a better place.