Almost the Worst Christmas Ever
by Andrew Hanson
By Andy Hanson, December 11, 2013
For me that Friday before Christmas Eve was the most depressing day of the year. Nothing much happened at school to take my mind off what was coming, and so when I started walking home I was dragging my feet. My Catholic neighbor on the corner was building a brick wall in his backyard, and there was a pile of sand in his driveway. Since I was a Seventh-day Adventist and hence the sworn enemy of all Catholics, particularly the Pope, I felt justified in kicking the pile of sand two or three times.
Just as I dreaded, my father was giving my neighbor a haircut out back by the garage. Since he only charged a dollar, he usually cut three or four heads of hair every Friday. I thought his haircuts were hideous. He almost shaved the temples and only let short hair exist on the top of the head. To make matters worse, he had used gasoline to “dry clean” his Sabbath suit. It was on a hanger hooked to a bar inside the open garage door. I couldn't believe the man getting the haircut didn't complain about the smell.
It seemed like my mother always came home late on Friday, and this Friday was no exception. She was a fifth-grade teacher, and she liked to get her grading done before she came home for the weekend. In the winter months, that meant she had only about an hour to get the housework done before Sabbath. As her oldest son, it was my responsibility to clean my brother’s and my room, which meant that I had to mop under the beds and dust. Since I usually put this off until my mother began her housework, I too was in a rush to finish cleaning.
On this particular Friday afternoon, I’d been foolish enough to take off shoes full of my Catholic neighbor's sand in my room. And since I had to clean the room anyway, I had decided to just dump the sand out on the floor. I found out to my cost that sand, unlike dust or dirt, could not be mopped up. Consequently, on this Friday I had to locate a whisk broom and dustpan and crawl around on my hands and knees. The sand seemed to be everywhere, primarily under the bed.
When I finished my job, I checked the sunset table taped to the refrigerator and discovered that the Sabbath hours were swiftly approaching. My mother was an admirable person in many ways, but she was negligent in one. She did not guard the edges of the Sabbath. And so it was up to my brother and me to carefully countdown the minutes to sundown. As my brother counted down the minutes in a loud voice, I positioned myself next to the wall socket and extension cord that provided the power to the vacuum cleaner. I pulled the plug exactly one minute before the Sabbath began. My brother and I faithfully performed this service to assure ourselves that our mother would be able to enter heaven if she died in the night.
My father was late. It was his job to bring home the tree, but he didn't show up until we'd just finished our Friday night meal of rice with cinnamon, bananas and honey. When we heard the front door open, we raced from the kitchen to see my dad bringing the tree in through the living room. (The living room in our house was a place where nobody lived. Except for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the visits of relatives, sheets covered our couch and its matching overstuffed chair.) What made the scene memorable was the spray of dry pine needles that were knocked off the tree as my father pushed it through the door. Debris of any kind touching the living room carpet was anathema.
The tree itself was dry, scrawny and, of course, free. Tree sellers were happy to get rid of trees that weren't sold by the night before Christmas Eve. I don't know what my mother was expecting. Perhaps she hoped that this year would be different, but the sight of that scrawny tree wobbling on its wooden stand made her cry. The contrasting emotions of my parents, my father laughing, my mother weeping, made me want to run out the back door into the night.
My mother opened the boxes of ornaments and the tissue wrapped packages of tinsel from years past. My father seemed not to notice that my mother was crying when he offered to help her put the white sheet under the tree. It was supposed to simulate snow, but it never did. My mother told him to go into the kitchen and eat his rice.
Placing the sheet under the tree without getting too many dried up needles down my neck was always an adventure. Then my mother got out the string of white and red and green and blue lights, and my brother and I managed to circle the branches. All the lights worked when we plugged in the extension cord. My mother said that was a Christmas miracle.
We always hung the tinsel first. That was because scrawny trees need lots of tinsel. That Christmas we put on all we had. Then the ornaments. My dad was helping by this time. I managed to break one and my little brother broke two or three. Finally the tree was decorated.
Then came the moment when my parents went into their bedroom and brought out the presents. My brother and I always hoped for toys, but toys under the Christmas tree didn’t happen often in our house. My mother usually wrapped our new winter clothes. That Christmas, I was sure there were would be no toy packages under the tree. I knew it was going to be the worst Christmas ever.
My father always made pancakes on Sabbath morning. (I remember once on a cross-country trip we stopped at a restaurant, and I ate pancakes on Wednesday. That whole day felt like Sabbath.) I was depressed, so I ate pancakes until I couldn't stand the sight of another one. Dad did the dishes because he was already dressed for church while the rest of us got ready.
Our blue fifty-one Ford was out of the garage and parked next to the front porch steps. The engine was running, and Dad was motioning for me to get my brother and get into the car. Out of loyalty to my mother, the two of us decided not to leave the house until she was ready. The tension grew, and my father started honking the horn. That meant that we were going to be late for Sabbath School again.
