Christmas Stories Yet Untold
Mt. Salem held a crowd every year. The slick oak floor gleamed as the congregation stepped into a evergreen-decorated world of music, oranges, peppermint and caroling. At the end of the night the children knew the church doors would fling open, and Santa would come right down those golden oak aisles and hand out warmed sacks of cracked peanuts and icy-cold oranges. Some years he had brought cool, green bottles of Coca-Cola straight from a snow bank with that slight sludge of ice beginning to form. These thoughts and light chatter made the family's walk to the church go faster than Iona had dreaded.
Her mind kept turning because she couldn't make the plans she had made during the year work out. The Miller household in 1930's Excello, Missouri, knew they were one of the first on Santa's route every year. While some people woke up to Santa on the 25th, the Miller clan always knew to expect him sometime late Christmas Eve after the family visited grandparents or, this year, attended the church pageant. She turned over different ideas in her mind of diversions for her children when they finally walked home. She needed some time to allow Santa to work his magic and set out the stockings and gifts. Her eyes met George's over the heads of their children. George read that unspoken set of questions and simply shrugged. Iona didn't press the issue any more. This year would just be different, she guessed.
Twilight's lavendar skies had begun to fade as the church windows came into view. Mt. Salem had lovely four-square stained glass window panes of simple pink and cerulean blue. Even though they were about an hour early, several people were there gathering wood, lighting both candles and kerosene lights inside the church. The sun had refused to shine, but the snowstorm had ended some time during their journey. Gerald allowed himself to hope. He also hoped the Lord wouldn't mind if he looked forward to the end of the pageant and the long walk home in the moonlight. He heard his dad telling his mother something. She looked worried and then quickly hid that with a smile. “Iona, I have to go help Red Teter with his team and buggy. I will be right back soon.” And with that his dad left the family still shivering but coming out of those extra layers of clothes and mingling for nearly two hours before the program could start at 7:30. Gerald joined his sisters, cousins, and friends in a game of Bible Drill.
“Attention.” Each child came to a stand with a black King James Bible in hand. “Salute.” Bibles snapped to the arms, and fingers poised over the golden spines. A few bibles had indentions with the Books abbreviated in tiny letters. Gerald wished for that advantage. He was not a good reader. Many years later one of his teachers told him the reason was not his intelligence level at all, but the fact he was kept home so many days to help deliver mail. He had already repeated one grade, but because he was tall, the school decided to pass him on through whether he could read well or not. “Fire. Luke 2:7.” Each child flipped wildly through to the verse, with the first to locate God's words receiving the honor of reading the passage aloud. Tonight's verses were all about the birth of Christ. Gerald thought that was quite a coincidence, and he was glad he was never first. As soon as the words rang out and another boy his age named Wendell began to read, Gerald made a face as if he had just found the verse a little too late. He slammed his bible down to pretend he had almost won that round, but then my dad caught an arched eyebrow from his mother. Iona shook her head ever so slightly, so Gerald stopped that pretense, simply played the game, and waited his turn to perform at the Nativity pageant.
He watched his dad slip in beside his mom in the seats. “Boy, his cheeks are red, and look at that nose!” Gerald giggled and met with two frowns this time. Both parents were keeping him in line through dark looks and meaningful eye contact. My dad decided he had better shape up if Santa would even bother with him. He was blowing it only hours before showtime.
Gerald's knees began to ache as he knelt with a small feed sack tied around his head. Being a shepherd was one of the toughest jobs in the pageant, second only to the exhausting, arm-aching task of being a heavenly host, angelic choir member. Older boys had graduated to wise men and King Herod and even Joseph. Gerald always wanted to play the innkeeper. “I would give them a nice room inside! That would really change the story,” he laughed to himself. Given to imagination, he was always dreaming of travels and new changes to old stories. Gerald lived on the east side of Excello, two blocks from the train tracks they had followed to the Mt. Salem road. He hoped his family would make it home long before the midnight train. He thought about his dad's warnings when Gerald couldn't sleep. “If I am not home in bed by the time that train leaves the town, I will get carried off by the engineer and never see my sisters again.” His mind snapped back as the crowd and shepherds all rose to their feet to sing the chorus: “Joy to the world; the Lord has come. Let Earth receive her king!”
Opal and Elizabeth watched from the angelic choir as the women of the church began to uncover the cakes and cookies. Their mother had made soft molasses cookies sprinkled with huge grains of white sugar. She had a pan of their Grandmother Franks' divinity, too. Opal saw her dad give Iona a quick pat on the shoulder and slide through the double doors to take his turn bringing in an armload of split wood. He was trying to edge out slowly so the cold wind wouldn't undo all the fire had accomplished to make them warm, maybe even a little hot in the new sweaters. The pageant closed with a piano solo of “Silent Night” by her sister, Elizabeth. Everyone in the Miller family stopped what they were doing to listen. “Daddy missed it,” Elizabeth thought as she looked around for her father. Of the three, she was definitely Daddy's girl. Her dad hadn't been there, but she was thrilled to see that while she played, Santa Claus himself had entered the building and was reverently waiting for the final chord before beginning his hearty laughter. “Santa sure is clapping for me!” she smiled proudly. Then the room became a flutter of Santa and cookies and laughter. Santa paused a moment to make sure he had personally visited each child. He also made his way along the edges of the carved walnut pews, making sure he shook hands with each of the elderly members of the congregation. Gerald wondered if Santa brought them gifts at Christmas. He made a promise to himself, “I will ask Grandfather tomorrow if Santa comes next door to his house,”
“Who's ready to go home and see who has been there?” George pulled on a wool-lined overall jacket and grabbed the baskets and lantern from Iona's hands. “I'll carry those. It is tough going after dark.” The five travelers found a wide rut through the snow cut by Bennie Moore's wagon going and coming from church. They were able to follow that rut most of the way to the train tracks that led them all the way back to their four room and attic home in Excello. “We came the farthest by foot,” George always wanted to win some kind of invisible contest. And so they did, although the Halleys and Lambs had probably come farther both riding and walking beside their horses. No matter. To George his family was first, and he was happy. That always made everyone else happy. Iona tried to steer her children to the barn to do some chores so she could play Santa's assistant. Instead George shepherded them all in the back door onto the little wainscoted porch. “Hang those wet clothes on the kitchen chairs. Our cook stove will dry them in the morning.” He was ignoring the looks flashed his way by Iona, charged with an energy he had inhaled from the cold night air. There in that little Midwestern hamlet of Excello a Christmas miracle was only seconds away.
To be concluded tomorrow