This ECC was a ‘serious’ one, in that it did not revolve around surreal agglomerations of pop culture references. But that doesn’t mean it was particularly dark & gritty. I was looking to invoke how Christmas feels to a child, in its joys and in its difficulties. ———————————————————–
The weekly spelling quiz was canceled for the Christmas party. That, more than the party itself, made Chris’ day. The party wasn’t much. Mrs Morris brought in cupcakes, white frosting over chocolate with green crystals on top. Every kid in the class got one and ate it at their desk, arranged in a ring around the tiny Christmas tree in front of the blackboard. Joey Smith scooped all the frosting off his with his tongue and let it hang there, showing it to everyone, until Mrs Morris made him stop.
Chris finished his, then neatly folded the wrapper and threw it in the trash. It was time to go home. Early dismissal. Christmas vacation was here. Mrs Morris hadn’t assigned any homework; Chris’s backpack was gloriously light. The second grade filed into the halls and joined the exodus of lower graders headed for the main doors. Matt was waiting for him there. The other sixth graders were already gone.
“Where ya been? Mom said to get home quick. We gotta eat early,” Matt said.
“I know. I got here as fast as I could,” replied Chris.
They walked quickly down the street, as much for warmth as for
speed. The street was still painted with the colors of late fall, a thousand shades of brown and gray, but the bite in the air promised a more Christmasy landscape soon.
They reached the house just as the high school bus dropped their brother Mark off. Inside, Mommy was crazy, trying to get together their pan haggerty in time for her to sprint to choir rehearsal. Daddy got home from work. He did not have to go back to the plant the next day, just as they did not have to go to school. They ate their pan haggerty and left for the gift bazaar.
Daddy and the three boys hurried through the cold streets, now ink-dark, to the school gym. Chris was used to seeing this room in the daylight; to see it in artificial lighting, with the usually bright hallways lit only by red EXIT signs, disturbed him. Around the gym ran a ring of folding tables, each for a different vendor. Out of these tables, Chris has to choose gifts for his parents.
“OK, guys! I’ll meet you at the fire doors at 7:30 on the dot,” Daddy said.
Mark and Matt vanished into the crowds around the tables, but Daddy pulled Chris aside, into the hallway leading to the cafeteria. Daddy crouched down level with Chris’ face and handed him a folded five dollar bill. “Now you get your mom something nice, right?”
Of course. He took the money in his hand, a knight accepting a sacred quest.
Daddy went outside to smoke.
Chris walked around the tables. Little old ladies sat behind displays of toilet paper cozies. A balding man with a long pony tail was extolling the virtues of his macrame plant hangers. Someone had turned plastic mesh and yarn into ornaments and 1983 calendars.
Nothing here was worth buying for Mommy and Daddy. It was all flimsy trash. There was one exception, a lady selling necklaces of slices of polished agate hanging off leather thongs. This would be good enough for Mommy, but they were five dollars each, and he’d have nothing left for Daddy.
Chris paced nervously around the gym, trying to divvy up his five dollars in his mind, disappointed with all his options. Finally, at 7:25, he rushed to the table with the plastic mesh creations and bought two, then went to the next table over and got two reindeer made of pipe cleaners and snail shells. That, combined with a green glazed ash tray for Daddy, was the best he could do.
Chris slunk to meet his brothers by the fire doors.
“Whadja get?” Matt asked.
Chris showed him.
“What’s this crap? You were supposed ta buy something nice, numbnuts.”
“Don’t call him numbnuts, asshole,” said Mark, and socked Matt in the shoulder.
“Don’t call me asshole, asshole,” said Matt. He tried to return the punch, but Mark shoved him aside.
“Chris, Mom and Dad will like it no matter what you get them. They just like it that you’re thinking of them,” Mark said.
Chris was reassured by Mark’s wisdom. Mark was in high school; he must be right.
“Well, what did you get?” Matt asked Mark.
“Me? I didn’t get anything. I did my Christmas shopping at the mall last week. I got Mom a box of stationary and Dad a bunch of golf balls with his name on ’em.”
Chris’s heart fell again. What were these gimcracks next to real gifts from the mall? Mark was just being nice to him; his gifts really stank.
