Before we learn to think within the confines of days, times and years memories do not necessarily fit into chronological order. Even after we learn to place time markers and develop a way to organize them, our thoughts, more often than not, come to us in flashes. This is exactly how my mind splashes into scenes of my Christmas past.
Looking back, one of my earliest Christmas morning memories features me seated on the floor of my home. Mom, Dad and I were in the living room with a kerosene heater warming the air. I cannot remember if Jake had arrived yet or if Mom was still carrying him. But there I was, pulling walnuts and an orange out of my stocking. It must have been when I was two or three years old but it is so clear and vivid in my mind, as if it could be taking place right now. My mind transports me back to the sights and sounds of an old two story house nestled in the woods on top of that little East Tennessee hill.
Looking back, at first, it seemed odd to me that most of my earliest Christmas memories are not about presents or gifting. Instead, they tend to revolve around activities such as family get togethers or Christmas Tree Hunting. For those of you that are not lucky enough to have been Christmas Tree hunting, I will explain.
My Dad, Papaw, Uncles and Cousins would set up a day to go find our Christmas Trees. We would walk out into the woods and hunt for the perfect tree. Sometimes there was snow, but there was always lots of excitement as each set of cousins ran up and down the hills and hollers here in East Tennessee searching for the tree they would choose to take home. While we were hunting for the trees we were also supposed to keep our eyes peeled for the Mistletoe that would be growing on hardwood trees. If we found Mistletoe, Papaw would shoot the stem off so the main part of the plant would fall out. I remember being given the job to carry out a Mistletoe bush that seemed to be bigger than I was. Someone pointed out that I needed to be told not to eat the plant or the white berries because they are considered poisonous. They also told me the plant was a parasite. After they explained to me that a parasite is an organism that latches onto a host sucking the life out of the host so the parasite can survive, it left me wondering why we picked a poisonous parasite to make women kiss us. I assumed it was if the woman refused kiss us we could threaten them with the plant. OR could a girl threaten me with the death plant if I did not want to kiss her… After much deliberation my mind was made up, given the choice, I would choose the plant.
On one Christmas Tree hunt my Uncle Dave, which was an expert craftsman and really knew how to work with his hands, decided he wanted to cut their Christmas Tree down with one chop from his axe. He sharpened and honed his axe to a razor edge. When it came time to fell the tree, he positioned himself and made a big show for us young kids about how he would be the best Christmas Tree Chopper in the world. He aimed carefully, Drawing his axe back and then releasing a powerful blow. His blade slid cleanly through tree trunk and it fell over. Instead of celebrating, he stood motionless. The look on his face was not pride and pleasure but one of fear. Not only had his blade gone through the tree but the axe head had sunk almost 2 inches deep through the front of his boot. We paused waiting for the blood to pour out of his boot. Fortune had smiled on him though, the blade found its way between his toes and no major damage had been done. Now, that is a Christmas miracle.
On another occasion, we searched for what seemed like hours trying to find the right tree for Mamaw and Papaw’s house. I had given up hope and decided there would be no tree at their house this year. My Papaw felled a tree that was about 20 feet tall. Once it was on the ground, he chopped the tree in half. Confused at what he was doing I asked my Dad for an explanation, but when he pulled the severed top away from the rest of the trunk I realized the top would make a perfect Christmas Tree. In that moment I decided to train myself to begin looking for the possibilities presented as opposed to just accepting defeat.
Let’s go back to the scene mentioned earlier. There I was sitting in the floor digging walnuts and an orange out of my stocking that had been hung with my name on it. One reason that scene is cemented in memory is several years later I read a book in the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingles Wilder where she received fruit as a present. When I read that passage it immediately transported me back to my experience. I could certainly relate to her. I love oranges. Which, by the way, brings me to another point that should explain something about me and gift giving. You see, the first orange I remember being able to eat by myself without having to share with someone else in my family was when I was in college. For this reason, when I buy my Kids or Nieces and Nephews a food or drink present for their birthday or Christmas, I tell them that this is their present and they do not have to share with anyone. Make no mistake, sharing is not bad and I have never regretted sharing anything with my Brother or Sister. It is simply a fun way to make the kids feel special. If they choose to share it is because they CHOOSE to share, not because they are expected to share.
