We lived in those days in a modest farmhouse at the end of a gravel country road a quarter mile off the two lane county highway. There was a barn and in the winter our cows did not venture outside (of course there’s a story about the cow manure and how we spread it over snowy fields in winter, but perhaps that’s for another time); there was a chicken coop, a machine shed and a garage with room for our one car—a 1951 Chevy Bel Air.
A few days before Christmas Grandpa drove us on snowy roads into town. You entered town from the west and you couldn’t see the main street or its stores and offices until you cleared a little crest of a hill and then the town of Black River Falls came into view below you, all snow at the sides of Main Street and the river at the far end of town frozen over and guys ice fishing and the Highway 12 bridge arching over. Now the town was dressed up for Christmas. There was a manger scene in front of St. Joseph’s Parish, the Catholic Church that stood at the top of the hill overlooking main street. Green garland stretched across Main Street from the county hospital on the north side of the street to the library on the south. Another ran from Pough’s Hardware to the City Café and one more from Gamble’s Department Store to the Shell gas station. And from each garland a big silver bell was suspended over the street. I was certain that Bing Crosby—whom I called Big Crosby then, after all what kind of name was Bing?—had driven through our town and our garland and 3 foot high bells must have been on his mind when he sang “Silver Bells”, on the radio.
Grandpa parked in front of the hardware store and Grandma gave me a quarter then turned me loose in Gamble’s for my Christmas shopping. I bought six red and white peppermint candy canes—five to hang on the tree and one to wrap up as a present. After blowing most of my 25 cents on the candy canes I headed upstairs because that’s where Santa Claus held court from his big red velvet chair. Only a couple of other kids stood waiting and I got my turn quickly. Black River wasn’t exactly the big city, you understand.
I climbed up on Santa’s lap and he gave me a big bearded smile. “So what will it be this year? A Daisy air rifle with a compass in the stock, I’ll bet.”
Now this was disappointing. Didn’t the man have a memory? “No, Santa. You got me that 2 years ago! No, I’m thinking cross country skis. My uncle Jim has a pair. He skis to school and he can even ski all the way into town when the road isn’t plowed.”
Santa narrowed his white bushy eyebrows, nodded and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Back at the house, Grandma said it was time to go into the woods and pick out the tree. My uncles Bill and Jim took me along and we headed out across the snow covered fields and into the piney woods. Jim carried a saw and I pulled the toboggan, its five foot length of rope turning a frozen stiffness in my gloved hands. Toodles, our white and tan collie mix ran with us, making bounding leaps in the chest-deep snow. Jim, being the oldest—he had already started high school—designated himself the selector of the tree. He picked one with a nice uniform taper and about 7 feet tall. Bill and I held the low branches out of the way, and Jim made a careful horizontal cut just a couple of inches above the snow. Toodles nosed in for a look and licked my face, her wet nose an icy coldness against my skin. When the tree was down we put it on the toboggan and Bill and I both grabbed the rope and pulled it back to the farm.
We stood our Christmas tree in a plain wooden stand and strung the lights and bright glass balls and by evening there were presents all wrapped in red, white and green paper with snow flakes and snow men and Santas in a semi-circle under the tree. The living room smelled like a pine forest.
That night, at the Papoose Creek School Christmas program we sang carols and every kid had to get up in front of the room and read a poem. When we sang “Silent Night,” I could hear Uncle Gerald’s voice, a rich baritone, louder and clearer than all the rest. Santa Claus showed up and gave out candies to everyone. I could tell that he wasn’t the same Santa that I’d visited at Gamble’s. This one was an obvious fake. His red coat and trousers were pretty good, but his beard was tied on a little crooked and instead of fur lined boots that the real Santa wore, this guy had black leather Oxford shoes. In fact they looked just like a pair that my uncle Jim owned. Jim was a thin and wiry guy though and this Santa was definitely fat. I wondered who it could be.
We were a big family and I had 32 first cousins scattered around the state. It should come as no surprise then that all manner of relatives descended on Grandma’s house every year at Christmas. Most of my cousins were farm kids like me but a few lived in town.
Mom’s brother John and his wife, Marion, and two children Johnny and Janet came from the greatest distance. They lived about 200 miles to the south. Marion always let everyone know that the drive north in the snow and sleet was dreadful. Actually, she was probably right. When everybody else was asleep, I could sometimes hear Marion complaining from the spare bedroom upstairs. I don’t see why we have to come here every year, she’d say. But it’s Christmas, honey; I have to come home. But, John, they don’t have a TV! I’ll be awfully bored. And they don’t even have flush toilets. If I have to go in the middle of the night, I’ve got to traipse out through the snow to the outhouse. Do you know how cold it is out there? Sure, honey. I grew up here.
