Have you ever watched the Christmas movie, “The Polar Express”? The narrator and the conductor of the train is Tom Hanks and the main message of the story is the importance of believing. In the closing scene, the train conductor hole-punches onto the paper ticket a single word message to the protagonist; the young, skeptical, and doubting boy Chris. That message: Believe. That singular thought and that simple message resonated with me the very first time I watched this movie which, in my belief, has since became a classic of the holidays. Because after all, when the season comes back around each year, don’t we all try once again, to believe? Don’t we all want to be kids again? I know, I do. I believe I can. Just once more.
Looking back and through the eyes and imagination of a child, the weeks before Christmas were truly magical. There is no better word for it. A time when pretty much everything was good. A time when one learned the meaning of belief. Belief in a savior born in a faraway land to a mother named Mary and a father named Joseph. The belief that your family’s Christmas tree was indeed the best and prettiest in town. The belief that even your most wished for present was indeed in one of those wrapped up packages under the tree. The belief that a jolly old man driving a sleigh with flying reindeer from the North Pole would actually find his way to your very house. A time when the house smelled of baking cookies and pies and eventually that wonderful out-of-doors woodsy essence of a live spruce tree. A time when parents were not-so-secretly coming back from Harry’s Department Store with packages they also not-so-secretly stashed up in the attic or their closet. Looking back now through the eyes of an adult; those were times of unwavering hope and childhood innocence. A time when all things were possible simply because we believed. More often these days and especially around the Christmas holidays, it seems I find myself wishing that I was a child once again. Just for a day or two. A time in my own life when I was more free to imagine. More free to believe. More free.
I am holding a book titled “Mother Moon’s Nursery Rhymes” and inside the front cover is the following inscription: “1958 – Randall Graves – From Mrs. Palmer.” Each year sometime after Thanksgiving (my own favorite holiday, to be honest.) I pick this book from my bookshelf and place it on a table next to the fireplace. Long, long before adult holiday office parties, the tradition of Secret Santa began at elementary school and at Sunday School. Katherine Palmer was my Sunday School teacher. She was a wonderful person in every way possible. And she made the best-- hands down -- Christmas cookies and everyone in town knew this to be a fact. (Along of course with her puffy raised doughnuts up at the sugarhouse as husband Everett boiled sap.) Christmas cookies in holiday shapes: snowmen, Santa Claus, bells, snowflakes, and evergreen trees. And giant G-gingerbread men. She decorated each as a separate ornament with colored frosting swirled about, red and green sprinkles, and those hard little silver shiny BB-sized candies that hurt your teeth when you tried to crush them. Sometimes it was difficult to eat her cookies, they were so pretty. Emphasis on sometimes. Rest assured. They got eaten.
Believe me or not, I can actually recall sitting there downstairs in the rectory with my childhood friends at our little desks helping to decorate the small tree with paper snowflakes, strings of popcorn and cranberries, and rings of red and green construction paper. Then out of a hat we would draw our Secret Santa’s. Mrs. Palmer had a special gift for every single child in her Sunday School class. I am so glad and thankful that I have managed to keep mine all of these years. I can, just by holding this book of nursery rhymes, seeing her careful handwritten script, and turning the now yellowed pages become that child of 4, absolutely surrounded by the magic of Christmas: the story of the nativity; my childhood friends; secure in knowing the values taught were there as moral guideposts. I have always felt that I was blessed with this childhood that I had. I was. Hands down.
The Christmas pageant at the Methodist Church was always on Christmas Eve. It is hard for me today, many decades later, to summarize the excitement this brought to most everybody around. Kind of like a birthday and all of the yearly holidays all wrapped into one. It was such a community event as I viewed it. And it never crossed my mind at the time, that other people did not celebrate the season as we did. Such was innocence. This entire wonderful holiday season was coming to its glorious conclusion. The church was, as always, full. We got to participate with adults in singing all the Christmas carols we had been practicing in both grade school and in Sunday School. My scratchy wool suit aside, it was the one time of the year I looked forward to going to church. My sisters were part of the choir and I even recall Bob Lawlis (as nice a guy as you’d ever want to meet) once being one of the wise men during the nativity scene enactment. As I recall it, we children then went downstairs to exchange our Secret Santa gifts, and we each got these little red bags filled with popcorn, a caramel popcorn ball, red and green Hershey’s kisses, hard candy, ribbon candy, and a candy cane. I remember too that you could tell if Emily Eaton, our venerable and longtime town clerk, had made the popcorn because she put sugar on hers instead of salt. Funny the things you remember as a child.
Then out into the cold air, into the cold car, on to that oh-so-cold vinyl car seat that made you shiver after being in that warm church pew, and home. Christmas Eve had finally arrived.
Merry Christmas, everyone.