I have been thinking a lot about Christmases as a kid, and hope that my kids will treasure their memories of Christmas like I have. There is magic in Christmas as a kid.
From weeks before, and to what seemed to last until January 2nd.
I have written about memories at the farm and hunting season. It seemed that Christmas just around the corner was what kept depression from setting in after all the environmental “medicines” of hunting season were gone.
Pressing my face to the cold living room window in Grandma’s living room, listening to the bitter cold winter wind howl against the window, and watching the last “Hunter” board his truck, pass by the house in the fading Sunday evening sun through the wind and the drifts, watching them pass by the apple tree, concentrating on their tail-lights, as they made their short trip past the barn to where the tail-lights would begin to fade from sight as they made their descent down the lane back into their lives away from the farm.
As if this wasn’t tuff enough for a boy that waited all year for the gathering at Gram’s for the greatest week of the year, then we had to say our goodbyes to Grandma and Grandpap. Saying goodbye to a week of Grandma’s nightly routine of checking on us several times, making sure we had enough blankets, a comfy pillow, and then an ever so soft kiss on the forehead, and the most gentle words of “Goodnight, Love you much” whispered in her heavenly soft voice before retiring for the night. That was hard to say goodbye too, even when the goodbye was just temporary. Then sadly loading our things into the old blue Ford Fairmont, holding back tears while climbing into the winter chilled plastic like seats, and starting our quiet trip home through the wind and the drifts, looking out the back window, now reversed, watching Gram’s house fade from sight.
I have often wondered what the mood was that night for Grandma and Grandpap. From a busy week of constant activity, and traffic, to just the two of them. I’m pretty sure that Grandma had her face pressed against the cold winter window, watching as our tail-lights faded down the lane, I also imagined Grandpap sitting at his spot in the kitchen, at the end of a long bench, elbows leaning on the table that so many had gathered around for the week, cuddy pipe cigarette pinched between his tobacco stained fingers, a PBS fundraiser playing on the TV in the background, and tears in his eyes.
I’m pretty sure that Christmas just around the corner saved us all. At least in my young mind, that’s what kept me going.
Pulling into our house, unloading all of our week long luggage, the sadness started to fade pretty quickly, because now the natural childhood high of Christmas started to take effect. If Dad was not out working (plowing snow), he would be sitting in the living room, reading the progress and watching TV, happy to see us, and the glow of Christmas time would appear in his eyes, that I think triggered in him when we returned home.
The time following, leading up to Christmas was amazing. Dad bringing home a Christmas tree, watching our excitement as we ventured out onto the porch with Mom to inspect it before he would pull the cord on his old stihl chainsaw, putting a fresh straight cut on the base so it could be perfectly placed into the tree stand. The smell of pine sap, winter air, and 2 cycle chainsaw exhaust……… takes me right back to standing on that back porch as a kid.
Then digging out the boxes of decorations, lights, and of course, Plastic wrapped packages of 5&10 ice-cicles (Christmas at the Coalport 5&10, there’s another memory in itself). The decorating was on. The warm glow of the big colored glass bulbs being strung on the tree gave the living room a warm glow, like that of a cozy campfire . The smell of Mom’s blueberry and cherry filled “candy canes” baking to perfection in the oven filled your nose, as you carefully placed your decorations in the perfect spots. Reflecting on Christmases past when pulling homemade decorations from the box that each of us kids had made in school, or Sunday school, Mom would always pause, and look at them, you could see her replaying the memory and time in her mind. The smell of the tree at this point, along with Mom’s baking Christmas treats radiating from the kitchen, had given the entire house the smell of Christmas.
