There’s supposed to be snow—fluffy, white, snowman-building snow, and just enough chill in the air that we can see our breath as we carol, tromping through the snow up the pristine pathways, haloed in 5 watt twinkling lights, a Technicolor rainbow of randomly blinking bluesredsgreensyellowsand sometimes orange, silhouetting the steps as we leave Sasquatch prints.
And the nervous moment before people sing dissolves into flawless harmony, the words flowing as if channeling the angel chorus, with no discussion of the right words or the proper key—we just know.
Everyone is Home, regardless where home is. Cousins from Colorado, uncles from Arkansas, shirt-tail relatives from the far-flung unknown—they all descend Home, filling the spare beds, backpacks and overnight bags spilling out of spare bedrooms, children huddled in sleeping bags after giggling through the night until grumpy, tired adults finally yelled the right combinations of threats to induce sleep. The rest of the year, the house is small, but the magical properties of Christmas spill people throughout the downstairs.
And always, music. From the ridiculous to the sublime, from Grandma getting the tar stomped out of her by rampaging reindeer, to the dulcet flute voices of boy choirs admonishing us to fall on our knees and hear the angles’ voices. Cooking, cleaning, playing, gossiping—all wrapped up in the counterpoint of both the secular and the sacred, an integral intertwining creating the seasonal tapestry.
It takes several days for everyone to gather, days of snowmen and sledding, wrapping and baking. Grandma interrupts games to make protesting kids do dishes, or carry chairs or blankets or groceries to be put away. The grownups are always in the kitchen, cooking or cleaning and talking—distant relatives’ health problems, gossip they heard at prayer meeting, anything, usually talking all at once until Grandpa entered the room to make mashed potatoes. Every supper had to have mashed potatoes, and only Grandpa could make them right. We’d spend hours peeling potatoes, cutting out the eyes, the herd of boy cousins flicking the peels at us squealing girls til Grandma would shake her peeler at them, saying, “Now, now, kids, don’t do like that.” And the boys would mimic Grandma till she’d join in the laughing.
Supper would last for hours, with cousins and aunts and neighbors dropping in and out, taking a seat vacated by someone moments before. Even we kids knew better than to try to end the meal early. Grandma was relentless about assigning jobs, and standing up when everyone else was sitting was a sure-fire way to have to carry or scrape something. We’d play games after we finished eating, Sorry or Parcheesi—two games that God apparently approved of, because decks of cards, just like alcohol and bad words, were never found in Grandpa’s house.
The kids' table was in the laundry room, filled to the brim by the Post-war baby boom. Eleven grandkids within seven years: Sheryl, Kris, Rick, Gary, me, Tony, Jeff, Kelly, Diana, and toddlers Julie and Timmy; later, Emmy, Matt, Marty, Josh, Samantha, and Ben came along—that’s the lineup. Years later, at Grandpa’s funeral, we fell into place without even being told; we’d trained at the kids' table, holiday after holiday. Sheryl, unusually reserved and mature, graduated to the adult table before her 11th birthday; I’m still waiting for an invite—but I’m less eager since I realized that having a space at the table is dependant on someone else no longer needing it. I’d rather sit in the laundry room, bidding my time and listening to the grownups drone on.
And every night, singing. Grandma always had an old maid friend or a lonely widow who would love to have the whole herd of us tromp up to their door, a warm plate of cookies in one hand as we sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”—which was a far better song for walking up a dark, snowy path than “Silent Night” or “What Child Is This.” Neither of those songs could be adequately rendered by a marching troop of atonal tots—the musical level we attained most nights.
Late one afternoon, after all the kids from all the corners of our family gathered, we entouraged to the gingerbread hut with the twinkling lights where Santa came especially to hear what we wanted for Christmas. We'd be ushered in by pointy-eared elves, past the reindeer parked at the side of the outpost munching hay, past the teeny white chapel where pictures of all Van Wert's WWII veterans, with gold crosses on select pictures of forever young boys like Uncle Maynard, into Santa's throne room--festooned with candy canes, tinsel, holly, and lights, lots of twinkling lights. Our wiggling herd never got to sit on Santa's lap, instead staying behind the red and green rope. Santa was always on the verge of catching a cold, and didn't want to infect us; it'd be a shame to miss Christmas in bed with pneumonia like a kid he knows in Duluth, Santa solemnly warned us.
Our wishes were always benign and predictable: dolls, trains, bikes--when we were older, musical instruments, sweaters, Monkee albums. My cousin Gary, always looking for an angle, knew that asking for a new Bible "since he'd worn out the old one" was a good plan. Santa seriously quizzed Gary about his devoutness, and Gary, able to lie with the innocent face of a choir boy, would insist that he was daily inspired by the story of Daniel in the lion den. After we each had our moment to talk with Santa, we'd sing for him, "Deck the Halls" or "Hark the Herald Angels Sang"--lively songs, ones where enthusiasm mattered more than intonation. Gary had another distinction; he was the first of all of us to say aloud what all but the littlest cousins knew--Grandpa's twinkling blue eyes were the ones above the real hair artificial beard. Not one of us ever told Grandpa we knew. His double life was an open secret in Van Wert, and each of us grandkids went through a phase where we half-believed that the cupboard door of Grandpa’s insurance office opened into Santa’s workshop, where he spent his mornings handing to-do lists to elves and taste-testing cookies from Mrs. Claus’ bakery.
Then, endless supper, caroling, bedtime—leading into The Day, or rather, The Night.
