Louise

My earliest memory is of watching Mother sew me a lamb’s costume for a church Christmas pageant.  This was in Holland, where I was born, and I was three years old.  I stood by her sewing table and watched her press the white flannel through the needle with her left hand while her right hand pushed a wooden knob attached to the sewing machine wheel.  It was my first awareness of anticipation.  I was to be in a play about the baby Jesus and I had one line, which Mother had me say over and over again.  When it was time for my performance, I said my line in a loud voice, as I had been told—maybe too loud, because the audience broke into laughter.  All the performance genes kicked in at that moment and I became aware again for the first time, of the power to make people laugh.

I must have heard baby Jesus stories but except for being a lamb in a manger I don’t recall these.  It is the pagan part of Christmas I remember best from childhood: I remember  putting my wooden shoes next to the chimney for Sinter Klaas to fill with candy and presents.  The tree was decorated with real candles and on Christmas Eve, my father lit them and we watched the small flames light up the room and our faces while we sang carols.  Then they were blown out.

Sinter Klaas was thin and wore red robes and a miter on his head, which made him look like the pope.  He had a dreaded companion named Zwaarte Piet (Black Pete) who was originally a Moorish slave, but is now known as the more P.C. companion or “helper.”  If you’d been a naughty child, Zwaarte Piet beat you with a switch or stuffed you in his sack and threw you around a bit or kicked you, and if you were just plain rotten, he’d take you back to Spain, which is where St. Nicholas lived year around.  A trip to Spain right now sounds like a good deal, but when I was a young child, I stood behind my parents’ legs to avoid Zwaarte Piet who usually put boys in his bag, boys who seemed almost willing to be carted off to Spain.

After immigrating to America our family made an easy switch to Santa Claus and electric Christmas lights of many colors that bubbled when you turned them on.  Our trees were strung with tinsel and silver icicles.  We children never slept on Christmas Eve.  We rolled our heads (this is an institutional behavior, I later learned) but the four oldest children, all born in Hollarnd, rolled their heads through childhood and in my case, up until the day I married.  Anyway, we rolled our heads in rhythm and sang Christmas carols literally all night long.  When we thought it was late enough, about four in the morning, we sent the youngest child (and the most charming) to go into our parents’ room and ask if we could get up now.  We were usually rejected, probably because they had just been in bed an hour or so, but we were always up by six.  We could not go into the tree until everyone was up and ready.  One year, my brother Teddy wet the bed and Mother insisted he bathe first.  We all stood in the bathroom urging him to hurry faster while he cried in protest.  Then we ran through the hall and into the living room and pounced on our gifts with all the greediness of hyenas at a zebra feed, while my father took snapshots of our crouching backs.  I don’t remember any breakfast except for the candy we received in our stockings.  Friends came over to see our loot and went to their houses to do the same.  We played new records or took snapshots with new cameras.  We played with our brothers’ trains and erector sets.  We were satisfied with our gifts and with each other.

The most disappointing Christmas I ever experienced was the first year I was married and we decided, I’m sure this was Tom’s idea, that we would not exchange presents since we were both students and we had limited funds.  The truth is we had plenty of money, but Tom was following his family’s ugly rules of frugality.  Secretly, I hoped he had enough intuition and knowledge of the female heart to buy me a bauble of some kind.  I hoped he would surprise me.  He was as clueless as a cabbage and so was I.

So we spent the day at family parties watching every one else open their presents and acting delighted for them.  In the evening we went to my parents’ house and Mother brought out two large boxes, one for each of us, and I thought, at last, I’m going to get a nice present.  Maybe a new sweater, or blouse, or both.  Unfolding the tissue paper, I found not a sweater, not a blouse but temple clothes.  Lots of them.  I love the temple, but I didn’t want to carry my temple clothes in a little suitcase as if I was going to Grandma’s house.  I didn’t want them for Christmas.  Is this what it meant to be grown up and married:  I had to smile and say thank you for temple clothes?  I did smile and I did say thank you.

Late that night, in bed, Tom said, “Well, that didn’t work.  Let’s never do that again.”  And we never did.

It wasn’t until we had been married many years and had our own children that our families gathered at Christmas and played out the Christmas story, with cousins dressed in sheets and towels and rope performing as Joseph and Mary, angels, wise men, and shepherds while my father read the story from Luke.  Then Santa Claus would make his appearance.

I am struck by the imbalance of our family’s celebration of Christmas.  So much more Santa Claus, Christmas trees and gifts, then attention to the birth of the Savior, but I am not bothered by it.  We don’t need Christmas to remind us that Jesus is the Christ and that He is our Savior.  We know it from church attendance, scripture study, and prayer.  We rejoice in our Savior’s birth all year long.  Each day, we struggle with faith and wrestle with our imperfections.  Each day, we give thanks to the God who created us for this terrifying and exhilarating trip on planet earth.  In fact the only difference between Christmas, the holiday, and the rest of the year is Santa Claus, the tree and presents.  We carry Christ in our hearts all year long.

 Many of the people I have loved in Christmases past have died.  I am grateful for the holiday, Christmas, with all its pagan accouterments, because it brought us together to sing, laugh, play and feast and to remember.  It still does.

 When my granddaughter, Lucy, died a few years ago, I knew with all my heart that it wasn’t over; that she and I would meet again and we would know each other.  This is Christ’s gift to us.  I want to sing his name:  Wonderful, Counselor, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  I want to sing it all year long.

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