It wouldn’t be long and we would get the call from Grandma Gallaher that our gifts were ready to be picked up, to put under our tree. They were usually some of the first gifts under our tree, perfectly wrapped in greens, reds, and snowy Christmas patterns. This now added to the childhood wonder, what could they be…… Mom would ask to water the tree. That was a small welcomed task once I figured out that if I gently spilled a couple drops of tree water onto the gift labeled “Tim” it would make the paper temporarily “see thru”. Giving small clues as to what the contents could be. Another childhood trick I had was to play with my match box cars, strategically placing your gift to where the fast push, of my favorite burgundy thunderbird matchbox car, could veer of course, and slightly tear the colorful wrapping paper, leaving a gap small enough to then appear unnoticed, but large enough for a good peak!!!! It was matchbox cars, and a track!!!!!!! Even though now knowing what the contents were, the excitement of opening it only seemed to magnify.
Around this time, just a few days before Christmas we would go on a delivery trip, delivering the wonderful blueberry and cherry filled candy canes that Mom had been making to perfection. Wrapping them in aluminum foil, and into the car, the smell of these filled the car as we made stops at Aunt Gloria’s, Aunt Betsy’s (where each of us kids would come home with a small white envelope containing a five dollar bill, that had a Santa face sticker, covering up Abraham’s face, and a small Christmas note written in black ink, you could see the age from Aunt Betsy’s hand with the Shaky written “Merry Christmas”). Then onto Martha and Leroys dropping of their Christmas cane, that Leroy would accept with laughter, while picking with us kids.
Next up would be a trip to the Irvona Firehall where Santa Clause was awaiting all the local kids, to take the excited requests of what each of them were excited to see under their tree Christmas morning. Once sitting briefly on the lap of a raggedy cotton bearded (hanging on by two visible elastic straps) Santa, giving your Christmas wish, then being led down to a table where paper brown bags of Christmas goodies awaited you. They were filled with chocolate candies, covered in gold and silver foil wrappers to the design of coins, with an image of Santa on each one. Also in this bag was what looked like a small thin cardboard Christmas book, but inside were several packaged rolls of lifesavers, and an orange. The orange also added to the sweet smells of Christmas. You could eat an orange in July, and it was just an orange, but open a bag from Santa at Christmas time, and the orange smell just added to the Christmas high.
Next in line would be the practiced Christmas performance at church, celebrating what this entire natural high season was about. The birth of our Savior, Jesus. All of us kids would line up in dusty smelling outfits from the church basement, put on our display of singing, and reciting bible verses, and lighting candles, while parents set and watched with gladness, and laughter, attaching “flash cubes” to their cameras, and taking several pictures of our Christmas performance. I can still hear the “clicking” of cameras being wound to the next spot on the film to catch the next image they wanted to keep. There always seemed to be an angelic silence as the glow of candles lit up the church, while singing hymns, of silent nights, and a world changing baby in a manger. We always left church that evening with another small brown paper bag containing oranges, other small treats, and usually another small cardboard book filled with rolls of lifesavers.
With it now being Christmas Eve, the tree was lit in our home, Christmas candles were lit around in different places, adding to the memorable, unexplainable scent of Christmas. We were allowed to open 1 gift on Christmas Eve. I always chose the one from Grandma and Grandpap Gallaher. I think because of the excitement added in the strategical “peeking”, already being pretty sure of what the contents were, and the excitement of playing with them on this magical, stress free evening. Many Christmas Eves were spent around the glow of lights, the smells of Christmas cookies, and keeping ear for snow plow trucks going by. Everytime we heard a plow truck, I would run to the window, and watch it’s bright yellow lights flash through the heavy falling flakes, with a childhood proudness feeling that, that was my Dad, but also being bummed because we could not wait for his job to be done, so he could be home with us for the arrival of Christmas morning.
