In honor of the holiday season, I hope you enjoy one of my father's well-loved Christmas stories.
Whoever was responsible for stoking up the fire in the little church that afternoon had miscalculated. They hadn't taken into account the fact that the church would be packed that night from front to back. As I sat there in my winter clothes, the heat was stifling.
My nostrils were assailed by a variety of scents: candle wax, the odor of kerosene lamps, the spicy smell of the freshly-cut Christmas tree in the corner; the kid on my right had a foot-odor problem which his heavy, woolen socks and winter boots were unable to mask and the elderly lady behind me had overdone it with the cheap perfume. The little boy in the next row had done something unmentionable and now sat, shoulders shaking with silent laughter while the kids on either side leaned as far away as possible.
We kids occupied the front rows, while behind us the church was packed to capacity with parents, grandparents, elder siblings and neighbors. This was "The Christmas Tree," the event for which we had been rehearsing these many weeks. The event that was, to us at least, the most important of the year.
Two little one-room schoolhouses, only a couple of miles apart but separated by the county line, had combined forces and their entire enrollment of 40 or thereabouts had come together at the little church that stood midway between, to provide a Christmas entertainment.
Behind me, the sound of many low voices blended into a wordless hum, reminding me of a hive full of bees; while we kids poked, giggled and did all the other devilment that kids do within the anonymity of a group. Wherever the teachers directed a stern look, the commotion would die down, only to break out at a fresh point.
Finally, a hush fell over the little church. The minister had stepped onto the improvised stage, a paper in his hand. Tonight he would be our Master of Ceremonies. We kids leaned forward expectantly; the show was about to begin. The teachers had done their work well. Every child, from the eldest to the youngest, had one or more parts to perform: a song, a recitation, a part in a skit - perhaps all three. There was a certain rivalry here. We were each of us watching for the kids from the other school to make a mistake.
Starting the show off with the smallest child was probably an error. The first little girl up, a first grader, stood before her audience, head hanging, toes turned in, twisting the front of her skirt, and refused to say a word. From behind the stage curtain, the teacher prompted her first line. The head hung lower, the skirt twisted higher, then suddenly she burst into tears and ran off the stage. The kid with the smelly feet snickered, "I'll bet she wet her pants." The second little girl did better, reciting her lines flawlessly, although with a few lisps and whistles, caused, no doubt, by her lack of two front teeth.
The show went on, some kids performing well, others poorly. The church organist accompanied the singing on the church's little foot-powered organ. She sat at the organ, back ramrod straight, hair drawn back in a severe bun, hat held atop it by a large hatpin; she could have been a model for a Norman Rockwell painting.
The asthmatic wheezing of the organ's bellows provided a counterpoint to the music and also much merriment to us kids. It was discovered at the last moment that both schools planned to sing "Away in a Manger," so it was decided that we would do it together - the end result was slightly less than melodic.
Finally we kids were finished. Now, we sat back to enjoy the performance of the older teenagers and the adults. A tall young man, who was later to become a lifelong friend of mine, played his guitar and sang. My stepfather brought a roar of laughter when, at a point in the script where he was supposed to wipe his fountain pen on his handkerchief, he hauled an indescribably filthy bandana from his pocket and adlibbed to the audience, "Maw didn't know I had this."
The show was winding down now and we were waiting for the big event of the evening - the arrival of Santa Claus. Just prior to this event each year, a half dozen men at the back of the church would slip quietly out the door, while everyone's attention was fixed upon the stage. When Santa arrived a few moments later, we were never quite certain whose father or brother was beneath that red suit and all the padding. Nor were we ever certain whether it was true that Santa Claus was usually fortified with a couple of pulls from a bottle before making his entrance.
That night as applause for the last performance died down, we heard the jingle of sleigh bells outside and we swiveled round in our seats. The doors burst open with a crash and Santa, bag over his shoulder, came bounding down the aisle with a resounding HO, HO, HO. Had the pull from the bottle affected his judgement? Did the bag over his shoulder upset his balance? We will never know the reason, but as Santa attempted to gain the stage with one great leap, his foot hit the edge and he rebounded from it and landed on his back, with a crash that shook the little church.
The smaller children looked on in horror and we older ones howled with uncontrollable laughter. The minister and one teacher rushed forward and helped Santa to his feet. Apparently unhurt, he went about his duties of unloading the Christmas tree and presenting the gifts to the children. Then wishing us all a Merry Christmas, he left in a more sedate manner.
That night, as we gathered after the show in groups, the white expanse of the little churchyard, surrounded by snowladen evergreens and lit by a brilliant full moon, looked like a picture on a Christmas card. Young people slipped off quietly to dark spots, in pairs. Our elders went about shaking hands and wishing each other a Merry Christmas. We kids gathered together, arguing loudly as to whose father it had been inside the Santa Claus costume. I took no part in the discussion, although I knew whose father I had seen rubbing his backside tenderly, when he thought no one was looking.