by ROSE HUYARD
Editor’s note: Rose Huyard grew up in a family of 19 children along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. This chapter on Christmas is excerpted from her memoir, “Children of the River.” She has lived in Virginia for 17 years.
Christmas time, as for many families, was a pivotal point of our year, when excitement mounted and anticipation was palpable. The weather was often so cold that my breath hung heavy in cloud formation. But the Christmas season brought much warmth.
We always made Christmas sugar cookies in various shapes—animals, angels, stars, trees—and decorated them with sprinkles, raisins, and silver balls. We carefully chose which one to eat as if certain figures tasted better than others.
Cookies were also for giving. When my brothers Parke and Elam were small, Mom insisted they take cookies to Harry Brumbach, an old, frequently dirty, heavy-whiskered, tobacco-chewing hermit who wore a big black hat and coat and mumbled as he walked by. Harry lived about a quarter mile away. Parke and Elam were afraid of him and would hide when he walked on the road in front of the house. And now they were being forced to take him cookies.
Tiptoeing up to his door, they knocked timidly. From inside they heard a gruff, “Who’s there?” Together they chorused, “We have cookies for you.” When Harry not only invited them to come in, but also thanked them when they entered, they stood flabbergasted for a second, then turned and walked back out the door. The experience took away any fear Parke and Elam had of the hermit.
Though we made Christmas trees in cookie form, we didn’t have an actual Christmas tree in our house, because they were “worldly” in our faith tradition. Instead, we brought our “tree” in branch by branch as we cut off evergreen sprigs and laid them on mantles with tall, red candles rising up out of them for Christmas decorations. Sometimes we added shiny-colored ball ornaments among the branches.
The long-awaited Sears Christmas catalog, a thin book filled with images of things we longed for, brought its own decorative touch to the season. It was almost as if dreaming over the bikes, red wagons, binoculars, dolls, and play food was as good as having them. I knew I would never dare ask for the expensive things, but just in case, I’d mark the pages of especially coveted items, circling the items themselves. Then I’d put the open catalog in obvious places where Mom would have to move it and hopefully see what I had marked.
Though we wouldn’t have had much to look forward to if Christmas had just been about getting gifts, we eagerly anticipated the one gift that we would each receive. In the weeks before Christmas day, Mom and Dad would talk quietly in Pennsylvania Dutch—in the front seat of the car, while they were standing in the corner of the kitchen, or wherever they happened to be—so we couldn’t understand what they were saying. Convinced they were discussing gifts for us, we strained to hear.
When Christmas Eve arrived, Dad went Christmas caroling with the church while Mom stayed home with us. We could hear her shuffling around in the attic where she had hidden our gifts, as we lay in bed giggling under the covers, hardly able to contain our eagerness. A bunch of us would sleep in the same bed so we wouldn’t sleep as soundly and would wake up easier at midnight—the time we were allowed to go downstairs to see our presents. Sisters Mim and Tina were so keyed up one Christmas evening that they sang song after song, trying their best to stay awake. As we “slept,” Mom would set a plate down at each person’s spot around the table, then place that person’s gift on their plate. Usually she set an orange on each plate, too, and sometimes a hard-candy animal sucker.
It was almost as if dreaming over the bikes, red wagons, binoculars, dolls, and play food was as good as having them.
When we awoke, we’d scurry down the stairs, run out to the kitchen, and flip on the switch, unwrapping the whole magical scene with light. I’d stand still for a moment, enraptured by the gift-filled table. They were simple gifts, not wrapped. We’d run to our own plate first to see what we got, then make our way around the table ooohing and ahhhing over everyone else’s gifts—a wallet, a pocket knife, a doll … We all felt the joy of each person’s gift. Occasionally Dad would come down with a pleased scowl on his face, telling us we were making too much noise playing with our toys and that we should go back to bed. Mom and Dad both seemed to get joy from giving to us. They could tell by the looks on our faces that we were delighted with our gifts even though they were small.
Other things at Christmas were also predictable, such as Dad asking the day before Christmas, “Say, what can I get for Mom for Christmas?”; luxuries like the caramel-walnut candy sister Barb made; or a bowl of walnuts sitting around for us to crack. We could also predict when we turned sixteen that our gift would be a wristwatch, and that when the girls were about to grow out of playing with dolls, we would get a keepsake—an older-looking doll, complete with an outfit and actual hair. This would be our last doll.
One surprise, however, was a little, blue, metal table and two chairs with thin black legs and arms near my place at the table one Christmas morning. Some other gifts, too, came as a surprise, such as Elam’s wind-up Cletrac bulldozer and Tim’s red-hose, toy fire truck with all the bells and whistles. And on rare occasions, once the recipient was older, a bike appeared, sitting on the floor next to their plate.
One year, Edith and I both got a copy of the coloring book “The Night Before Christmas,” with Santa Claus in a red, velvet suit on the cover. I rubbed my fingers over the velvet so much that it eventually wore off. Though “The Night Before Christmas” seemed strangely out of place with the true meaning of Christmas emphasized in our home, Edith and I both memorized it from cover to cover.
For the rest of Christmas day, activity on the farm came to a standstill. Dad would sit in his chair reading or falling asleep as Handel’s Messiah filled the airwaves around us. A local radio station played this music every Christmas, and we always listened to it. Dad was fond of these Christmases when we could just stay home; he referred to them as “good old-fashioned Christmas days.”
ROSE HUYARD is a freelance writer from Virginia.