There was still no sign of mother. Finally, my father turned off the engine and started walking the four miles to church. He had done this once before and humiliated all of us. About ten minutes after my father left, my mother appeared dressed to the “nines” as we used to say. My brother and I followed her out to the car, and she drove us to church. We passed my father after about a mile. My mother honked and began to slow down, but he paid no attention. So she sped up and got us to church about half an hour before my father got there.
The Junior Sabbath School was in the basement of the church. As I took the basement steps two at a time, my stomach began to feel funny. When I got to the classroom, there were no vacant seats in the back, and I had to sit up front with the younger kids and girls. Our teacher was trying to help us develop good health habits, and on this particular Sabbath she wanted to know who had brushed their teeth that morning. I raised my hand with the rest even though I hadn’t. At first I thought the cramp I felt was the result of the lie, but then I realized that I was just about to vomit. I bolted out of my seat and made a dash for the door.
I managed to close the door and take two steps toward the bathroom before I threw up. All those pancakes came up so fast that I nearly fainted. When the deed was done, I raced for the bathroom. As luck would have it there was no one in the hall, and I made my escape without being observed by anyone. When I got to the bathroom, I sucked water out of a sink faucet, spit, drank, and was about to do it again when I heard someone running down the hall. The door to the janitor’s supply room was in the bathroom, and I correctly guessed that some adult was coming to clean up my mess. I was standing on a toilet seat with the cubicle door securely latched when I heard the bathroom door open and a key turn in a lock. A man's voice said to someone, “It must've been an adult. No kid could eat that many pancakes.”
When the deacon left, I remember feeling marvelously better. I waited another minute and then shot out of the bathroom and up the stairs to the foyer of the church. I slipped out the front door, sat on the church steps and waited for Sabbath school to be over. When conversations began in the lobby, I went back inside and found my parents and brother waiting for me. The four of us climbed the stairs to the balcony to take our regular seats halfway between the rear balcony and the preacher’s platform.
On that day strangers were sitting in our regular seats, and there was just enough room for two adults to sit comfortably in the second row of pews. When our church was filled to capacity, deacons allowed the overflow crowd to sit in the elevated choir loft behind the speaker's platform. My brother and I had always wanted to sit there because the seats were high up, and we were convinced that the view of the entire congregation would be spectacular. We asked and surprisingly our parents gave us permission to sit in the choir loft.
It took us a while to get there because we had to go back down the stairs, through the lobby, down the stairs to the basement—we leaped across a large slimy wet spot on the carpet—to stairs at the other end of the church. There was a swinging door that led to the top section of the choir loft. My brother and I decided to sit in an empty pew at the middle section of the top row.
The view was spectacular, and we particularly enjoyed looking at the bald spots on heads of the preacher and the elders on the platform. When they knelt for prayer, the preacher casually brushed some lint off his shoulder, and an elder scratched his butt! However, even the view and the bald heads were not enough to keep my brother and me entertained for long. So we began to entertain ourselves by telling each other jokes and sliding along the pew. As I recall we made airplanes out of tithe envelopes and could barely restrain ourselves from flying them.
Needless to say our parents were not happy with our behavior. That meant what they called a “settlement” when we arrived home. In those days settlements were painful, but the worst part was not the pain. It was the nap. After our milk and peanut butter sandwiches, we were confined to our beds for two hours.
It was a tradition in our family to open presents on Christmas Eve, and even though we knew there were probably no toys under the tree, we hoped we might have overlooked something. Before we could open our presents, we had to put on our pajamas and sing Christmas “favorites.” These were unaccompanied by a piano, and you can be sure my brother and I didn’t let the music drag.
It was as I expected. There were only clothes. I remember trying hard not to say anything about my disappointment, but my little brother began to cry. That was the moment my father picked him up in his arms and took me by the hand and said there might be a present for each of us out in the garage.
The long heavy boxes weren't wrapped, and my brother and I carried them back into the house in a kind of disbelieving trance. Inside my box was a long yellow flatbed truck big enough to kneel on and ride down the steepest roads in our neighborhood, which I did for the next year. (I only had one close call involving a car.) In my brother's box was a red and blue eighteen-wheeler that he could sit on and ride down our driveway and on the sidewalk in front of our house. We were allowed to play with our trucks until it was time to go to bed.
My mother sat on the end of my bed and told us stories about Christmas when she was a little girl on her father's cattle ranch in Arizona. When the last story ended, my brother went right to sleep. Suddenly, I had to pee. On my way to the bathroom, I peaked around the corner into the front room. My parents were sitting together on the couch. I could see their feet, the end of the bookcase to the left of the fireplace, and the Christmas tree. In the light from the tree, I saw the back of a large red religious book entitled Armageddon. When I had looked up the meaning of the word and looked at some of the pictures inside, I had recurring nightmares. Just glancing at the book was scary. But the silver tree with its lights and ornaments somehow distracted me. After I crawled into bed, my last conscious thought was that as long as there was Christmas, I was, in some magical way, safe.