The Christmas I remember most takes me back to the age of eight. It had been a night of traditions: Dad’s last-minute dash to our small downtown to do his shopping, Mom cooking chili and oyster stew and baking bread for our annual Christmas Eve meal. We dressed up for dinner because soon after clearing the table it was time to go to the service at church, where we sang the best of the hymns and heard again the Nativity story, recently relived through the children’s Christmas pageant in which I was an angel or a shepherd or a twinkling chorus star. At the end of the service the lights were turned off and we all passed flame from candle to candle. Children, fire and hot dripping wax in church–what could go wrong? The yearly case of slightly burned fingers was part of the fun.
Upon returning home it always seemed our tree had shrunk and the beautiful decorations, so big and colorful during the day were thinned and muted in Christmas Eve darkness. Over-tired and over-stimulated, we got ready for bed. My older sister, age 15, had a bedroom on the lower level of our split-entry house. It seemed so remote as to almost be a separate apartment although it was directly beneath my own room. My room snuggled in a corner between my little sister’s room and my parents’. I climbed into my bed that night, determined to get to sleep quickly and not risk being awake when Santa came. Songs like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” were all very well, but I had an unsettling notion that really seeing Santa would be Breaking The Rules and could wreck it all.
I have no idea what time I suddenly awoke in the middle of the night, sweaty, hysterical and convinced that Santa had not come, that he had forgotten us, or worse, had skipped us and it was somehow all my fault. Summoning my nerve, I crept out of bed and down the dark hallway into our living room, which seemed cavernous. Our tree was in shadows on the opposite end of the room, and I was afraid to go near or turn on the lights, but it seemed to me that there were no more shapes beneath the tree than there had been and the stockings hung on the wall looked pretty flat, too. Afraid to wake up my parents, but dancing around the edge of a full-blown panic, I woke my five year old sister and dragged her to my room. I didn’t WANT to upset her but I could not stand to be alone, and anyway, she was going to find out that Christmas was ruined soon enough. We were both sobbing by the time our mom came to see what in the world was the matter. I explained. She told us to stay in my bed while she checked things out.
We waited in agony–forever. I think part of me is still there. Everything was just so unprecedented and wrong…and yet we hoped. We hoped that I was mistaken. We hoped there had been a miracle and things were actually okay. We feared the worst. Finally, Mom returned, bearing our stuffed stockings: proof. Peeking out of the top of each stocking was a large-eared stuffed mouse stitched together out of paisley and solid polyester fabrics, purple for me and yellow for my sister. The relief was indescribable. Mom let us root through the rest of our stocking and while that also felt wrong, we did it anyway. Each item was evidence that Christmas wasn’t broken. If later we were a little sad to miss the stocking part of the morning gift tradition, even then I knew it had been a small price to pay.
That was probably the last Christmas I really believed in Santa, although since then uncertainty, panic and shame certainly have taken his place in my annual traditions. It is hard to know how to put on a Christmas full of hope and celebration when I get so worked up and worried. Putting away impossible expectations would be a start, as well as remembering the gifts that matter the most. I can’t tell you what else I got that Christmas nearly forty years ago, but that improbably colored mouse will always remind me of the first time I remember receiving grace.