by Marjorie Hagy
Well it’s almost Thanksgiving in South Texas and you know what that means; down in the big city newsroom some chowderhead on the 6:00 news is already messing with the weatherman, asking him if it’s too early to see some of that white stuff, whaddya say Bill, are we gonna see any flurries coming into the Christmas season, har har? Poor Bill is standing in front of a weather map on which the section containing San Antonio and the Hill Country is violently splashed in all the various hues of a catastrophic fire and dotted with little exclamation point symbols indicating a dangerous heat wave, his necktie all twisted up under one ear and a couple of enormous sweat stains soaking the pits of his loony weatherman’s sportcoat. He glowers at the back of the anchorman’s lunkhead and seethes, “For God’s sake Jeff,” in the tone of a man about to snap, “It’s 92 outside and my air conditioning bill is in the mid four-figures, lay offa that snow crap willya?. Approaching Jeff menacingly, his fists clutching convulsively, he continues, “Every frickin’ year as soon as Halloween’s over you gotta tune up with that white Christmas shi-”
“I don’t want you kids glued to that tv while you’re supposed to be doing homework!” Mom says as she darts past the set, turning it off, snatching up a stray cereal bowl and swatting my brother’s feet off the coffee table all in one deft motion. “Oh laws, the tv set is hot as a two dollar pistol!” she chides us as she sweeps back through the living room in the wake of a vacuum cleaner. Our tv had an unadvertised timer feature that alerted you when screen time was over when a wisp of smoke coiled up from the back of the set and the acrid scent of an impending electronic explosion scented the air.
We kids had a rigid daily schedule, however, which required that we turn on the tv as soon as we walked in the door from school, so as not to miss a moment of Gillgan’s Island, and we refused to detach ourselves from the afternoon lineup until the news came on or our mom caught us, whichever came first, at which point we switched over to the next item on our agenda, petty bickering. So we usually ignored all the omens of imminent disaster positively screaming from the old Quasar Dynacolor Wood Grain television, and when our dad got home from work he’d take one sniff and start muttering under his breath.
Fortunately for all of us though, the tv never did come to the point of actually self-destructing, for all it used to stand on the precipice and threaten to jump- we simply didn’t get enough channels for a really serious, life-threatening binge. Hell, as it was one of us was required to stand on top of the set holding aloft an intricate system involving an antenna that looked like something we scored while dumpster-diving out behind NASA, several yards of tin foil and the zinc in one’s own dental fillings in order to pick up Channel 9.
On the other hand, KWEX/Channel 41 came in as clear as if the broadcast towers were located out in the backyard, but the downside was that no one in my family spoke Spanish. Oddly, the tv never seemed to smoke ominously when my dad was watching; he was able to go from Grizzly Adams to The Rockford Files and straight through Kojak to Johnny Carson without any sign of trouble.
But now there is no more homework, because December’s finally here and we’re on Christmas break! Across town, children are sledding down Pine Tree Hill, skating on the frozen pond at Old Man Winchester’s place and building their forts for the annual snowball fight, while Pastor Dave and Mrs C, the friendly old organist down at the church, put the little ones through their paces practicing for the Christmas play, and the grandmas all perch in the pews like a flock of white birds, sewing the costumes and knitting the curly wool for the sheep in the nativity scene, the whole town looks like a Currier & Ives print and smells like wassail.
Buuuut of course, that’s not Boerne, that’s a whole ‘nother town in one of those states where it snows and people own earmuffs and don’t hafta drive their weathermen insane asking about white Christmases, where they have fun preachers who go by their first names and make peace signs with their fingers and nobody calls them a damn hippie, where everybody makes snow angels without a second thought and don’t hafta wait for the quinquennial 1-2 inches of snowfall that doesn’t quite stick to the ground but if you go around quickly and collect every flake of moisture from every conceivable surface within a mile of your house you might manage to construct a slushy miniature snowman on the trunk of the car so that its up high enough for your mom to snap a sad little picture of it, and you standing next to your creation, beside yourself with pride and snow-day joy and with bread wrappers tied over your shoes. Ah, the joy of that rarest of events, the South Texas snowfall, plus I looked up quinquennial and it means every five years.
No, all that wonderful stuff happens far, far away from here where the kids are all living the good life in a place that looks like a china Christmas village and the lights in the windows are gold and inviting and the houses all look like they’re snug and smell like blueberry pie. Who knows, they may have reindeer wandering right up to you in the town square eating acorns out of your hand while what do we have? Nine year old you fumes as you swat at a mosquito on your leg and glare over at your dog barking wildly down an armadillo hole. Texas Christmas…pfffft. Even our dog is crummy, those kids probably have collies and those pure white dogs that look like wolves, and then you get up and walk over to pet your poor sweet dog, cuz you feel guilty and disloyal.
