Growing up poor along a rural Pennsylvania back road made Christmas extra special. The road was not a shortcut to anywhere except to the homes which dotted its edges. The land next to that road, where there were not homes, had woods, hay fields, or pastures. At the time I did not understand how poor we were. We had a house on a country acre next to an old strip mine that had petered out decades before. For the first few years of my life we did not have an indoor bathroom, clothes dryer, or water heater. In the dining room was an old kitchen wood stove which made that room always either too hot or too chilly. In winter that room was also strung with clothes lines to dry laundry. The wringer washer was set up under a single bulb in a basement area with field stone foundation, no drywall or paint. There was a coal room at the other end of the basement. Near that was the shovel-fed, coal-fired home furnace which had no blower, so the second-story bedrooms with single-pane windows were almost freezing. Layers of heavy covers kept us warm…once we were.
We did get snow. Lots of snow blanketed the hilly terrain. The wind always pushed drifts of the stuff mostly where no one wanted it. The road department set up snow fencing, which helped some, but large trucks with oversized plows spent most of the winter pushing it into bigger and bigger mounds at the edges of the road. The mounds were so tall that by the end of February they would be taller than the trucks which made them.
But we had a home.
Christmas involved finding a real tree that was taller than our living room, furniture moved to make place in the corner. The base of the tree would be cut off again, but the top would not have held a star since the tips touched the ceiling. It was screwed into a metal base, and the tree was anchored by wires to the wall to prevent a mishap. Then came the electric lights with large painted bulbs (my favorite ones were red). Colorful, second-hand, glass decorations from old boxes were placed with care. There were always a few which would not see another season. Then came the tinsel which had to be new because somehow old tinsel never survived the previous season. There were crocheted doilies for the end-tables and special decorations for the frosty windows.
We drove in our old station wagon (5 kids) to a nearby town to buy gifts (tokens really). The streets were lit with cheerful Christmas decorations on lamp poles. Banners on stores read: “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” Inside those stores awesome decorations hung everywhere from the ceiling. There was music, too. We never heard junk like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and seldom winter-season songs, except “Sleigh Ride,” and “Frosty, The Snow Man.” No. Everywhere were Christmas songs, Christmas songs, Christmas songs. They were mostly religious and well known to most shoppers. Shopping really put you in the mood for Christmas (not the other way around, like now). Store owners made it a point to make the experience “Christmas-sy.”
(Christmas shopping in recent years has turned into a struggle to maintain a healthy mood. People line up hours before dawn to buy things no one really needs and pile on credit card balances they cannot pay off the next month. Walking around store aisles one rarely sees decorations unless they are “for sale.” The workers seldom greet you with “Merry Christmas,” preferring to irritate you with things like “Happy Holidays” which makes me want to grouse, “Which one, Memorial Day or Groundhog Day?” I long for the way it was when I was a poor child. Christmas shopping, then, was GOOD for the soul.)
One year my next older brother and I woke extra early on Christmas. We went down to the tree…and I helped him to carefully unwrap his gift…a Lionel train (dad had a better job that year). After inspecting the entire train we carefully and PERFECTLY re-wrapped the whole thing. He acted very surprised and grateful when re-opening his gift 3 hours later. Our parents never knew, and we never told until decades later. … but I am getting ahead of myself.
The gifts were not expensive, but they were wrapped with care and the home-made tags had the names of the recipients written in pencil. I have received far more expensive gifts in the years since, but I have neither experienced more “wonder,” nor more “joy.” We would always open the practical gifts first…socks, gloves, sweaters. The “special” gifts included a toy dump truck (usually plastic, but heavy duty) or Lincoln Logs (which provided endless possibilities). But one year (after we had an inside bathroom) I received a strange long box with 4 different types of wrapping paper (it was too long for a single wrap)…toy skis for the hill behind the house (I could have broken a body part or two using that gift, but didn’t.)
Christmas as a child taught me many things that I’m not sure are being learned by children anymore. First, GRATEFULNESS. We were grateful, even for the socks. Socks alone would have made it a Day of Thankfulness.
Second, WORSHIP. We knew what we were celebrating. It was not “gift-giving day,” it was Christmas. It was a celebration of the birth of Christ, our Savior.
Third, JOY. Joy was everywhere. It was in the main streets of every town. It was in every store (even grocery stores that handed out S&H Green Stamps). It was in every house. It was on every radio and TV station. It was a season of Joy.
Fourth, AWE. That a baby was born in humble circumstances, like I was. That he grew up to do something amazing. That even the heavens and stars rejoiced. That his parents loved him, just like mine loved me. Simple symbols with deep meaning…truly awe-inspiring.
I loved Christmas. I still do.
“Here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas.”
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