When I was a child Christmas was a shining light we waited for all year long. I spent my growing up years in the Midwest: Minnesota, North Dakota and Nebraska. One thing predictable about all three states is snow and lots of it. Whether we were going to get any on Christmas was another question and our strongest wish for the season. We would look up at the sky frequently, check the temperature and lean our ears toward the radio whenever the weather report was on. Cold was good. Icicles hanging on the trees were good. Jack Frost painting pictures on our window panes were good. Removing frozen clothes from the clothes line and laying them across all the furniture was good. Having to wear several layers of clothing every time we went out was good. But nothing compared to that magical moment when you looked outside and saw snow falling. If it happened on the 24th or 25th of December it was a miracle that brought joy to our hearts.
Every year we followed the same traditions. Mom baked several loaves of fruit cake a few weeks before Christmas. They were then wrapped in heavy gauze and placed in Dad’s Marine Corp locker to be taken out on Christmas Eve. Relatives from several different states, grandparents, aunt and uncles on my mom’s side and even great aunts sent presents to be hidden on the top shelf of mom and dad’s closet. We always managed to take forbidden peaks at them when our parents left to go grocery shopping. My sister provided lookout while my brother Scott held my ankles as I stood on his shoulders in the closet, and shook each gift, then read off one by one who had sent them. My other brother Brian and my baby sister Jeanne stood near the closet with mouths gapping open with wonder. When we heard the sound of tires crunching on the driveway we swiftly left our parent’s bedroom and rushed to innocent activities, our hearts in our throats at the possibility of being caught in the act.
Christmas Eve day we drove out into the country to choose a tree. We walked thoughtfully around each one, checking it for fullness, for fragrance, for height and especially to see how many branches needed to be cut off at the bottom to make room for the gifts. Once we chose the perfect tree Dad cut it down and tied it to the top of our car. We drove home proudly, hoping all the neighbors were looking out their windows, certain that we had the best Christmas tree of all. We decorated the tree on Christmas Eve. Mom popped popcorn and made hot chocolate with marshmallows. We saved some of the popcorn to string and then wrap around the tree. Then mom brought out the much awaited loaves of fruitcake and cut slices for us. I don’t think I have ever tasted anything as good as that fruitcake. While we drank our chocolate and snacked on popcorn and fruitcake we’d stand back periodically to admire the vision of beauty we were creating. Finally, the job was completed and we all held our breaths as Mom turned out all the lights in the house and Dad plugged in the Christmas tree lights. Was there ever a more glorious moment? It roused us to ecstatic admiration, as we gazed joyfully at the tree, a vision we had created all on our own. The scent of evergreen drifted throughout the house, proof of our certainty that surely this year’s tree was the best ever. Christmas carols played on the radio as if accompanying a great pageant. Our favorite was White Christmas by Bing Crosby. Dad, who had had twelve years of piano lessons, had played piano with Bob Crosby’s orchestra during World War II on the Hawaiian Islands so that made us practically related to the singer Dad referred to as “der Bingo”.
After saying our nighttime prayers kneeling in a circle in front of mom, we went to bed to sleep for a few anxious hours until mom and dad awoke us for midnight mass. Midnight mass was enchantment all in itself. We loved the sound of the choir, the smell of the incense, the sight of all the candles, the tinkle of the bells and Father following the age old ritual of the Catholic mass. One year the electricity went out and we had Midnight Mass by candle light. Someone pumped the bellows of the organ by hand as the choir continued to sing. It was a Midnight Mass never to be forgotten.
We could hardly take our eyes off the Nativity scene near the altar. There was Mary who had just given birth to the savior of the world with her husband Joseph standing by her side. There were the angels singing of the joy of Christmas and the shepherds gathering nearby. The three Wise Men were off in the distance holding their gifts. We knew they contained Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, but we weren’t exactly sure what that meant. Somewhere in the sky we knew there was a star shining more brightly than all the others guiding everyone to the stable where Mary had given birth. Then, mass ended and after wishing all our friends a Merry Christmas as we gathered together outside the door of the church, it was back home for a few more hours of sleep.
Christmas Day dawned. We were all wide awake at the first gleam of light, following each other out to the living room to gaze in awe at the huge pile of gifts under the tree and the stockings filled with surprises that were placed reverently at the front of the presents. Mom and Dad were already awake, fixing cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate for breakfast. The stove in the living room radiated heat throughout the house and we all stood in front of it warming our backsides through our flannel pajamas. The fragrance of the tree and the cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven tantalized our nostrils as we looked at each other with happy smiles and much anticipation. Mom popped a large ham, adorned with pineapple and cloves, into the oven next. As a result, all day long the ham fought for first place, as it competed with the pine scent of the Christmas tree and the lingering smell of cinnamon rolls.
After breakfast it was time for the main event. Opening presents on Christmas morning was always a disciplined affair where we took turns one by one so we were able to see what everyone received. It made it last longer. We dumped the contents of our Christmas stocking out; they always contained gum, lifesavers, tangerines, socks and underwear. After we cleaned up the mess Dad played Christmas carols on the piano while we five children gathered behind him to sing every Christmas carol we knew. Mom was in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, making a salad, slicing cranberry sauce, cooking green beans and gravy. The house grew with merriment as each song was added. Finally, the crowning moment arrived, a ham dinner with all the trimmings. We bowed our heads as we gave thanks to our Lord.
By the end of the dinner we were not only filled with food, we were filled with love and joy.