Growing up on the farm, the days followed a strict routine—the cows waited at the barn door at four thirty every morning. Twelve hours later, they again congregated, mooing to be milked. Those bovines didn’t take the day off and neither did their owners. Christmas meant a special meal, a gift or two, the Christmas story from Luke and a few decorations. Our scraggly pine tree cut from the woods more resembled the one owned by Charlie Brown.
One Christmas we were expecting Paulette to come home from Nursing School, but there was no money to buy presents. Mother sent me to Odum to the little department store. I remember being so embarrassed to ask the owner if I could buy the pajamas I’d picked out on credit. I assured her Mama would pay as soon as she could. The woman was more than gracious; she even wrapped the gifts for us. I went home knowing that my sister and I would have at least one gift under the tree.
Just a couple of years later when I married Charlie and moved to the suburbs of Washington, DC, I felt I’d landed on another planet. After our first Thanksgiving when the stores and malls screamed “Christmas,” my husband informed me that “Santa” didn’t decorate the tree until Christmas eve. Huh?
What did I know? With my obvious inexperience, I willingly followed my new family’s tradition. Our first Christmas Eve Charlie dragged me to almost every tree lot in Arlington searching for the perfect tree. At that hour few trees remained, and the attendants were anxious to go home to their families. While lugging our purchase up the two flights of steps to our small apartment, Charlie boasted of finding perfection at half the price.
Boxes of brand-new ornaments and silver icicles were carefully opened along with a majestic angel to grace the top of the tree. (Saving the original boxes seemed important to my organized husband.) Several hours later with every decoration in place, I stood back and admired our handiwork. (Some ornaments were moved several times to find the perfect color scheme.) The final touch was placing the icicles one by one over the branches. The tree groaned under the weight of our new ornaments while presents were stacked high underneath.
Around two in the morning of our second Christmas together, Charlie took a picture of his very pregnant wife hanging the last ornament on the tree. My smile for the camera didn’t quite camouflage the exhaustion. Where was Santa when I needed him?
The days between Christmas and New Year’s involved family visits—Charlie’s parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Their visits meant that we were obligated to return the visit and view their decorations along with every present they received. I remember Uncle Floyd laughing about his initiation into the Renalds’ family traditions. When he began collecting his gifts after his first Christmas morning with Aunt Betty, she stopped him. “We can’t put away our gifts until everyone sees them.”
Somewhere in the first decade of our marriage, I convinced Charlie to drop the tradition of waiting for Santa to come decorate the tree. The jolly man in the red suit had disappointed me too many years. We now begin decorating soon after the left-over turkey reaches the refrigerator. The smell of a fresh cut tree is a distant memory as our artificial tree stands proudly in the foyer, every stem bearing an ornament, ribbon, bird, fruit or snowflake.
Gifts are still stacked under the tree—most for our six grandchildren. No cows are bawling to be milked and there is extravagance that I had only imagined. Sadly, the tradition of visiting each other’s homes has gradually faded with the loss of the older generation and the increase of our own family.
We do well to have a single get-together at someone’s home.
Though the way I celebrate Christmas has changed from my childhood on the farm, the significance of the day remains the same. The Christ-child was welcomed on that first Christmas with the sounds and smells of cattle, sheep and donkeys—a humble celebration for a King. But his coming brought the light of Christ into a world of turmoil and confusion. He became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” His death and resurrection demonstrated God’s great love for us all. May we always make room in our hearts for our Lord.