Daddy appeared, holding his hand over his eyes. “All the presents hidden? I don’t want to spoil the surprise!” he said.
There was no surprise worth spoiling, Chris thought. Daddy hustled them outside. While they were walking home, the first flurries of the storm began. Chris hid his crappy gifts deep in his closet, under a pile of toys he had outgrown. He fell asleep listening to the wind howl against his windows.
Instantly on waking Chris knew there had been a substantial snow. Without understanding how, he could tell from the quality of light as it shone into his room. The room was brighter because the world was brighter. He wolfed his breakfast, got into his blue snowsuit and blocky gray moon boots, and grabbed his red round flying saucer.
A pilgrimage of kids headed north, to the wooded slope on the edge of the rec park. Generations of sledders had cleared a run though the trees, in two parts. The higher, steeper section started at the edge of the soccer field, then plunged to a level section halfway down the hill. There a second slope began, ending in the waste land behind the wholesale locksmith supplies warehouse. Little kids only used the lower slope, but their older siblings dove from the very top and tried to get enough momentum to carry them over the level area and all the way down. If they were skilled and lucky, they might hit the snow ramp that was being constructed even now and fly into the warehouse’s wire back fence.
Chris still only used the lower slope. He wanted to try the upper, but when he felt the breeze when the older kids whipped past him, he trembled. He’d do it this winter for sure, but not today.
After a few runs, he came to rest at the start of the ramp. Matt stood nearby with some of the other sixth grade boys.
“Watch this,” said Matt to his friends. “Hey, numbnuts, how do ya spell snow?”
Aha! thought Chris. S-N-O-W. He opened his mouth to reply. WAIT! NO! A long vowel meant a silent E!
“S-N-O-W-E” said Chris.
The older boys laughed. Chris knew he was wrong. He picked up his flying saucer and trudged back to the top of the lower slope. A knot of second graders stood there.
“…and a Strawberry Shortcake picture record!” said Jenny.
“I’m getting a Colecovision,” said Paul Hendricks.
“I want a bike,” reported Bryan.
Maybe they would know, thought Chris. “What are you guys gettin’ for your parents?” he asked.
Silence. “I made a doily…” said Jenny, but no one followed up on her example. The breeze hummed through the bare branches overhead.
“I’m gonna give ’em BOOGERS!” Joey Smith said.
Everyone shrieked. “I made ’em myself!” Joey added. The other kids joined in, saying they would make ashtrays for their parents out of boogers, or Christmas tree ornaments out of boogers. No one answered Chris’ question.
So much for the counsel of his peers.
When they were almost too cold to move, Chris and Matt went home. Before supper, the family sat down and opened all the Christmas cards that had come over the previous weeks; it was tradition. Then Mommy jumped up and said “Oh my god, it’s four-thirty! I have to get going!”
“Calm down, Denise,” said Daddy. “You’ve got plenty of time.” He helped her on with her coat and kissed her as she left.
“Dad, who’s making supper?” Matt asked.
“Your mother left creamed chipped beef in the crock pot,” Daddy answered.
“Shit on a shingle,” Matt grumbled, angering Chris so much he ate two extra helpings in defiance.
After supper they all changed into nice button-up clothes and left for church. On the way out the door, Chris realized he had forgotten to wrap his crappy gifts.
There was a line to get into church. Chris had never seen that before. As they shuffled in, the ushers gave each person a small white candle with a paper disk around its middle. They gave one to Daddy, one to Mark,and one to Matt. When it was Chris’ turn, he put his hand out. The usher glanced at Daddy. Daddy nodded. Chris was big enough to have his own candle.
The crowd pushed them into the sanctuary. Usually Chris and his family had a whole pew in the middle to themselves, but tonight those places were full. They had to squeeze in the back, under the shelter of the gallery, next to strangers. It was unsettling. The minister came out and the service began. Some of the Sunday school kids played out the story of Mary and Joseph. Then several members of the choir sang
“Said the night wind/to the little lamb”
and Mommy’s golden voice sounded, by itself, through the church:
“Do you see what I see?”
Mommy was above them in the gallery, singing; Chris could hear her, but not see her. It was as if she was in heaven, like heaven was descending into the church, had already reached the gallery and would soon be among them.
