As I look back on my childhood, I realize the difficulties raising a large family presented for my parents, especially around Christmas. The magic of the Christmas season brought excitement and joy to us children, and Mom and Dad taught us the season's meaning and worked to demonstrate the spirit of giving. My siblings and I knew we didn’t have as much as some of our friends, but we never considered ourselves poor. We appreciated what we had and knew the gifts we received from our parents were hard to come by.
In those days, we didn’t have a Sears Christmas catalog to instill a desire for costly toys and gadgets. Mom often worked late on those cold nights, creating toys and sewing clothes to give us for Christmas. A cloth doll for me. A new blouse. Shirts for the boys. Mittens for all of us. She loved to see our faces when we unwrapped the simple gifts, wishing, I’m sure, she could have given more.
Handmade decorations of brightly colored Christmas ornaments and angels, strings of red berries, and strings of white popcorn adorned the large evergreen tree Dad and the boys cut down in the woods and hauled home with the old Farmall tractor and rickety wagon. The smell of cedar mingled with the aroma of apple pie and eggnog as we sat around the long table enjoying Mom’s potato soup filled with onions and bacon and listening to stories of Dad’s childhood.
Every Christmas Eve, we gathered around to listen to our favorite story from Dad’s childhood. His eyes sparkled as he talked about his mom filling a jar with roasted pecans, peanuts, and walnuts for a gift exchange at school. He was embarrassed to take the simple gift, but his family could not afford to buy gifts like the other students would have. Ashamed tried to sneak the gift to the shelf to sit with the rest of the gifts, but the teacher saw him. She said nothing about it, and when it came time to exchange gifts, everyone wanted his jar of nuts. He refused to give it to anyone but opened the jar and shared the goodies with the entire class. His teacher hugged him and told him his gift was the most popular one. He learned that year to appreciate his simple life that was filled with riches.
After his story, we were shuffled off to bed early and were not to get up during the night. Stockings were hung behind the old wood heating stove, and curious eyes were not to see what was inside. Every year, the usual fruit, such as an apple and an orange, accompanied by striped hard Christmas candy and various kinds of nuts, filled the stockings. We loved the annual event and relished the once-a-year treats.
In our part of the country, more than one or two snows during the winter season were unusual, and to have snow on Christmas was a real treat for us. The Christmas I was eight, it started snowing early Christmas Eve morning. At first, the snow was light, but as darkness fell, it increased. I awoke in the middle of the night and ventured into the living room to look outside. Snow covered Dad’s truck, and the yard light revealed high snowbanks against the redbuds and tall pecan trees in the yard. I shivered and started back to my room when I saw a glow coming from behind the stove where the stockings hung. I was about to investigate when a loud cracking sound came from outside. In an instant, my entire family appeared. My brothers thundered down the stairs as my parents ran from their bedroom. I joined the chaos, feeling guilty for even thinking about looking into the stockings. I glanced toward the stove, but the glow was gone.
“What was that noise?”
Everyone talked at once. Dad ran to the door and looked outside. He walked onto the porch and returned, stomping the snow from his feet.
“There’s a blizzard out there!” Dad brushed snow from his head. “A limb broke off the old pecan tree. Doesn’t look like any damage, though.”
“That’s a relief,” Mom said. “We sure don’t need a leaky roof.”
Faces peered out every window to see tree limbs hanging heavy with the weight of snow. We started making plans for the next day. We would go sledding, build snowmen, make a fort, and have a snowball war. Perhaps it would snow enough to keep us out of school for a week.
“Go back to bed, children. Remember, tomorrow is Christmas.” Dad pushed us toward the hall. I could hear my brothers ascending the stairs like I imagined a herd of reindeer would sound. After a while, they quieted and from my room at the bottom of the stairs. I could hear a variety of snores.
I tossed and turned in my bed, thinking about the glow. What could it be? I got up and peeped into the living room. There it was again. Before I took another step, it disappeared. I tiptoed up the stairs and tapped on my oldest brother’s door.
“Edward? Are you awake? Edward!”
Finally, I heard his groggy voice. “What? What do you want?”
I went in and jumped on his bed.
“There’s something glowing in the living room.”
He rubbed his eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“Come on.” I pulled his arm, and he followed me down the stairs.
“I don’t see anything, Bethany. Go back to bed and leave me alone.” He shuffled to his room and shut the door. I tiptoed to the next room.
“Lee, get up. I want to show you something.”
Lee yanked the covers back. “Wha..what’s wrong?”
“There’s something glowing in the living room. I’m scared.”
He followed me down the stairs, and we peeped around the door. The glow was back, forming a halo effect extending to the floor. Then, it disappeared.
Lee’s eyes were big and round when he looked at me. “What do you think it is?” I squeezed his arm until he yelled in pain.
“I don’t know,” he whispered. We peered around the door again. It was there, then gone. “Let’s wake up Ed. Maybe he knows.”
“I already did. He told me to leave him alone. I’ll get Joe.”
I shook Joe awake, but he was no help. He saw the glow, ran back to his room, and covered his head. Lee and I knew it was useless to wake the smaller children. We’d have to figure this out ourselves.
We grasped hands and stepped into the room when a loud crash from outside shook the house. Darkness enveloped us, and once again, the family assembled.
Mom gathered us around her. “John, there are candles in the drawer.” We could hear Dad rummaging around.
“No candles, but here’s a flashlight.” We heard clicking. “The batteries are dead.”
Mom muttered. “I think we used the last one on our last camping trip.”
I glanced toward the stockings. Darkness covered them, then a blink, blink, blink before darkness again. Could it be a signal of some kind? Lee saw it, too, and clutched my hand. Together, we moved toward the stockings, determined to find the source of the glow.
We did. It was little, colorful flashlights. One in each stocking. We were thrilled with such a simple gift.
Dad laughed. “Guess we didn’t get one completely turned off.”
What an illuminating Christmas we had! The flashlights weren’t all that glowed.