Going to Mr. Wunker to pick out a tree. The elaborate method of setting it up so it could take in lots of water and not be a fire hazard. Going to see the living creche at Lytle Park and all the colored lights on the houses. Staying up Christmas Eve to decorate the tree, then going down in the morning. The doors to the living room were closed. We had to eat breakfast and wash all the dishes before we could see the tree, even though we had been decorating it the night before. Then we had to line up outside the doors, youngest first. Daddy would go into the living room, light the fire, turn on the lights on the tree, and start a recording of Christmas music. Then he opened the door and we all rushed in to gather and unwrap our piles of packages. Gradually we children took over the ceremony. One year, when brother Jesse had grown taller than his older sister, he announced that we would line up by size, not age. Eventually this led to Mother going in first, followed by the rest of us. We made a game out of getting all the breakfast dishes washed. One year I said “Let’s see if we can finish the dishes in the time it takes to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” We were finishing the last verse very slowly until we could see nothing more, so we sang the final “… partridge in a pear tree!” and then, my brother Jack, who had been holding his hand under the dirty dishwater, triumphantly lifted up a big serving spoon. “The One More Thing!” we chorused. “The One More Thing” comes from a story by Josephine Johnson. A housewife has almost finished the dishes. She’s about to pour out the water in the dishpan. She turns and looks all around the kitchen. “I know you’re there so come on out.” She sees nothing, so she dumps the water and spins around and “there it was, the One More Thing, a dirty ice-cream dish on top of the refrigerator.” So when we found such an item we would scream with delight “The One More Thing!”
Unfortunately, our mother was unable to join in our fun. She would wander around the kitchen looking sour, dabbing at invisible bits of dirt with a towel. Possibly she felt that we could not be doing a good job if we were having fun. Possibly she was trying to tell us how much work she did that wasn’t appreciated by her children. (Which was ridiculous because we had servants.) After breakfast was finished & cleaned up we would gather in the living room. Mother, to make her point that we weren’t doing a good enough job, would say “I have to finish up,” and go back to the kitchen. We all knew this was a excuse for a nip at one of her hidden bottles. At the end of the day, having opened lots of presents, gone to our grandparents’ for a big party and dinner at which liquor flowed freely, come home tired and stuffed, I would retreat into a book. And I would feel vaguely disappointed, something I needed or wanted wasn’t there.
The first Christmas I found out what Christmas was about was the year after my graduation from college. A classmate and I decided to travel around Europe for the year. We started in Ireland and went all the way to Greece. At Christmastime we wanted to be in London with some older friends. Anthony and Nora ran a small Bed & Breakfast that took only certain guests, most of them young American priests studying in Rome. Anthony also ran a car-hire business which is how Bettie’s family got to know them. They were a lovely couple, warm, caring and fun. We took the boat train from Paris to Calais to catch the ferry to England. We ended up in a compartment with a bunch of young British people. I think there were seven of us. We became a comradely group, sharing some crackers and cheese, an orange, and a chocolate bar. When we got to the boat we stayed together. At Customs entering England, we Americans got through quickly, but the returning British took some time. So we went ahead and saved a compartment for all of us on the train to London. By the time we got to London, we felt like family.
Christmas with Anthony and Nora was special. Only a few presents were given, but all appreciated. There was an older priest staying with them, and Nora gave us some money to buy nice handkerchiefs for him, but we saw a maroon cashmere scarf and got that instead. It turned out to be perfect for Father Philip who was a scholar and appreciated fine things. We gave Nora a jewelry box bought in Florence, and Anthony gave her a diamond ring, their first. But the presents weren’t important, there was good fellowship, warmth, fun, and love. That was when I really got what Christmas was about.