Here where we live we don’t even know the first names of the clergy, let alone go around addressing them as such and high-fiving them. Our local patriarchs are called Father This and Pastor That, and not Pastor Jim either, but stuff like Pastor Gilchrist, that kinda hints at how tight he is with God and how easy it would be for him to put in a bad word for you if he catches you cutting up. Or Father Schmidt, the kind of name that just taunts you, that screams JUST GO AHEAD AND GIGGLE, YOU WANNA SAY A BAD WORD RIGHT NOW DON’T YOU? We kids knew them though, we lived in a town so small that the churches were intimate and the preacher knew your name and most of your stats, and having him and his wife over to supper is de rigeur.
We kids were on our best behavior, having been threatened with mayhem if we started any (what was called in my house) “grabass”- a term which pretty accurately describes what sort of shenanigans fall under that umbrella- we were scrubbed and bullied into our most presentable not-quite-church clothes and even forced to wear shoes, which is not our usual custom, but the preacher’s there, and you best look sharp and mind your Ps and Qs.
We kids would be jittery and ill-at-ease, I mean the only thing weirder than this guy coming down from the pulpit and into real-life would be if one of our teachers left her shrine in the classroom and appeared at the supper table! And yeah, Boerne was so small that that eventually happened to lots of us anyway. Sometimes the teacher would be your aunt or your mom’s friend, or someone you knew from church.
If you made a movie about Boerne in the 70s, you wouldn’t need a big cast because the same people would keep showing up in different roles, like your Sunday School teacher would also be the lady who worked in the tax office, your neighbor up the hill would be the middle school secretary. The preacher at your church might show up and say the prayer at the school assembly, and when you passed him in the hall on the way to the auditorium you’d duck your head in a confused, embarrassed kind of way, like he might publicly out you as one of his parishioners. You were too young to know then that everybody in town already knew exactly where you and your family went to church, that your dad sometimes filled in for the preacher when he was out for the week on vacation or something, that your mom always took apple pie to the potluck dinners.
Those were times, too, when all the adults in the world were authorized to discipline you. I don’t remember helicopter parents or parents who marched down to the school to tongue-lash a teacher for being mean to their kid, but I do know lots of parents who warned their kid that if they got licks in school they’d get twice as many again when they got home, and who put word into action. I remember this one time, what seems like the one and only time my dad ever came to pick us up from school, some random girl walking past called someone an a-hole in his earshot- just like that, sans the missing esses, a long letter-A hole- and my dad climbed out of his car with all the outraged majesty of a parent in the 70s and bawled that hapless creature out for a good five minutes, and if you don’t think that sounds like a long, long time then you’ve never been a ten year old who’s slithered down to the floorboards of the family car in humiliation while your dad scolds a contemporary of yours.
In church the rule about random people having tacit permission to upbraid any child they thought needed upbraiding was doubly bad, because those folks felt like they had a responsibility to rake you over the coals, and they took it seriously, since they’d been in the audience when you were baptized and witnessed your first steps and had seen you bare-ass naked that time you wandered out of the bathroom looking for your mom to help you wipe your butt.
A gentleman of soldierly bearing who had actually been a soldier during World War II once took my sister to task for wearing to church a pair of what we now call flip-flops, which in the 70s were generally referred to as thongs, which terminology we were forced to rethink when they invented those undies that go up your hoo-ha, and thank goodness my sister wasn’t wearing those, but then again she was like 11 and only strippers wore those back in the day. I think anyway, I certainly never heard of them before I was an adult.
A couple of other old fellas in the congregation frequently told us off for our misbehaviour or various other offenses, like how when my sister and I got a little older we’d sneak out of church and up to the balcony where nobody ever went to eat snacks and make each other laugh but one time one of the elders caught us up there drawing cartoons.
Now that I write it down it occurs to me that maybe it wasn’t just that the church was full of crusty old curmudgeons, but that possibly we really did need occasional chiding. The truth is, I believe, somewhere in between. For a while in my youth there were only a handful of little kids who went to our church at all, and the average age of the congregation was around a hundred, so a lot of the congregants really could be a bit grumpy.
But those dear old grousers really did take their vows and their church responsibilities to heart, when they promised at baptism to guide and nurture us by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging us to know and follow Jesus and to be faithful members of His church, and even though we chafed under their scrutiny, we knew we were safe and loved, and that many hands, lots of them papery and wrinkled, were there to catch us if we ever fell.
So far from spending our long, beautiful Christmas break with our eyes glued to the idiot box, we poor children got less tv than usual, since Mom wouldn’t even let us watch Gilligan’s Island anymore, and we had to redirect our energies into other pastimes- and fortuitously, the perfect entertainment was right there at our fingertips. In the old times, before anyone even had a Betamax, when the only screen we had was the one on the television set and we had to wait for that to warm up before we could watch it, when computers were still the stuff of fantasy, like that sassy machine on Willy Wonka who refused to reveal the location of the Golden Ticket- back in those times, a beloved ritual was played out in homes all across America.
