The other day, leafing through old newspaper clippings, I found a piece I wrote about Christmas on the farm when I was a kid and was struck by this conclusion: “It was hopelessly simple and absolutely perfect."
Nothing, I suppose, was as perfect in real life as it can seem in the memory of an old man. When I sit in my recliner in the evening and dream about childhood Christmases, I almost always find images fit for a Norman Rockwell painting. Snow falls softly in fat flakes. It never blows sideways ahead of a 30 mph wind. Snow piles high on the shoulders of the road, but the driving surface never gets slippery. And my siblings and I sit quietly in the choir loft of St. Mary’s Church in Reliance. We never fight or fuss, and I never slip and smash my 11-month-old mouth into the top of the pew ahead of us.
In real life in the country, the snow often did blow, the roads were slick and treacherous with frozen ruts that caught the wheels and tossed the car from side to side. And my siblings and I did fuss and fret and squirm. We also elbowed, pinched, whispered too loud and drew the attention of every adult in the choir. And, in a terribly disruptive moment during a Midnight Mass, I did slip and land mouth-first on the hard wood of the pew ahead. I’m told I howled (like a banshee, my Irish mother described it years and years later) and bled all over the place.
I suppose Rockwell could have made a touching painting of such a moment, a scene that could have adorned the cover of a Saturday Evening Post. I’m glad that didn’t happen, and I’ll glad my only memory of the event is kept in the stories told by others. That wouldn’t have been a perfect Christmas moment, and as I said, I remember my childhood Christmases being perfect, especially those we observed on our farm eight miles from town.
Think about it. There we were, mom and dad, three boys and two girls, out in the country with no reason to go into town during the holidays except for church on Sunday and at Christmas. Dad might see a neighbor or two during the week, but the rest of us spent our run-up to Christmas with only each other. Imagine, then, how exciting it would be to get into town once a week, even if it was for church. Our cousins and our other classmates would be there, too. We could make faces and giggle at each other during the service. We risked a thump on the head for our temerity, but that was a punishment well worth it to have some contact with the outside world. A kid simply has to see somebody who isn’t a brother or a sister sometimes, you know?
Which is interesting, because for years after we all married, my brothers and sisters and I made it a point to get home to see each other for a day or two at Christmas. We had young children then, and those cousins seemed to really like each other. It was a hassle for Nancy and me, splitting time on Christmas Eve in Chamberlain between two families that both had a tradition of opening gifts on the eve, not the following morning. We managed it, even if it sometimes meant we’d be trying to get to the other place while one of the kids was still tearing open a Cabbage Patch kid or Hot Wheels racing set at the first place. Oddly enough, I remember those times as perfect.
Perhaps that’s why I love that “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus’’ editorial that from an 1897 New York Sun. Virginia O’Hanlon asked the editor whether Santa was real, and Frank Church replied with what became a newspaper classic. Santa exists, Church wrote, “as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.’’
Love, generosity and devotion. Sure sounds like Christmas to me. And it sounds just about perfect.