The Christmas of fondest memories for me is that of 1911, the first one I remember. The combined happenings of that particular holiday, when I was 4, embrace all the simple, untarnished wonder and pure joy of a season undefiled by present-day commercialism.
With radio and television in the far future, our modest farm household didn't even boast a "talking machine," known as a phonograph among our more affluent relatives. So my mother entertained my young brother and me by reading aloud and singing to us. By Christmas Eve, "The Night Before Christmas" showed signs of much usage. Though the jolly old man with his sack of toys was known as "Saint Nick" in the book, he was better known in our house as "Santa Klaus" or "Kris Tingle," and more familiarly as simply "Old Kris."
The afternoon of the day before Christmas was gray and cold, and the cozy kitchen was a perfect place for the loosening of young spirits. My mother had just finished telling 2-year-old Alfred and me that we'd better stop crawling on hands and knees, the nearest approach we could devise for imitating reindeer with a sleigh full of toys setting themselves on our roof, ready for Santy's descent down the chimney.
"Your father has to work very hard to buy those stockings; they cost 10 cents a pair! And remember, we have to hang stockings up tonight, or else Old Kris won't have any place to put some of the things he'll bring you." Just then we could see through the back window a small carriage driving up. Alfred "minded" and stayed inside, but I ran behind my mother as she went out to see who it was.
On the single seat of the rickety vehicle an old man sat bundled up in a blanket and a heavy coat with the collar pulled up almost to his ears. The curly white hair that fringed his face made his identity clear to me as soon as I heard my mother say, "Chris, what brings you here on such a cold day?"
It didn't matter that instead of a cherry red cap like the man in the picture book wore, this man had a dark cap. Here he was, Kris, the fabulous being we had talked about for weeks.
What matter that the old man in the carriage didn't have a long beard, but a short, bushy one? Or that his face was darker than that of Saint Nick in the picture book? In my 4-year-old mind there were no such minor barriers. As my wild excitement struggled for an outlet in words, my mother was endeavoring to fathom the reason for old Chris White's unexpected visit. To me (I suppose) it seemed only the forerunner of the long anticipated nighttime mystery, but another big surprise followed quickly, before I had fully absorbed the first thrilling wonderment.
My own eyes fell upon two other eyes staring up at me from the foot of the carriage -- two of the most enormous eyes I had ever seen, then or since -- eyes whose bewildered gentleness I've never forgotten in all the years since. They belonged to the source of old Chris White's call, for lying -- rather, "sitting" -- on a folded grass sack, on top of the blanket at the foot of the carriage was a cow's head, which he was taking home for his family's Christmas dinner, provided he could borrow a pot big enough to cook it in.
Now, my mother was well-known for her softheartedness as well as for her way of coming up with a solution for problems no one else would bother with, and, many times, for people no one else wanted to make their concern. So old Chris had good reason to seek her out for the loan of an extra big kettle. And, indeed, she did own the biggest preserving kettle in the community, a huge and heavy black iron vessel with a speckled agate lining, but she knew at once that even this enormous treasure could never hold an entire cow's head. But she did find an answer, namely, that he stop at her brother's farm farther up the road and get the loan of his smallest "hog-killing" pot. I never saw that enduring article of farm equipment in later years that I did not visualize Chris and his large family tending an outdoor fire in a sheltered spot somewhere on Christmas Day, while the 10-gallon black iron pot squatted over the flames on its three stubby legs and thick steam tantalized the senses of those eagerly awaiting the first tender bits of meat that could be pried loose. No doubt, the old man's Christmas provender had been augmented by my Uncle Ashby, along with the loan of the pot.
Soon Chris' carriage was swaying back down the lane again, with the increasing wind of late afternoon threatening to blow him out of the frozen ruts and into the adjoining field. But not before he had anchored a jar of homemade mincemeat into the folds of the shabby blanket at cozy proximity to the cow's head. Alongside him on the seat, stowed away between him and another part of the blanket, was a brown paper bag with "something for the children" -- this, no doubt, hastily abstracted from the slender store of goodies hidden away for part of our own Christmas treat.
Back again in the warm kitchen, I watched the carriage disappear down the lane as gusts of brown sycamore leaves whispered across the window panes where I remained watching for my father until dusk and lamplight brought him home.
I'm sure Chris' visit must have been a part of the day's conversation when Uncle Ashby and Aunt Lettie and my cousin Earl came for Christmas dinner at our house. I don't remember what our parents talked about, but I do remember that Earl, with his four years' seniority, was suitably impressed as I told him that Old Kris-not-Chris had been right in our yard in a carriage. "Why wasn't he in his sleigh driving reindeer?" he asked, then answering himself, "Oh, that was before it snowed last night; and if you didn't see the bag of toys, I guess he was just going around to find out some things."
It was a beautiful Christmas Day, with my mother and Aunt Lettie devoting themselves to the last-minute details of dinner, while my father and Uncle Ashby sat in the little parlor and we three children played with the toys and sneaked bits of candy and nuts.
After all these years, I have but to close my eyes and I can see my father and my uncle in precisely the same spots near the fireplace, the peculiar stillness punctuated only by the quiet intermittent conversation and an occasional shout of glee from Alfred as he ran behind the Morris chair and peeked out with his blond curls shining from glints of firelight, while my father made mock grabs at his little dresstail. (Dear, dear little laughing Alfred, who would be dead before another Christmas.)
I can still smell the fragance of the cedar tree as the gentle warmth of the fire drew out that inimitable essence which forever, for me, spells Christmas Day. Among the thick branches, looped with luscious purple and silver tinsel, old-fashioned ornaments nestled cozily, even as Charles Dickens himself may have wished them to be. Of the toys, I remember only the blue silk-clad tall doll with eyes that opened and then closed to display "real eyelashes." On her curls of "real genuine human hair" there rested a wide-brimmed matching hat of blue silk. This, a present from our then-bachelor friend, Mr. Handley. The doll had cost the stupendous sum of $5, as my mother would remind me long afterward when I had the temerity to suggest playing with her. She was only for "looking at."
I can't recall the name of the elegant $5 doll nor that of Alfred's big, white, velvet stuffed sitting dog with soft brown ears, which sat on the opposite side of the tree from the blue-clad maiden. The dog was also a gift from the generous Mr. Handley.
Another highlight of the day was when my Aunt Lettie quietly removed a handsome amethyst breastpin from the neck of her richly glowing garnet holiday dress and pinned it onto my own diminutive frock. She had noticed my covetous glances at it. When my mother mildly protested, she knew it was no use: Aunt Lettie was "like that."
For the last treat of the day, we sat at a smaller table near the corner cupboard, with the gorgeous sunset balanced behind the pasture like the final ornament of the perfect afternoon. Hung there in solitary splendor, it washed through the small-paned window from which the blind had been rolled all the way up.
The sunset glow touched the huge pink layer cake before my mother started slicing it. English walnut halves were imbedded symmetrically between the layers and companion halves marched in circles all over the top of thick soft delectable pink icing. I got caught hiding the nuts under the edge of my plate, but I got off lightly when my father pointed out that, after all, I was starting the snaggle-toothed stage, and chewing the walnuts might be uncomfortable.
Forty years later, when I was many miles from home at Christmas, my mother sent me a "duplicate" cake, but it just wasn't the same. Similarly, the ones I've tried to make are never quite the same, in looks or in taste. It must have been the sunset, or something that enveloped that group in peace and love. The rose of memory has no thorn.