Dad would eventually come home, with a glow in his eye, you could see his hidden childhood excitement for what was ahead. Mom would now get us ready for bed, donning our blue and red “Footie” pajamas, and climbing into a bed warmed by an electric blanket. Mother was always so gentle and kind, her being our mother added to our Christmas magic. You could see the sparkle in her eye, a sparkle that was given by her wanting to see us kids happy and safe, (On cold nights that Dad was still working, we would lay in the warmth of her “water bed”. Until we would hear Dad coming out of the blustery winter cold, and closing the door behind him, we then would scatter to our own beds) Mother always wanted everyone to be happy, and doing so for everyone with her baking, and making Christmas crafts for many friends and family. Her gifts over all these years were made with 100% love. Everything from hand painted ceramic Christmas trees, snowman, nativity scenes, painted wooden crafts, and tasty goodies. Just being around her makes everyone happy and blessed, she always puts everyone ahead of herself. She is like her mother, fruits of the spirit where and are very present in her, and the love she showers her grandkids with, is just like that of her mother. I have said before, and I’ll probably write it again, she has not left go of what her mother passed on to her, not material things, but love like no other, love for everyone, even ones that may have wronged her, she still pours her love and time into them like no other. I cannot write words to explain the love of my mother, you can only feel it, you can’t write it.
Now trying to sleep, that was impossible, my mind raced with all the smells, sounds, and sights of what Christmas had already given, and the unknown of what would be in store for us in the morning.
Hours later, after tossing and turning for what seemed to be most of the time spent in bed, dreaming of everything, it was time to wake up. Us kids would patiently sit on the step leading downstairs with excitement, imagining the sight of the Christmas tree, and what would surround it. We would sit here to the sounds of Dad, emptying plastic buckets of firewood, metal clanging as he was removing the old cast burners from the old wood burning cook stove, to stoke up the fire, and get some heat rolling in the house on this chilled Christmas morning. The smell of the little puff of wood smoke and coal would pass up the steps and into our noses, creating another fond smell of Christmas. Once Dad had the fire going, Mom would announce that we could now come down, we would go from the steps to the living room in about 3 steps. The sights hit you like a snowball to the face, the tree lights shining as beautiful as ever before. The mountain of presents surrounding the tree almost made you pass out from the magical excitement. We would then read from Luke on the birth of Jesus, the whole reason that we celebrated this amazing season. His birth was the greatest gift ever given to man. We would then sing “Happy Birthday” to our savior, most times watching as you could see the tears in Mother’s eyes.
Then we would pick an order as to who would open a gift first. Things seemed so simple back then, as if it was an episode of the “Waltons”. On this day, there was only joy, not one sign of worry or stress on the minds of any of us. Everything was great!!!! Opening things like “Stompers”, with a styrofoam mountain, and a pulling sled. Sure did love Stompers. Another gift starting in 1989, and every year since, Mom and Dad got each of us boys that years “True Value” diecast car bank. We now each have 39 of them, the entire set. Looking at these is always a reminder of Christmas memories from the past.
After all the gifts were opened, Dad would put on his boots, and head out into the winter, carrying a large bag of torn wrapping paper, and emptied boxes to the burning barrel where he would stand and inspect through the torn display of boxes and wrapping paper to be sure we didn’t accidentally throw away any directions, our little toy parts.
Once his task was complete, and we had spent time playing, with Mom watching from the comfort of the couch, snuggled in with a brown and yellow knitted blanket, while sipping at a warm cup of tea, it was time to organize everything back under the tree, and then walk up thru the cleanly cut path in the snow that Grandpap etched with his snowblower that morning. It was a welcome path from our front door, winding around the “hill” and ending directly at their porch. There we would use the broom leaning beside the door to sweep away the snow left clinging to our shoes and pants legs, so that we didn’t make a puddle of melted snow once entering the warmth inside.
Gram would be gliding forward and back in her rocker, while telling us all “Merry Christmas”, Grandpap sitting in his recliner, placed by the dining room window where he could watch over the town (while enjoying a chew, and spitting in his brass spittoon, placed between his recliner, and the wall below his look out window) and still see into the TV playing in the living room. They usually already had a giggle, as to the start of a comical story of their gift opening, which they always seemed to do on Christmas Eve, like two small children that could not contain their excitement. We would sit around in laughter as they would pull things from under the tree to show us what all they had opened, and who each gift was from. We never stayed too long, as with the falling snow outside meant that Dad could be getting a call any minute asking him to head to work. I’m sure the laughter did not end when we left, they sat around laughing and making more memorable moments to tell us about on the next visit.
