It all started on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The family would scurry into my Dad's big 98 Oldsmobile and we would make our annual trip to the charity Christmas tree sale held each year not far from home. Dad would make the attendant really work to find the perfect tree, but despite his quiet grumbling about quality he always gave a big tip. After tying it to the roof of the car and taking it home, it was placed in the back yard standing in a bucket of sugar water to soak for twenty-four hours. We then sat down to an early dinner before the next big annual Christmas season event.
Finally dark after dinner, we once again bundled into the car to take a tour of the town to see all of the displays of Christmas decorations which had miraculously appeared after Thanksgiving. Washington Avenue was suddenly aglow in red and green lights with Santa everywhere. The retail merchants changed their displays for the occasion and it wasn't uncommon to see the manger scene in the front of all the downtown churches. All of the lights and decorations would stay on display until New Year's, keeping the season alive for a full month.
The following day after church was when Dad blazed into action. We assisted him as he decorated our ten foot tall and growing evergreen in the front yard. Boxes of lights and decorations were brought outside and we children took turns holding the ladder. When completed, we thought it was a masterpiece and I never really knew why Mom looked at it and shook her head, then returned to putting a beautiful natural evergreen wreath on the front door. With just a huge red bow attached it was complete. Simple but beautiful.
Next Dad moved us to the living room where we went to work on the indoor tree. He brought in the fresh one just bought and placed it in our heavy duty stand, adding a little more sugar water to maintain its freshness. Mom followed him closely, cleaning up any mess that followed him from the dripping tree. Again, she just smiled and shook her head ever so slightly.
Next came the lights, tested by combining the strands and plugging the now single strand in to see if all the lights were working. Then was the part that made us laugh. Dad would unwind the strand from top to bottom on the tree slowly, stopping frequently to look and make changes. It was a slow process as he frequently would change his mind and make adjustments, muttering as he went. We offered suggestions but he was set in his ways so we just patiently stood by. Upon completion, Dad tested them and, as was always the case, for some reason a few lights were suddenly not working. He made quick work of the replacement, however, and made sure that everything was perfect before the next step.
Once done, the fun began. That's when we got to put on the ornaments. Mom and Dad both let us put them up any way we wanted. Only after we were done would they make suggestions, but even then they told us it was our tree to decorate as we wished. Adding popcorn strands and tinsel, the final step was when Dad adorned the top of the tree with the Christmas Star, shaking and bending the base to find the perfect upright position. The small manger scene was placed beneath the tree on the skirt and we were finished.
Now looking about the house we were surprised to see that while we were busy Mom had placed all of our Christmas items including candles, Christmas figurines and window lights in place. The mantle was decorated in greens with red bows and the stockings were hung, even one for our dog Radar. Turning off the house lights and turning on all of the Christmas lights transformed our home into a wonderland of color and shadows. It was beautiful.
More and more presents mysteriously found their way under the tree in the ensuing days up until Christmas. We tried to pick them up and guess what they contained but Mom gave us a very stern look if we tried to shake them. But she did have pity on our excitement and always provided some special Christmas cookies with milk when we returned from school. Somehow we survived and finally the most exciting day of the year, Christmas Eve, arrived.
Christmas Eve seemed like the longest day of the year even though it's one of the shortest. I can remember walking by the Christmas tree and wondering constantly what was in all of the boxes. And I also wondered where the special things were that always came out after the visible presents were opened. I never did figure out how my folks pulled it off. It was only after I was grown that I realized all the work they went through to keep things a surprise.
Dad would start a small fire in the fireplace over the protest of we children. He just laughed and said, "Don't worry, it's only a small one and will be out plenty early for Santa."
We never really believed that but we knew better than to argue. He was a kind and gentle father but expected we children to know our place. And sometimes I think he started the fire just to tease us a little.
We had a wonderful dinner that night. Mom used her good silver and china and we had a surprise special guest. My mom's brother, Uncle Henry, a career Coast Guardsman, came into port that morning and was invited to spend Christmas with us. He had been on North Atlantic icebreaker duty and was still wobbly after the extended rough weather at sea. We just sat around the table listening to his stories about standing on deck on a pitching cutter in twenty-five foot seas. Dad was particularly fond of him and they would have talked all night until Mom said it was time to get ready for church.
Even then I knew there was something super special about Christmas Eve at the Presbyterian Church. The place was packed, and the sanctuary with its five aisles all sloping downward toward the pulpit had red bows on the end of each pew. Poinsettias, red and white, adorned the pulpit area and the large choir was already in place, dressed in their regal Christmas robes. A large manger scene to the right on a raised deck remained in place following the Sunday school pageant the Sunday prior. And the Christmas Star shone brightly on the wall above the Cross.
Our minister delivered the age old sermon of the birth of the Christ Child, the choir sang solos and accompanied us in numerous wonderful Christmas carols and, in the end, each parishioner lit a small candle and the lights were dimmed for the finale, the singing of Silent Night. Looking over at my father, I noticed a tear in his eye, and knew that he loved our Lord.
As we said our goodbyes, bundled up and headed outside, it began to snow, not something often found in this part of the country. Looking down the street toward the river and the large shipyard, a large aircraft carrier in for repairs was decked out in Christmas lights. What a beautiful sight.
Arriving home, Mom gave us a cup of hot chocolate and let us spend a few minutes enjoying our lighted trees both inside and out and the lightly falling snow through the front window. It was cozy and warm and I was eager for the morn.
Suddenly, dad entered the kitchen and told us to put out the milk and cookies for Santa and head for bed. We quickly did as we were told. This was not a night to take any chances. He hugged and kissed each of us as we headed toward the stairs and told us if we caught Santa on his rounds he might just decide not to stop. That's all it took and we scurried.
As I lay there in bed waiting for sleep to kick in, I thought I heard something in the front yard that displayed a red glow into my window. Was it Santa? No, it couldn't be, I finally decided as I dozed off dreaming about Santa, the reindeer and yes, the Baby Jesus. I found out much later that the glow was from the Rudolph electric tie that my dad was wearing as he brought the Santa gifts out of the trunk of the car. He truly loved the color and fun of Christmas.
What wonderful memories of a time long ago. I will cherish them forever and it's such a shame to see the way we have transformed Christmas through the ensuing years. What a shame. Let's bring the old Spirit back and let's keep Christ in Christmas always. After all, it's His birthfay.
Have a wonderful day as we prepare for our Savior. Merry Christmas.
Author, Honey, We Shoulda' Bought the Ark