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Alice Evelyn King Skiff
Cookies & Milk
Animals in Mountains

Over the River and Through the Woods . . .

It seems that Christmas and the holiday season has had less and less importance in my life over the years. I used to grieve over that a little, because when I was small, it was THE time of the year for me. My family wasn’t very religious, and Christmas, except for the singing of carols, was simply not a religious occasion. Mostly it was about family gatherings, and about getting gifts. By the time I was married and had children of my own, it became about giving rather than getting, but still about family. The emphasis was on the children.

My father’s family home was always the center of the celebratory storm. He had two brothers and a sister, and they and all the in-laws gathered at his parents’ home on Christmas morning for breakfast and gift exchange. My immediate family usually opened our gifts to each other on Christmas Eve so that we’d be free for the big gathering. Occasionally, when my parents didn’t get all the work done in time, they’d send us to bed and then wake us up early so we could open presents before we left for Grandmother’s house.

Arising while it was still dark outside, maybe eating a soda cracker or something to hold us until breakfast, we’d dress with hearts pounding, and cram ourselves into our Model A Ford two-door (there were five of us altogether plus a small dog, Skippy) and drive off, hoping to get there before everyone else. The combination of hunger and excitement probably made all three of us children nearly hysterical. My parents were young, so all that child energy may have added to their own excitement. At my age now, I can’t imagine ever putting myself through such a thing. I was the youngest, so with two older sisters, I was no doubt allowed—perhaps even expected—to be the wild member of the family in such circumstances. I can still remember that drive through dark and mostly deserted streets, with everybody talking at once.

The end of the war in Europe and the Pacific, some years later, was more exciting only in scale. For the twenty or so members of our extended family, Christmas morning took the prize.

The tradition among us was for each person to try to greet the others with Merry Christmas! before anyone else. Sometimes, Dad would turn out his headlights just before turning into Grandmother’s driveway and coast to a stop so that we could sneak up on the household and burst through the door screaming our greeting all at once.

Once, we left home at four in the morning to try to get there before our grandparents were even awake. Just as we quietly reached for the back door of the darkened house, my grandfather jerked it open wide. “Merry Christmas!” he shouted triumphantly.

Within a few minutes of our arriving, the other in-laws drove up, and the shouted greetings echoed through the neighborhood. The women busied themselves in the kitchen, preparing oatmeal and doughnuts and sweet rolls and hot chocolate for breakfast. The three brothers stood around the big oak table in the dining room, sharing stories. The eight children bounced off the walls. The living room was dark, except for a warm glow from the big Christmas tree in the far corner, and nobody was allowed to enter there, except adults carrying gifts to set among the ever-growing stack around the base of the tree. If we children managed to sneak a peek, we saw that five huge red stockings hung from the fireplace mantle, for the four siblings and their families, and one for Grandmother and Granddad. All of them were stuffed. The stack of gifts around the tree was overflow.

After breakfast, while the grownups sat and talked around the table, the children huddled at the entrance to the living room, impatient for the real festivities. Once in a while, some young stomach, overstressed by excitement, gave up its breakfast. Eventually, the whole family made their way into the living room to sit on the few chairs but mostly on the floor, and the distribution of gifts would begin. One person was chosen to “be Santa” and would pick up the gifts one at a time and present them to their new owners. He or she took care that no one was kept waiting too long for a gift to open. Everybody else sat and watched, and oooohed and aaaahad as the wrappings came off. Protocol was everything: as soon as a gift was opened enough to identify, appropriate thank-yous were directed to the giver, and then the next gift was presented. Each couple or family gave something to everybody else, so that everyone received at least five gifts. You might be entranced with one of your new toys, but you had to be polite and pay attention to the person currently receiving something from Santa. Just as during family meals, it was a time of community.

For a time, the myth of the “real Santa Claus” was maintained in our family. He left the gifts that we opened at home before we went to Grandmother’s. But eventually we children began to wonder about the logistics of the reindeer and sleigh and the North Pole, and the myth withered among us. Still, I remember being disappointed when my mother finally acknowledged that no, Santa wasn’t real. Our cousins, if they already knew, didn’t disillusion us, but in the excitement of Christmas at Grandmother’s, Santa Claus was almost irrelevant, and his abandonment was no great loss to me.

After all of the gifts were distributed, a matter of a couple of hours, folks began to prepare to leave. On some Christmases, we stayed at Grandmother’s for early dinner before climbing back into our little car, now loaded with gifts in addition to its earlier load, and going home.

As the grandchildren reached adolescence, they drifted away, perhaps choosing to attend Christmas morning with their other grandparents, or with friends. The crowd and the noise and the excitement thinned out. We moved out of town once, and found when we returned a couple of years later, that the celebration had faded somehow. When my own children came along, we returned to Grandmother’s for a few Christmases, but it was not the same. It would never be the same again.

I suppose I always held up those Christmases as the standard for glorious celebrations. It may be that my fading enthusiasm for the holiday over the years is somehow related to that impossible standard. I’d rather think that the cause is simply a matter of maturity, of recognizing that it was never the pure thing I remember, that it never is. It’s become a myth in my memory, and I’ll accept it as that—a child’s dream.

May every child have such a dream, however briefly.

 

Donald Skiff, December 24, 2003

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