Back home now, gathering our things and getting ready to go to the farm for more Christmas. The phone would ring, in very few words you would hear from Dad “Yep, I’ll be right there” and as if he was racing for a trophy, out the door he would go. I bet that if we timed it, from the time the phone rang, slipped his boots on, grabbed his gloves, and until you saw his truck fade up over the hill, it was probably a total of 3 minutes. With Dad off to work, we now loaded up in the car, and headed to Christmas at the farm. I can remember the look of anxiety on Mom’s face as we approached the bottom of the lane, not knowing what the drifts would be like as we would near the top, and if the rear wheel drive Fairmont would deliver us at the top, or leave us stuck in a drift, and walking in the breathtaking wind blown snow to Grandma’s house. The sigh of relief Mom would let out as we rounded the last bend to where the lane then flattened off, was a great relief for us all. From there you could see the large Christmas light star shining on top of the old blue silo.
The next sight, guiding us like the lights on a runway, were that of the large colored glass bulb Christmas lights that Gram had strung along the railing of the old family farmhouse porch. What a sight that was, as we unloaded the car and started across the porch you could see the activity of excited, sugared up cousins bouncing in the windows. Stepping inside out of the howling, skin burning winter wind, the “Merry Christmases” started, hugs given, and excitement to run off with cousins to hear of what the day had brought them, and the telling of what you had opened. All of us usually took one thing we had got, kinda like a show and tell. There was a loudness, of joyful chaos, as the women all laughed and talked, preparing the Christmas dinner. The men, reliving their childhoods checking out all of the toys and gadgets we brought to show and tell, picking, wrestling and laughing filled the farmhouse.
Gram’s tree twinkling beautifully, standing in a cutoff portion of an old 55 gallon drum, white envelopes containing new crisp money stuffed inside, and names written with the Shakey time worn loving hands of Grandma. I still have a few of my handwritten envelopes, they meant more to me than the money it was used to package. We all would gather then for a prayer, sit around talking, laughing and eating. Us kids always ate fast, or barely ate at all, wanting to rush the meal, and get to the gift opening. Looking back, I would have not rushed, these times were too short and fast as it was, I see this now as I get older. After the adults finished eating, and the women did a quick cleanup, everyone would congregate in the living room to start passing around the gifts. We always drew names weeks before Christmas as to who each one would buy for. There was a pre-opening excitement as to who had your name. Dining room chairs would be placed under the wooden framed opening into the living room where Grandma and Grandpap would sit side by side and watch the event of all of their offspring unfold with laughter and love.
If I could go back for just a minute, it would not be for gifts, it would be for the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the love that was shared. I would love for 1 more kiss on the forehead, and to hear Gram’s voice saying “I love you much”. To see Gram’s large bulbed Christmas lights glowing in the falling snow, stretching across the porch, to see the large star breaking the darkness on top of the old silo. To hear Grandma laughing at something Grandpap did while opening gifts on Christmas Eve. To walk a deep path cut from Grandpap’s snowblower leading to their door. To see the smile of Martha and Leroy with the delivery of Christmas goodies. Too hear Aunt Gloria’s laugh, while visiting to drop off their Christmas treats, and to be handed another envelope with “Merry Christmas” written by Aunt Betsy. I would hug each one that is no longer here a little longer, not wanting to let go.
Time does change, and not always for the better, but the memories of what was, is a huge blessing.
I still get to enjoy the childlike smile on my parents face, and the sparkle in their eyes as everyone shows up for an evening filled with memory making, laughing, and love. I am so thankful for them.
I am so thankful for an amazing wife and 3 wonderful children that I get to make Christmas memories with. I am so thankful that they are creating memories with my Mom and Dad and Sara’s Mom and Dad, as I did with my grandparents, and like Sara had created with her grandparents and parents.
I pray that everyone discovers the love that Jesus gave to us. He was the ultimate Christmas gift. Knowing that all the great times we hold onto with earthly memories will be incomparable to what is in store for us in heaven.
Slow down, appreciate time with loved ones while we have it.
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