Christmas Eve at the Holmes House marked the breaking of tradition: Presents opened before morning. But I don't care. Gifts remain under the tree, which Patrick and I will exchange in a bit; and another pile will go to the Taggarts for giving there. Last night, our hearts overflowed with love, and joy, and comfort; and the gift exchange among us only symbolized our unity -- it did not cause it.
I am reminded of another Christmas; no, not the day that a baby in Bethlehem came into the world, being gently placed in a manger by his weary, contented mother. But one in Jennings, in the home of my birth, in the late 1960s when my little brothers Stephen and Frank wanted nothing more for Christmas than a pair of sleds.
I helped my mother wrap presents after the little boys had fallen asleep. At 8 and 9, they could still be sent to bed early. My father carried from the basement, two small sleds, gleaming, with pristine runners and red writing. Not second-hand. Mother and I exchanged glances and kept wrapping. The air outside, cold, sharp, but dry, stubbornly refused to yield the snow lingering above us. We knew it would come, soon, but the ground still sat dry and hard.
I crouched to stack gifts under the tree, on the old white sheet with which we had wrapped the tree stand. Dad closed the Bible and replaced it in the glass front bookcase. He had read outloud for us, the story of the Christ child's birth, just as he always did. Frank had placed the cookies for Santa on the tray by the door, and I had lit the Mary candle, which would light the way for the Christ child. The first visitor on Christmas Day would receive our blessings, and a place at our table. We would not turn the travelers away, nor send them to the stable, claiming no room.
Mother and I stood in the doorway of the living room. Dad took a photo of the tree with presents for eight children and a small pile, from us to our parents, sitting to one side. Mom put her arm around me and said, Too bad there's no snow, and we both looked at the sleds standing against the wall near the back of the tree. Then we went to bed, and soon, no one in our home stirred.
The little boys rose first and I just behind them. Our parents still slept, as did the older kids. Steve and Frank jostled each other to get into the living room. No one could touch presents until Mother gave the signal, after everyone awakened, coffee had been poured, and a tray of candy cane cookies had made its way to the living room. But the first children awake could go into the living room and gawk, and so Frank and Steve did that day. A few minutes passed before they saw the sleds. And I, their next-oldest sibling, found out that they had a keen understanding about Santa Claus when Frank turned to Steve and said, Mom is going to feel so bad, giving us sleds when there's no snow.
But then: the boys moved beyond the tree, opened the front door, and peered outside.
And together, the three of us beheld the winter wonderland which had descended upon our neighborhood while we slept.
Frank and Steve started dancing, their voices rising, as they proclaimed, It's a miracle! It's a miracle! A Christmas miracle! and their clamoring brought my mother running, as the sound of loud children brings every mother dashing to see if someone has been hurt. She stopped, unmindful of the cold air pouring through the open door, seeing only her joyful baby boys and the blanket of snow which would let them use the sleds which God knows how she found the money to buy.
The rest of the family awakened then; and the morning unfolded as Christmas mornings did. The opening of presents took a while, with each child exclaiming over the perfectness of each gift. When Mom and Dad opened their presents, the child gift-giver would anxiously stand nearby while the wrapping paper got torn away and the gift revealed. We consumed the whole tray of cookies, and thick slices of buttered Reindling. Later, when all the presents had been admired and my father had sorted through the torn wrapping paper to be sure none of them got thrown away, my mother served, "real breakfast". Only after bacon and eggs had been eaten did Mother release the boys to try their sleds.
As they pulled snow pants on over their blue jeans and rubber galoshes over their shoes, Mother's eyes met mine across the kitchen, and she smiled. For just that brief moment, I felt happiness radiate from my mother. Her eyes held mine until the sound of the boys tromping down the basement stairs and slamming the outside door faded. And then, she turned towards the kitchen counter with its pile of dirty dishes. And I saw a small shudder course through her body. But neither of us spoke. Without saying anything, my mother and I started to do the dishes, while everyone else lounged wherever they had fallen, and outside the kitchen window, the morning sun glistened on the newly fallen snow.