Life feels different at Christmastime. Always has. I have certain scenes locked in my memory that will forever be a part of the season. Christmas plays at church with wisemen wearing bathrobes. Riding through town in our PJs to look at all the lights. Looking out the window on a grey and rainy day, hoping beyond any reasonable hope that it might snow in our part of Georgia this year.
My dad is leaning back in his recliner, his legs crossed at the ankles with bare feet. Half reading a book. Half watching the TV. The Bing Crosby Christmas special is on the tube. Black and white.
Mom is sitting in her chair beside him, a newspaper lying flat in her lap, a kitchen knife working its way around an orange. I am in awe of the way she twirls the peel off in a perfect spiral dangling below her hands.
She is working on the basic ingredients for Ambrosia. My Lord, how long it has been since I’ve thought about Ambrosia. I didn’t like it as a kid. I hated the coconut. But like so many other things, coffee for example, it grew on me.
“You want a bite of orange?” She motions to me.
There’s a green ottoman in front of her chair where I take a seat. She pulls a wedge of orange from the freshly peeled sphere in her hand and gives it to me. It’s gone in a second and I sit and wait for more.
“You can’t have all of it. I may not have enough to make my Ambrosia.”
I am not interested in Ambrosia. I am interested, however, in oranges. She gives me another bite. Finally, she hands me a whole half of an orange.
“Take that and be done with you, now. Take a piece of newspaper. I don’t want you making a mess all over the floor.”
Back then, there was no such thing as paper towels or spray bottles of 409. When we ate sandwiches at the kitchen table, we did not use paper plates. Mama tore off a piece of wax paper and laid it down for us. If a mess was made, a kitchen rag was used. She kept old newspapers for the same reason. They caught the mess.
I take my orange and newspaper to the living room where I can sit in the glow of the lights on the tree. The orange and blue and red and green and yellow colors dance off the ceiling and walls. No other time of year feels like this. I don’t really know what to call it. Excitement, maybe. But excitement sounds more like the carnival.
For a kid of 8, the feeling of Christmas is more like a deep and stirring sense of exhilaration. Buried down in there somewhere, boiling and rumbling beneath the surface. You try not to show too much of it on your face because you know things. Things you’re beginning to suspect about Santa that you don’t want to know. Afraid that if you ever say it out loud, Christmas will stop being Christmas.
I finish the last piece of orange sitting on the floor nearly under the tree. From the den, mama calls out. She can’t see me, but she sees me anyway.
“If you’re done with that orange, you need to wash your hands before you touch those packages. I don’t want sticky fingers all over the presents.”
When I come back from the kitchen, I start sorting out presents according to size and weight. Reading name tags and imagining what might be inside. I am allowed to touch and feel and shake gently, but I am not allowed to ask questions. Which is okay with me. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. Anyway, I like speculating.
In my childhood economy of values, a small box was next to worthless. What possible fun could there be in a box the size of a wallet? I could guess. A wallet, maybe. A deck of cards could be fun. If it was heavy, it might be a box of BBs. Now we’re talking.
A big box stirs that feeling in my gut just a little bit more. Could be a fishing pole. Maybe a Daisy lever action BB gun. But my parents, especially my dad, were shrewd at disguising gifts by the size of the box.
My dad hid a pair of 4XL lady’s bloomers in a box the size of a washing machine one time. It was a prank and it worked beautifully. In fact, not so long ago, I ran into the lady who got that gift. Though she was just a teenager way back then, she says to me: “I’ll never forget the time your daddy gave me that horrible pair of bloomers for my birthday.”
A carefully wrapped box can fool you.
Dad and I shared a passion for chocolate covered cherries, and for years we wrapped a box of Brach’s, milk chocolate, and put them under the tree. The shape and weight of the box was a dead give-away, so we got creative. We both knew they were there, but where? The game wore off as I got older, but I got him good one year. I threw away the store box and filled an empty paper tube with chocolate covered cherries, wrapped it and put his name on it. I learned from the best.
I can hear the TV from the den. A skit with audience laughter is coming over the air waves. The commercial break is over. A piano begins to play when mama calls out to me.
“Come here for a minute. The show is almost over. I want you to hear Bing sing White Christmas.”
I make my way to my chair in the den. My sister is sitting on one end of the long couch. Bing is crooning away in that rich baritone voice, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
I never actually saw the movie ‘White Christmas’ until a few years ago. I know that makes me lame. I know some of you are having incredulous thoughts about me right now. Wondering how a guy could go through over six decades of Christmases without ever seeing the classic of all classics. But that’s okay. I can take the heat.
I have my own dreams about Christmas. Some of them born out of those Christmases of my childhood. I still love to sit in the glow of the lights on the tree. I would speculate about the presents, but these days I wrap most all the ones under my tree; or I will wrap them if Santa’s elves ever deliver them. I still like to put things in odd boxes that disguise the contents. I’ve been known to add rocks for weight and sound if shaken.
What I dream about most is that deep down feeling of delight that stirs somewhere beyond human description. A joy stronger than my losses. A sense of wonder that reminds me of who and what I love most in this life.
A Christmas just like the ones I used to know.
2 thoughts on “Classic Christmas”
“I don’t care what I get for Christmas. Just so’s i get a lot of packages to unwrap ” — Freddie (6): December 1956
My husband once unwrapped an
re-wrapped a Rich’s coat with a mink collar up in newspaper an
re-wrapped an old ragged nightgown in the Rich’s box with its fancy paper and ribbon bow. Made me unwrap the newspaper gift first. Boy I didn’t think it was funny. But, was so happy with my fancy Rich’s coat.
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