Essays For Christmas Day

For those of us whose parents or grandparents grew up during the Depression, Christmastime was not always a time of abundance.  Families often struggled to survive, let alone provide gourmet meals or indulgent presents.

But that didn’t stop them from celebrating, as Lake Effect essayist Bruce Campbell learned from his father:

Grandma and Grandpa built their Missouri farmhouse around 1910. The farm had ponies and chickens and cows and dogs; of course, all my dad ever talked about was how the fields were forever full of rocks and how much work they did and how certain Grandma was that the man from the bank would come and take it all away. While I was growing up, Dad shared stories of hard times during and after the Depression. Times were tough – but they had some fun, as well.

For instance, on Christmas Eve, Grandpa, Grandma, my dad, and his brother, Ralph, arrived at their small country church before everyone else. Grandpa and Grandma decorated and laid out the food while the boys lit the stove and trimmed the wicks. Of course, Grandpa’s family never missed a Sunday service or a church supper. Some families were real scarce the rest of the year but no one ever missed Christmas Eve. I’ll tell you why.

Picture this: After the service, Grandpa sneaks off and hides in the back room, smoking a cigarette and getting ready. Finally, when all of the children are settled on the floor trying their hardest to be real quiet, Grandma taps on the door. Suddenly, Grandpa jumps out, wearing a big hat, a funny coat, and a long, gray beard, waving his arms and shouting. “Merry Christmas! Ho, Ho, Ho! Who here has been good? Who wants a Christmas treat?” Instantly, the children begin shouting and waving. Everyone laughs and cries and runs around! Grandpa hands out hard candy from his pillowcase. Parents attempt to get their kids back under control but Grandpa grins and keeps them all riled up. I never saw it with my own eyes, of course, but I heard the story so often that I feel like I was there right in the middle of things.

It turns out that the candy will be the only special thing that a lot of those children receive for Christmas. Some have no coats or hats or mittens. Every year, more families lose their land and quietly disappear.

After the celebration, children stuff candy in their pockets and all of the families, except Grandpa’s, head home. My dad always thought it was kind of unfair that his family always stayed late to clean up.

One year when times were particularly rugged, Grandpa told the boys very firmly that all of the treats were to go to the poor children. When they arrive back to the farm, my dad’s pockets are empty and he is feeling mighty sorry for himself. Grandpa must have been watching my dad’s face on the ride home. Now, mind you, Grandpa never, ever, wasted one kind word on his boys. Often enough, Dad was spanked hard, and, truth be told, it was a struggle for my father to tell anyone that he loved them until he was much, much older.

So that night, as the house glows with light from the kerosene lamps, Grandpa orders my dad to sit down and put out his hand. “Close your eyes, boy.”  Dad cringes. After his eyes are closed, however, Grandpa sets something gently in his hand. When he opens his eyes, Dad is holding the most beautiful orange he has ever seen! He stares at it in amazement. “All yours, boy. Just for you.”

It is the most wondrous gift he has ever received. Even years later, Dad could recall Grandpa’s laughter as he ran off to show Ralph.

Dad has been gone for several years. I wish I could ask him if he reflected on his story each December as he watched our growing family open one present after another. He probably did.

So, in Dad’s memory, every stocking will hold an orange and, on Christmas Eve, we will tell my father’s story about how a piece of fruit became a wondrous gift, indeed. Because, even though I never saw it with my own eyes, his story has become my story, too.

Lake Effect essayist Bruce Campbell is a head and cancer surgeon at Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.  Many of his essays appear on his blog, “Reflections in a Head Mirror.”

Lake Effect essayist Bruce Campbell reads his essay, "A Christmas Eve Story."

Despite how the modern message may have been diluted down the years, each Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus with traditions drawn from Christianity as well as other ones personal to our own family. Each family I know follows many of the same traditions as we do, however each put their own spin on it and make it their own. My Christmas is special because of these very traditions which we have formed as a family.

The 1st of December is my favorite day in the year because it marks the beginning of my Christmas. On the 1st of December my family and I go to the shops and buy a special new tree decoration. My parents have been collecting Christmas decorations for years and nothing matches on purpose. Christmas spirit is everywhere on the 1st of December, the shops play festive music and are usually decorated down to the last detail. It is this date for me that marks the beginning of the season.

We all put the tree up together the weekend after. We play Christmas music in the background, wear the Santa hats we dug out of the loft and have a drink. After the tree is up, the excessive amount of food has been brought, then the family all come down for the big day. We live all over now so the traditions have had to be adapted slightly. Christmas is the time when we all make the effort to come down at the same time. We go on the 24th of December and play family games all day. We have a buffet dinner which we call an ‘itsy bitsy’ then make our way to midnight mass at the local church.

On Christmas day we wake up early, around 8 a.m. and have breakfast together. We don’t open our presents as soon as we get up as we all agree that we love the anticipation. When we do get round to opening our gifts, after dinner has been put on and the vegetables have been peeled, one of us hands each present out, one at a time.

After presents we all help to get the dinner dished up and the table laid. For dinner we have a turkey with all of the trimmings, we say grace before dinner and then pull our crackers. We have a competition to see who can keep their hat on for the whole day.

After dinner comes the washing up, which we all help with. Then we enjoy family games which we either got that day or we dig out the old classics. The games are my favorite part of the day. It is something which everyone gets involved in and has a great laugh over.

Our family traditions at Christmas have been adapted since people have moved away however, we always make the effort to be together and play games together. Our traditions are much the same as any family; we eat, we give gifts and be merry.

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