Shortly after Thanksgiving each year, our rural mailboxes, the mail slots in apartment doors in the bustling metropolis, in stacks in the post offices all around America, became the receptacles of a gift from a benevolent Providence – the Sears Wish Book. The world wide web, the information superhighway, that miniature miracle, the little phone computer thing you carry in your pocket- nothing, NOTHING, on the Sears Wish Book.
It was a smorgasbord, an orgy, a circus of excess and overindulgence, it was air hockey tables and Holly Hobbie bedsheets and a whole city criss-crossed and transversed by Lionel trains, it was everything Barbie could ever possibly want or need, from the Three-Story Dreamhouse to the Puce Cotton Dress with RickRack Trim. There were Kenner’s Easy Bake Ovens and Mattel’s Hot Wheels, transistor radios, Charlie’s Angels dolls and that great American hero GI Joe, there were Viewmasters and pogo sticks and Snoopy snowcone makers, erector sets and Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys- what an extravaganza! On days unsuitable for evicting your young from the house for the day, climate-wise (and there were actually a few such), and long into the silent country nights, we kids would exit the real world and enter Paradise via the Sears Wish Book. We made long, long lists and then went back and re-drew them, we categorized our lists and cross-referenced them and drew up handy price guides, page numbers and item specifics, and then we went back to pore over our beloved Wish Book again to find even more stuff we had to have.
Somewhere in those idyllic Christmas holidays it came time for the family to go get a tree, and all of us would lose touch with reality and dress ourselves for a day on the tundra. We actually did not live in a snowy clime with pine trees growing in profusion up past the timberline on our mountaintop. Mom, who DID grow up in a Utopian winter place, forgot all her years in Texas and was transported back to her Michigan childhood, and became our happy accomplice. She’d put on a crockpot of chili and whip up a little wassail and help us all don every scarf and woolen piece of outerwear we as a family possessed; we must’ve looked like the kid brother on A Christmas Story in all his winter clothes as we set out from our house in the balmy weather of mid-December in South Texas but we didn’t care, we were just so happy to be going on our family adventure.
My dad, as I believe I may have mentioned somewhere before, was afflicted with a disease that I have since inherited and that made him anathema to gas-powered devices of any kind. They were the bane of his existence, as they are mine, and any time at all he ever got near such a fiendish device it immediately refused to function. So Daddy intensely disliked and distrusted small gas engines; he felt about chainsaws as another person might feel about carrying a snake in their breast pocket or as I would feel with a loaded gun in my purse, that at any moment the thing might possibly turn vicious and go on the attack. He chopped with an axe.
Now our family suffered from a collective delusion as to the suitability of cedar trees for Christmas trees, and we all set out each successive yuletide season blithely assuming that we were about to bag something vaguely triangular in shape, which of course didn’t happen, not even once, because cedar trees aren’t shaped like that.
When we’d get the tree home and get it wrangled into the living room, sweating our heinies off in our layers of ill-advised wool, our fresh-cut tree would unfold itself and two things would immediately become apparent: 1) that so far from being triangular, our Christmas tree had roughly the same proportions as Big Hero 6, and 2) that what we’d believed, out in the wilds, to be a small-to-medium sized tree was actually thirty-ish feet tall and a complicated ecosystem, home to at least four native species, several of whom relocated to our home along with the tree. By the time we finally got this behemoth decorated we were all pretty well worn out since seriously, this tree was ENORMOUS, and everyone was more or less dehydrated from trekking around in the 80-plus degree humidity dressed like the men of the Sir Ernest Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic continent, so the wassail went down well and we were grateful for all the protein in the chili.
And after dark with the smell of the wassail carried on the breeze from the open windows and all the lights off except for those on the Christmas tree, it felt every last bit as cozy and snug and Christmasy as I bet it feels up north with the golden light shining out of the windows onto the snow.
You know what my favorite part was? Well, I liked the Wish Book an awful lot, and so far from being disappointed that I didn’t get those Holly Hobbie sheets I immediately fell in love with the Katie Down on the Farm bed set and curtains my mama handmade for me, and thinking about her joy and excitement in presenting them to me still makes me tear up, forty-some years later.
I loved how we all crammed into the backseat of the car in our new clothes, piled up with wrapped presents and a casserole balanced precariously on someone’s knee, and drove through the night to my grandpa’s house in San Antonio, and I love the memory of driving back home even more, my sister and brother and I all sleepy-excited from the long day and the excess sugar and craning our necks backward to gaze out the back windshield, in quiet communion together, at a million stars in the sky, all of us thinking about THE star.
Then there was the part during Christmas Eve service at my church, when we each lit our candle from our neighbor’s candle and then fanned out to make a circle around the darkened sanctuary, and we all sang Silent Night together, all of our voices, even the old people who’d sung the song for fifty, sixty, seventy years, quavery with love and awe. And the moment that I stood in that circle, my bayberry candle with the little paper shield keeping the wax from dripping onto the carpet, and looked around at the flame-lit faces of all those people who loved me and whom I loved, while my little light joined with theirs to light up the world.
Peace to you all, and joy and kindness and love, love, love. Have a joyful Christmas.