The week before Christmas, my Norwegian stepmother Haldis’s sister Lucy arrived from Chicago with her formidable mother. Lucy and Haldis were Valkyrie blonds, tall, slender and haughty. With Lucy came Bestemor, the name means “Grandmother.” Bestemor was a large frightening woman, a savage Brunhilde who ran a fortune telling tea shop in Chicago. She was a dilettante in horoscopes, phrenology, and other skullduggery.
Several things happened that were to cast a pall over my childhood appreciation of Christmas. An occasion for jeering arrived in the mail. My natural mother Ruth had been divorced by my father when I was an infant, but now an unusual thing happened; she had sent me two gifts in the mail. The first was a very large glossy Audubon book of The Birds of North America, and the second gift was a silver cigarette case with her family crest embossed on the lid. The book was beyond the reach of a nine year old. I was too young and accordingly the book disappeared on the family bookshelves. The silver cigarette case provided an occasion for merry mockery for the two Valkyrie sisters. It was immediately taken from me and given to my father who for years used it as a box for cufflinks. What was a nine year old boy to do with a silver box? Besides, memories of Ruth were bad memories and Haldis always referred to Ruth as “The Flood” because all that Ruth left behind, after her divorce from my father, was like the debris left over by a receding tide.
The other thing that happened was that awkward thing about gifts. Like all children I had my own Christmas list, but at the age of nine I already had no expectation that there was a Santa Claus to grant the desires of my heart. Gift giving in our household was to be governed by the Valkyrie sisters; even I sensed that. That year, few days before Christmas, I wandered into the basement and discovered all my brother’s gifts stored away in the empty coal cellar. To my childish eyes the hoard looked like all the things that I would have wanted when I was their age. I hope you understand that it wasn’t envy of my brothers. I was already too big for a little tricycle. Rather than that it was a sharp perception that I was not valued. Christmas morning was humbling. I received a pale pastel shirt and a narrow knit tie with pale pastel stripes that I can still see in my mind’s eye. I was encouraged by the Valkyrie sisters to be a little man; an acceptable little man, and I was yet a little child.
The final blow to Childhood Christmas came a couple of years later when Haldis announced that she was tired of getting up on Christmas morning with excited children. From there on she informed us that we would follow the Norwegian custom of opening gifts on Christmas Eve. That of course made it difficult to attend Christmas Eve services, which from the viewpoint of Haldis was an added bonus. She may have had a point. We were Scottish Presbyterians and I do remember our dour Glasgow Scot’s minister William Black opening the Christmas Sunday service by proclaiming “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise;” which also misses the point of Christmas. Not that Mr. Black didn’t also have a point. After all it was a very difficult congregation and must have given him good cause for a broken and contrite heart on more than one occasion.
What is the point? All of those childhood Christmases spinning down through my childhood years were focused on family and gift giving. The often painful family dynamics always overshadowed the transient joy of gift giving. A favorite Christmas record in our household was Yogi Yorgesson singing “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.” The last line sticks in my mind, “In the corner the radio was playing, and over the racket as Gabriel Heater was saying, Peace on Earth, Good will to men, and yust then someone slugged Uncle Ben.” In a way, it was funny, and not so funny. Not so funny, because the whole point of Christmas was missing.
Christmas is for little children. Love and bless the little children you know, and do your best to add to their joy. Too soon they will be adults and look back, with either with longing or sadness, on the business of Christmas. And what about you this Christmas? Christmas will be a lot easier, and ultimately more joyful, if you keep it in historical perspective. It is all about the birth of the Christ Child.
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased" [Luke 2:8-14]!