“It” happens every year at this time. The chaos of teaching restless students, coaching basketball, and last-minute shopping forms a prelude to a quiet Christmas Eve. I spend much of Christmas alone now. I am not sure I mind. Being alone lends time to think and remember. Recollections of a much simpler time stir and take shape as I travel back through the years to the Christmases of my youth.
In those days, enormous butterflies buffeted the walls of my stomach and time seemed to stand still as Christmas sluggishly approached. As a boy, my biggest worries were whether or not I would get all that I had asked for (usually much) and if there was even the remotest chance that it would snow.
One of my most joyous memories involves another person who shared my simple enthusiasm for the season. There was an individual in the household whose unbridled joy during that time of year made my own seem rather staid by comparison. The Yuletide enthusiast was not a brother, sister or even a young cousin. The Christmas fanatic was my grandfather.
My grandfather was not a big man in physical terms. However, if a man is measured by the size of his heart or his character, then he was Goliath. I think what he most loved about Christmas was the promise of his family being gathered under the same roof; his roof. Each year he seemed to want to buy a few more lights or ornaments to add to the many that would be taken out of storage. Pine boughs were broken to be used as trim around the front door, hedges were draped with colorful lights, and electric candles filled every window. He would go out at least once every evening to admire the beauty of his effort. The tree inside the house was usually large and was filled with decorations that were both new and ancient alike.
For a child, the most amazing feature, however, was the dining room table. As Christmas approached, the table became more and more covered with gaily wrapped presents for each and every family member. Each member of the family had his or her own spot at the table and each spot was piled high with presents. Mine were always inventoried and inspected carefully. Occasionally, I would sneak a present into another room and alternately shake and attempt to peer through the wrapping to guess the contents. I greatly feared my grandfather would catch me.
My grandfather was not an overly humorous man, but as Christmas neared he seemed to turn into an elf for the “jolly, old, fat man” himself. He probably laughed aloud more in the month of December than in the rest of the year combined. My usually loving grandmother sometimes seemed a “Grinch” when compared to her spouse, likely because she knew who had to do the cooking.
Christmas Eve brought high expectations for me as a child. I was cruelly placed in bed at some unbelievable hour and told to go to sleep because Santa Claus would not come if I was awake. Santa must have been cat-quick and quiet because, if I slept at all on those long Christmas nights, it was in fitful bursts. Time seemed to stand still and I was often convinced the clock next to my bed had stopped. I knew every child in the world, but me, was already playing with his or her toys while mine were sitting forlornly under the tree.
Later, in the dark of the room across the hall, I would hear my grandfather stirring and my grandmother telling him that it was too early to get up. I loved my grandmother dearly, but I have to admit to evil feelings on certain rare occasions (mainly on Christmas Eve).
Finally, after what seemed to be light years, my grandfather would dress and go downstairs for the “Christmas morning ritual.” The “ritual” involved getting the downstairs to a comfortable temperature before other family members (including agonized children) were allowed to venture to the lower level. My grandfather had to light a fire in the wood stove and “shake down” the coal stove in order to break the winter chill in the three heated rooms. Eventually, he would call up from below that it was warm enough to come down.
My next task was huge. I was not allowed to open presents until my mother was there to watch. Getting her moving at 5:00 in the morning was something akin to playing “tickle” with a grizzly bear. It usually took much pleading, ranting, and raving before I could coax her to the bathroom and down the stairs. The women were great at gift-wrapping, but my grandfather and I were equally adept at gift-wrap demolition. I would have paper on top of my head by the time I was done while my mother and grandmother would neatly save each bow to be used again.
Usually, not long after we had finished the gift frenzy (sometimes before), my aunt and her brood would arrive from nearby Crisfield with new presents and we would continue the fun.
After everyone had breakfast, there was a special time each Christmas I will never forget. About mid-morning the family would gather to watch my grandparents open the small presents they had bought for each other and placed in Christmas stockings. Whether the gift was a comb or tiny bottle of aftershave, my grandfather would make it seem like the greatest gift he had ever received. He had a wry comment or joke to make about each item he opened and his excitement made each of us delighted to be there.
In the early afternoon, we would all sit down for one of my grandmother’s typically bountiful meals, which my grandfather presided over with obvious relish. Seated at the head of the table he could look around and easily see each of his children and grandchildren in attendance. He seemed to want to hold that vision of family-united in his mind for the 12 months until Christmas returned.
By late afternoon we would tire and my aunt’s family would leave for home. I remember seeing my grandfather sitting quietly in his chair after everyone was gone. I believe he had already begun planning how to make the next Christmas even better. He seemed to do that each year until he left us in 1964. Perhaps God needed someone to help decorate Heaven.
I didn’t put up a Christmas tree this year. There seemed so little time and so many obligations to meet. Maybe it really was because I was exhausted or that I didn’t want to soil my new carpet. Excuses were given to family and friends who cared to listen. But the fact remains, that for the first time in my 44 years, there are no lights, ornaments, or tinsel to herald a season that has long been my favorite. Have I become callous? I hope not! Although I am alone this Christmas Eve, I feel very fortunate. I have only to close my eyes, and as I do every year at this time, journey back through memories to the home of my youth; the warm and loving home of “the man who loved Christmas.”
In honor and loving memory of my grandfather,
Robert Paul Howard