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Essay: A Christmas Eve Story

Kathleen Tyler Conklin

For those of us whose parents or grandparents grew up during the Depression, Christmastime was not always a time of abundance.  Families often struggled to survive, let alone provide gourmet meals or indulgent presents.

But that didn’t stop them from celebrating, as Lake Effect essayist Bruce Campbell learned from his father:

Grandma and Grandpa built their Missouri farmhouse around 1910. The farm had ponies and chickens and cows and dogs; of course, all my dad ever talked about was how the fields were forever full of rocks and how much work they did and how certain Grandma was that the man from the bank would come and take it all away. While I was growing up, Dad shared stories of hard times during and after the Depression. Times were tough – but they had some fun, as well.

For instance, on Christmas Eve, Grandpa, Grandma, my dad, and his brother, Ralph, arrived at their small country church before everyone else. Grandpa and Grandma decorated and laid out the food while the boys lit the stove and trimmed the wicks. Of course, Grandpa’s family never missed a Sunday service or a church supper. Some families were real scarce the rest of the year but no one ever missed Christmas Eve. I’ll tell you why.

Picture this: After the service, Grandpa sneaks off and hides in the back room, smoking a cigarette and getting ready. Finally, when all of the children are settled on the floor trying their hardest to be real quiet, Grandma taps on the door. Suddenly, Grandpa jumps out, wearing a big hat, a funny coat, and a long, gray beard, waving his arms and shouting. “Merry Christmas! Ho, Ho, Ho! Who here has been good? Who wants a Christmas treat?” Instantly, the children begin shouting and waving. Everyone laughs and cries and runs around! Grandpa hands out hard candy from his pillowcase. Parents attempt to get their kids back under control but Grandpa grins and keeps them all riled up. I never saw it with my own eyes, of course, but I heard the story so often that I feel like I was there right in the middle of things.

It turns out that the candy will be the only special thing that a lot of those children receive for Christmas. Some have no coats or hats or mittens. Every year, more families lose their land and quietly disappear.

After the celebration, children stuff candy in their pockets and all of the families, except Grandpa’s, head home. My dad always thought it was kind of unfair that his family always stayed late to clean up.

One year when times were particularly rugged, Grandpa told the boys very firmly that all of the treats were to go to the poor children. When they arrive back to the farm, my dad’s pockets are empty and he is feeling mighty sorry for himself. Grandpa must have been watching my dad’s face on the ride home. Now, mind you, Grandpa never, ever, wasted one kind word on his boys. Often enough, Dad was spanked hard, and, truth be told, it was a struggle for my father to tell anyone that he loved them until he was much, much older.

So that night, as the house glows with light from the kerosene lamps, Grandpa orders my dad to sit down and put out his hand. “Close your eyes, boy.”  Dad cringes. After his eyes are closed, however, Grandpa sets something gently in his hand. When he opens his eyes, Dad is holding the most beautiful orange he has ever seen! He stares at it in amazement. “All yours, boy. Just for you.”

It is the most wondrous gift he has ever received. Even years later, Dad could recall Grandpa’s laughter as he ran off to show Ralph.

Dad has been gone for several years. I wish I could ask him if he reflected on his story each December as he watched our growing family open one present after another. He probably did.

So, in Dad’s memory, every stocking will hold an orange and, on Christmas Eve, we will tell my father’s story about how a piece of fruit became a wondrous gift, indeed. Because, even though I never saw it with my own eyes, his story has become my story, too.

Lake Effect essayist Bruce Campbell is a head and cancer surgeon at Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.  Many of his essays appear on his blog, “Reflections in a Head Mirror.”

Bruce Campbell
Bruce Campbell , M.D., was torn between career objectives in college, eventually choosing medicine over a life in radio. He is a Head and Neck Cancer Surgeon at the Medical College of Wisconsin, holding faculty appointments in the Department of Otolaryngology and the Center for Bioethics & Medical Humanities.