Christmas Eve was the apex of our celebration; the next day a mere footnote to the festivities. A flurry of baking, cooking, ham, turkey, potato salad; after pancakes for breakfast, no real meals were cooked all day; as silently as snowfall, we would sneak past the aunts and mothers and Grandma to grab stray brownies and slivers of ham, staving off hunger until the Feast. If we slipped up, being sighted by a eagle-eyed aunt, we’d suffer: the to-do list was endless, dusting, moving chairs, shoveling.
As the daylight faded, the little girls donned their "gay apparel," our best dresses--not new for Christmas, though, because Santa hadn't come yet. Black patent leather shoes, festive headbands, and those cable-knit sweater tights--it would be cold out. The boys rebelled, hair slicked down and ties clipped on. Christmas Eve was not casual when I was a child. After the daddies got there, workday finally finished, children buffed and polished, the waiting started. Adults leisurely drank coffee as the nosey kids--my little sisters, Gary, and Kelly--began smelling and shaking the packages under the tree. Once in a while: excitement! The year my Great-Grandma Winnie made all the girls powder mitts, the packages reeked of flowery talcum, and Gary and Kelly, red-eyed and sneezing, denied they had been near the tree. My grandma, leaning close to the little boys, set them to cleaning the ice off the front steps after she smelled the powdery rose cloud around their hair.
Finally. the show starts. The mothers come into the lining room: "Get your coats, hurry, now, we can't take forever." Mittens and scarves and coats fly through the air, and we tumble out the front door and slide into back seats of bulky Fords and fin tailed Thunderbirds. It's time for church.
The hushed, candle-lit sanctuary hushes even the most anxious child. The excitement radiates from our faces, with red-headed Kris flushed as a shiny bulb as he tries to set a good example for the youngest kids. Fingers wiggle silently, because tapping toes or wiggly bodies would be too obvious. The organ starts, "Joy to the World!" Old people for rows around smile and nod at the obvious zest the Jerome grandkids have as the sing, and we rush the pace slightly, as much to hurry the service as from enthusiasm about the birth of Baby Jesus. A few scriptures, some more songs, communion. Release. We know better than to rush out; even the most impatient cousin shakes the minister's hand and trills "Merry Christmas" to everyone they see.
The evening is just beginning, by the children's reckoning, but the adults prolong the excitement, realizing that the night goes too fast, and we're only allotted so many special times, magical moments, in our lives. The aunts and uncles and grandparents, they understand the two-step waltz that takes them close, then whisks them back--and that once the music fades, then stops--the concert's over. The children, caught in the wild dance, can't imagine the rhythm will ever falter.
So we eat. Ham, turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce. Cookies, fudge, pie. Even the mothers don't pay attention to nutrition; on Christmas eve, brownies could be a main dish, with fudge and candy canes as the veggie and fruit. This meal isn't relaxed, though--even though we didn't say anything about the Main Event, we all knew.
Loud bells jingling! Bombastic HoHoHo's shook the house! The kids yelled and rushed to the front door, knowing that Santa had finally landed in Van Wert. Show Time!
The velvet suit was always freshly pressed, the black boots shiny. If he'd been traipsing about roofs and chimneys, he was magically neat about it--but we weren't about to debate with Santa about what he said he'd been doing all evening.
Santa would HoHoHo his way to the chair beside the tree, and greet each child individually, knowing a bit about our successes and trials since he'd seen us last year. The youngest would sit on his lap, and stare, excited that Santa was at grandma's house, knowing that some of the packages came directly from the North Pole just for them. Grandma or Uncle David would comment on how sad it was that Grandpa was still at church helping clean up, "missing you again this year, Santa. Maybe next time." Santa would solemnly nod, and say he had some special presents just for Grandpa, and he sure hoped someone would make certain they were delivered. There were always willing volunteers.
Mayhem followed. Santa handed out each present. Some families are slow and reverent while unwrapping, each person having their moment. Not us. Not with six sets of parents, anywhere from 11 to 20 or so grandkids--Christmas eve was chaos, with a soundtrack of "Silent Night" blaring ironically in counterpoint to the rampant present-opening.
We had Santa's uninterrupted attention, but only for a short time. After the packages, he'd hug the littlest ones, and sometimes Grandma, then--amid loud "Merry Christmases" and admonitions to be careful on icy roof tops, Santa would disappear into the dark. Shortly after, we might catch the hint of sleigh bells on the roof, then...coffee. The daddies always seemed to need coffee while the kids played with new toys.
There was more, some dessert, sleepy, overexcited kids getting a bit fussy--finally, mothers bundling us up as we pleaded for one more chance to play with the new toy. "Tomorrow," we heard. Some cousins, those with other grandparents, other cousins--they would be somewhere else tomorrow. My sisters and I, though, would have left-over ham and day old pie, my orphaned father not providing us with another family to celebrate with. The car ride home, we'd softly sing with the carols playing on the AM radio station, stars twinkling, Dad singing flawless harmony as Mom took the melody. The cacaphony of the evening dissolved into a zen-like trance as our piled-high Ford drove back home.
I never suffered the loss of innocence many kids have when the hymen of tissue paper and glitter is torn. Christmas is a sacred paradox, the conundrum for the faithful. Within every Santa suit, I see my grandfather's' twinkling blue eyes and hear his deep HoHoHo; grandpa: the church deacon, the lay preacher, the town Santa for 30 odd years. As I enter the sanctuary at this Holy season, I hum about a misfit Reindeer who saves the day; as I max out my credit cards, engaging in conspicuous consumerism, I sing with the angels as the herald the infant's birth. I love the sacred paradox of celebrating the blessed, silent nativity with blaring songs and flashing lights. We choose belief, as we become cynical and jaded, the ability to believe peels off us in stages, til jsut a shadow of Santa flickers, just a hope that somehow, we can blow of the embers in hope that we can again believe with the passion of a child.