Speaking of my Brother and Sister, I must say they have been the best friends I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. When I was younger, my arrogance and ignorance were so overwhelming that I cannot believe anyone actually endured me; but Jake and Sarah were both right there when I needed them and our friendships are still some of the strongest bonds I share. We had some really fun Christmas memories as well as some dark hours. Like the time when my Brother and I got in a fist fight over a song while we were out Christmas Caroling. I hit him in the eye and ruptured part of his eyeball causing him to be blind. Fortunately they were able to do emergency surgery on Christmas Eve and his eyesight returned. My heart still breaks when I relive that story. What an idiot I was, fighting over something so stupid and of so little significance. The damage done could have been catastrophic. It is a testament to his graciousness that he forgave me and still loves me anyway.
My wonderful, sweet Sister. I must admit, she has always held a special place in my heart. Being the only girl grandchild on my Dads side. She was showered with dresses and bows and girly stuff constantly. Christmas was no different. Jake and I would receive a pack of underwear and some socks while Sarah opened as many as 34 gifts in a sitting. How do I remember that number? Well, perhaps Jake and I made a big deal out of it for a decade or so… funny thing, this is the first time I have mentioned that number since my first daughter was born. Perhaps I can understand the sentiment a bit better now that I have a new perspective. Although, there was this one Christmas when my Sister was in college. She was dating a guy and he gave her a 5 pound bag of potatoes as a gift. It really was not a bad gift, he knew she loved to cook. It was, however, a perfect opportunity for her two brothers to take some well placed jabs at the reigning Princess. That time in our lives also brings back another memory. We drove about 12 hours to visit Mom, Dad, Jake and Sarah in Texas. On Christmas Day, Jake unexpectedly invited one of his friends over to share Christmas with our family. After the presents had been handed out, I realized I had not received any. However, Dad came up to me that evening and told me he really had bought me presents but he gave them to Jake’s friend that came over because he did not want the friend to feel left out. Guess, he did not care if I felt left out or not; Oh well, at least I got to eat some of Sarah’s potatoes!
Thinking of my Mom and Dad for Christmas, I remember the time my Dad sneaked around and purchased a family van for my Mom and presented it to her on Christmas Day. What a classy move! Dad also started a couple of great family traditions. I suppose my favorite has been the reading of the Christmas story in Luke chapter 2 as the whole family is seated around the tree waiting to open presents. When I was younger, his adherence to that tradition irritated me. As I have grown older though, my selfishness has worn off enough to see that his purpose, all along, has been to give us all that first and greatest Christmas Gift, of God giving us his Son, new and fresh each year.
Along with that tradition, my quick witted Brother interjected his addition to the reading of Luke chapter 2. When it reads,”And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” He quipped, “Tight fit.” Insinuating all three persons had squeezed into a small manger. That image pops into my head every year and I still find it funny.
Now, as this script begins to wind down I ask you to notice something very special about my Christmas musings. The gifts were not really a big deal. Yes, I remember my orange. I remember the time my Mamaw Jackson wrapped her own pink turtleneck and blouse for me as a gag and left them under the tree with my name on it. She said the look on my face was priceless when I opened both of those gag gifts, in fact I can still hear her cackling laugh over the incident. I have had some great presents over the years like the time my dear Wife saved up and bought me a very expensive riflescope because she knew I would never buy it for myself. Not to mention the gifts my children have blessed me with and the amazing thoughtfulness that has been showcased throughout my life by those that love me. But every time I think about gifts at Christmas I remember my Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Bill having a discussion after all the presents had been opened one Christmas Eve. They were amazed that all of us Cousins were in the living room playing with, not the toys but the boxes the toys had come in. I will never forget hearing them say how they should have saved money and just bought boxes instead of toys.
I must say, by far, the most important memories of Christmas, to me, has always been about sharing time with those I love. So much so, that when I first started writing this piece, the orange was the only Christmas gift I could remember. After a half hour of thinking only a handful of gifts from my entire life came to mind. The orange, however, I distinctly recall. The vision of my Mother explaining that we really did not have very much money and the Orange and Walnuts were all we could afford to buy that year.
Isn’t it funny that my Mom’s least expensive Christmas present would be the one that I remembered the most.
Merry Christmas to all and may the memories you treasure be the greatest present you ever receive; Because that is Christmas, to me.
John is a recognized and highly respected author, educator, and businessman with a reputation for helping individuals and organizations create helpful and sustainable results.