“Christmas Must Be Tonight”

The holidays are often a tricky time of year for me. Many different situations arise that stress togetherness, family, and camaraderie — all concepts that I have a more difficult grasp of than most people, as it is.

When I was a child, Christmas was filled with wonder and lights and warmth. In fact, it was probably the one true shelter I had from the tumult of my family’s otherwise super-dysfunctional existence.

Part of why I loved Christmas so much was how steeped in family tradition it always was. We had this absolutely ancient tree growing up that probably came from the Sears catalog. I’m not quite sure. But what I remember most distinctly about it was the colored end tips that guided where to put the clusters of branches into the pole so that the tree would take proper shape.

Once the tree was actually assembled, there were three other steps:

  1. “Fluffing” the tree. We kept this old tree in a box for most of the year, so the branches got bent and crumpled on their metal wire frames. Once inserted into the pole, the result was, to put it mildly, misshapen. So my mother would spend far too much time undoing the ravages of cardboard storage, trying to make an obviously fake tree look as real as possible. But it was ours, and it had been ever since I could remember.
  2. The skirt — We had the same red skirt year after year, again as long as I could remember. Only the fabric was placed at this point. Later, once the tree itself was finished, the scene below would be completed as a Poly-fil winter wonderland with a ceramic sled, ceramic buildings, and many other figures.
  3. Decoration — Each year, there were two sets of personalized ornaments added to the tree. First was engraved ornaments that my parents bought (one for me, one for my younger brother), and second was hand-painted clear glass ornaments that he and I completed right before the tree was to be set up.

There were always colored lights, and a tree full of ornaments to be put up. Most every ornament had an intensely personal connection to some member of the family — some were Mom or Dad’s growing up, items from THEIR parents’ trees, or personalized items from years past. We also collected Hallmark ornaments every year, and they were on the tree, too.

The day after Christmas was always when we bought our Hallmark ornaments, taking advantage of the post-holiday markdown sale. It, like so many things I mention here, was a ritual almost set in stone.

But our holiday season really started with St. Nicholas Day, on December 6. We would put out our shoes so that Sinterklaas was able to give us candy & small gifts (if we’d been good) or coal (if we’d been bad). More times than not, we got candy.

Christmas Day itself was presents as far as the eye could see, a sea of wrapping paper and bows and new, bright, shiny toys.

Yet Christmas Eve was always my favorite part of the season. Mom made a heavy breakfast, and then the rest of the day was snacking and finger foods. Specific foods would vary from year to year, with a wide variety of cheeses, crackers, and rolls — except for one.

December 24th was the one day of the year I got to eat my favorite holiday food— sausage balls.

To this day, I’m not sure of Mom’s exact recipe, but they were a fattening delight of awesome cheesy, gooey, meaty goodness. Even though a pan was made for the whole family, everyone else ate very little, and I overindulged. Whenever I think of Christmas, I think of this one particular food.

Once the snacking dinner was done, we would spend time together as a family, just watching TV, talking, and savoring the moments until 9:00 PM.

At 9:00 PM, on the dot, magic happened.

First was the Christmas carols. My brother had a couple of easy songbooks that we would supposedly use to follow along and keep track of verses, but we dispensed with those very early on. Selecting of carols quickly declined into general chaos and laughter, as did the singing itself. There were a few that we always treated very seriously — Silent Night sticks out in my mind — but the longer we went on, the sillier things became. My brother and I would start wailing in ridiculous falsetto voices. We would make up words and verses and choruses, cracking up so badly that the proceedings would invariably stop because I was having my annual Christmas asthma attack.

Once my breathing was under control, the carols would resume, with me taking a lesser role for the few remaining songs. There was never a specific number we had to sing, or a certain order, but the asthma attack was the sign that the homestretch was upon us.

As the singing ended, my brother would get our holiday books out for the next tradition — what we just called “the readings”.

Similar to each of the other traditions, there were a few parts that had to be included, but otherwise a lot of flexibility with order and content. Generally, Dad would read a few appropriately themed poems and short stories from the book before moving on to the heart of the readings, which I will reprint below. They say everything else I could ever want or need to say about what Christmas means to me:

“Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus”, by Francis Pharcellus Church

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

VIRGINIA O’HANLON.
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

“The Soldier’s Night Before Christmas” by James M. Schmidt

‘Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone, 
In a one bedroom house made of plaster & stone. 
I had come down the chimney with presents to give 
And to see just who in this home did live.

I looked all about a strange sight I did see, 
No tinsel, no presents, not even a tree. 
No stocking by the fire, just boots filled with sand, 
On the wall hung pictures of far distant lands.

With medals and badges, awards of all kind 
A sober thought came through my mind. 
For this house was different, so dark and dreary, 
I knew I had found the home of a soldier, once I could see clearly.

I heard stories about them, I had to see more 
So I walked down the hall and pushed open the door. 
And there he lay sleeping silent alone, 
Curled up on the floor in his one bedroom home.

His face so gentle, his room in such disorder, 
Not how I pictured a United States soldier. 
Was this the hero of whom I’d just read? 
Curled up in his poncho, a floor for his bed?

His head was clean shaven, his weathered face tan, 
I soon understood this was more than a man. 
For I realized the families that I saw that night 
Owed their lives to these men who were willing to fight.

Soon ‘round the world, the children would play, 
And grownups would celebrate on a bright Christmas day. 
They all enjoyed freedom each month of the year, 
Because of soldiers like this one lying here.

I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone 
On a cold Christmas Eve in a land far from home. 
Just the very thought brought a tear to my eye, 
I dropped to my knees and started to cry.

The soldier awakened and I heard a rough voice, 
“Santa don’t cry, this life is my choice; 
I fight for freedom, I don’t ask for more, 
my life is my God, my country, my Corps.”

With that he rolled over and drifted off into sleep, 
I couldn’t control it, I continued to weep. 
I watched him for hours, so silent and still, 
I noticed he shivered from the cold night’s chill.

So I took off my jacket, the one made of red, 
And I covered this Soldier from his toes to his head. 
And I put on his T-shirt of gray and black, 
With an eagle and an Army patch embroidered on back.

And although it barely fit me, I began to swell with pride, 
And for a shining moment, I was United States Army deep inside. 
I didn’t want to leave him on that cold dark night, 
This guardian of honor so willing to fight.

Then the soldier rolled over, whispered with a voice so clean and pure, 
“Carry on Santa, it’s Christmas Day, all is secure.” 
One look at my watch, and I knew he was right, 
Merry Christmas my friend, and to all a good night!

I miss the holidays of my youth. Real life and adulthood intervened. While myself and my parents get together most years and try to recreate the magic, it’s not like it was. The old tree failed to survive one of our military moves, and so my parents now put up a tiny tabletop tree. The personalized ornaments are stored deep in their garage, and there is no one at my house to put candy in my shoe. The sausage balls remain, as do the readings. Yet even those don’t feel right because my brother hasn’t been part of family Christmas for a long time now. Him and I had a falling out about five years ago from which our relationship may never recover.

I hold those old Christmases dear in my heart. They get me through rough times, and remind me of what love can truly be. I just hope anyone reading this finds the kind of solace in Christmas that I once had.