Sometimes I wonder if Christmases on the farm were one of the reasons for the divorce.
In our family, we opened presents on Christmas Eve. After dinner, we’d attack the wrapping paper and tear into the treasures. That year, one of the packages with my name on it was big, more than two feet square. I shook and rattled that bright paper covered box for days wondering what it could be. When I opened it, I was thrilled. It was a world globe, with blue oceans, green and brown continents and white polar caps. Granny took the time for a little geography lesson right there under the tree.
“Now, here’s why we open our presents on Christmas Eve, while in some parts of the country the kids get theirs on Christmas morning. Santa Claus starts here at the North Pole (she put one thin finger on the top of the globe). That’s where he lives with his reindeer and his elves. He first stops here, in Norway where I grew up. We got our presents pretty early Christmas Eve, ‘cause that’s where Santa went first before going anywhere else on earth. Then he flies over to Sweden and Finland and then down here to Germany and France and England. Next he crosses the ocean and drops in on Canada and the northern states—here in Wisconsin and Minnesota and the Dakotas and Montana and then he works his way all around the world but always staying up in the far north. So then he makes another trip around the world but farther south. If we lived in Alabama, why, he might not make it ‘til almost morning. See how that works…but listen, I think I hear him coming now!”
Sure enough, there’d be a clatter of awful noise on the roof-top and we’d run out the back door. I’m not sure why he bothered to land his sleigh on the roof, because we didn’t have a chimney. But packages for me and little John and Janet would be on the back porch. That’s right; somehow Santa always knew that John and Janet were with us and a long way from home.
Did Santa come through? Oh, yes. The package with my name was at least five feet long and wrapped with a few square yards of Santa’s own wrapping paper. My Cross country skis.
Christmas Day. It never occurred to me to wonder how on earth Grandma and Grandpa pulled it off. Relatives from all over the county showed up for dinner—all fourteen aunts and uncles and 28 more children. While Grandma baked two turkeys in the oven—a wood fired oven—and by the way she had killed the turkeys herself and plucked the feathers that very morning, and then baked three pumpkin pies, we kids all ran outside.
“I’m gonna write my girlfriend’s name in the snow with letters six feet high so everybody can see,” my cousin Steve announced.
“Really? Who’s your girlfriend?”
When he said, “Sherri Knudsen,” I pushed him down in the snow. “No, she’s not,” I yelled while I rubbed snow in his face, “She’s my girlfriend. I buy her a pack of Wild Cherry Lifesavers every week and she loves them and always gives me a big smile when I give them to her.” He pushed me off and took a swing at me then ran away and started throwing snow balls at me. Pretty soon 33 kids had picked sides and built snow forts and the snowball fight of all time was going on with snowballs flying over the ramparts like cannon balls.
Now the truth is, Sherri wasn’t anybody’s girlfriend. We were all in first grade.
People, and I count myself among them, complain about the stress of the holidays. But Grandma never said a thing. Now, I admit she did have help from some of her daughters. But to put thirty something kids around three card tables in the living room and serve a jillion adults around the big kitchen table, and bring it all off without a hitch or a grumble seems like a small Christmas miracle to me. Everyone was cheerful; everyone seemed full of good cheer. Grandpa raised his glass of Mogen David wine in a toast and everybody joined in with wishes for a Merry Christmas and a wonderful new year. Only Marion seemed out of sorts. I guess nighttime visits to the outhouse didn’t suit her. But then, like a line from a Jimmy Buffett song, she always brought the weather with her anyway—mostly cloudy with a chance of snow showers and the likelihood of some dry lightning.
Grandma and Grandpa would turn on the big table model Zenith radio after dinner and we’d gather in the living room and listen to WDCB out of Chicago play Christmas music. When Bing Crosby sang White Christmas, I asked Grandma, “What does he mean, he’s dreaming of a white Christmas? What other kind is there?”
“Well, Billy, that song was made up by a man called Irving Berlin. And the story is he was spending Christmas at a nice little hotel in a place called Palm Springs. That’s way out in California. They don’t have snow in California. So he was sitting in the sunshine by a swimming pool, but dreaming about a place like this, where it’s always a white Christmas.”
Thanks, Grandma. That’s a nice story. Thanks for the memories.
And now, another Christmas is nearly here. It seems cold here, at least by California standards, but not cold enough for snow. But whether it’s a White Christmas where you are or not, here’s wishing you the best of the season. So Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all, wherever you might be this year. And blessings for a good 2014.