“Do you hear what I hear?”
she sang, and the choir responded.
The shepherds came to Bethlehem, and among them was Joey Smith. He looked more reverent than Chris would have thought him capable of being. They found the baby Jesus, and knelt by him. It was time for the lights of the sanctuary to go down and the congregation to sing
“Silent Night/Holy Night”
The ushers walked down the aisles, lighting the first candle on each end, and the person on the end passed the flame to the person next to them, and they turned and passed it on again, until the room was lit by a blanket of flame.
“Son of God/Love’s pure Light”
Nestled between his brothers, Chris watched the flame on his candle dance. He could hear Mommy’s voice singing; he could hear the whole congregation singing. Light and heat came from each person.
This is what God feel like, Chris thought. It was as if he had discovered the color of blue, or the texture of smooth. It was the sensation of God. It came from within the candle as light, but echoed in the song and the heat of the crowd and returned back to the candle.
On the way out, everyone was dropping their candles into a box, to be used next year. Chris didn’t see how he could give away his vessel of God. When he got near the box, he took off the white disk and flung it in with the rest. With the candle in his coat pocket, he pushed through the crowd and out the door.
They got back to the station wagon. Mark, Matt and Chris mashed into the back seat. Daddy turned on the heat to warm the car up while they waited for Mommy, then fired up a cigarette.
Chris took his candle out and looked at it, to look at the piece of God he had.
“Hey, you were supposed ta leave your candle in the box!” Matt shouted at him. “Dad, Chris stole a candle!”
“Huh?” said Daddy, flicking ashes into the car ash tray. “It’s just a candle.”
“You always let him get away with everything!” Matt said
Daddy rubbed his eyes and said “Forget about it, Matt.”
Mommy opened the passenger side door with a great blast of frigid air. “How was it?” she asked excitedly. Daddy said she was great, it was wonderful, and they went home.
When they arrived back, Daddy herded them all into bed. Chris still had his God candle. He held it under his pillow, clenched in his right fist. Sometime during the night, he released it. But when he woke, the first thing he did was make sure it was still there.
Mark ran down the hallway like a thunder roll. “It’s Christmas!” he shouted. Matt appeared in his doorway. “Get up! It’s time for Christmas!” Chris vaulted for the door. The three of them pounded down the stairs.
The Christmas tree was lit. Around its base spread a skirt of gifts, from the trunk out past the ends of the boughs, trailing onto the couch and barcalounger. The lights and their reflection on the wrapping paper formed a pyramid of glory. The television, the usual focus of the living room, was shoved to the margin. Everything in the room swept toward the ceiling, to the electric star at the point of the tree.
Daddy put a record of Christmas music on the hifi, and they all sat down to the strains of “Sleigh Bells” and began opening presents. Chris got a chemistry set, new pants, and the G.I. Joe laser cannon. Matt got a 900-piece Capsela set; upon tearing the paper off he shouted “YEAH!” and then pointed at Chris and said “You can’t touch this! This is mine!” Mark got a bunch of records and an electric razor. Daddy and Mommy bought a VCR for the whole family. Now Chris could tape cartoons and watch them over and over, no longer at the mercy of the tv schedule.
But the time had to come when Daddy and Mommy received the gifts instead of giving them.
Mark and Matt gladly pulled out what they had, gave neat packages to Mommy and Daddy sitting on the couch next to each other, and his parents smiled and laughed when they saw the golf balls and the agate necklace. Chris hadn’t even wrapped his crappy gifts.
Daddy’s eyes settled on Chris. “Chris, don’t you have something? Right? For Mommy?” he said.
Everyone was looking at him. Chris ran upstairs.
He took his candle from underneath the pillow. He rolled up the top of his desk, found a stub of a pencil and ripped a sheet from his spiral pocket notebook. He wrote:
Dere Mommy and Daddy
This is Good.
Merry Chrissmas, Christopher
He folded the note, lashed it to the candle with a rubber band, and returned downstairs.
Everyone was still looking at him. He marched to the couch and held the candle out in front of him.
Mommy reached out and took it. “It’s his candle from church last night,” Daddy murmured to her. She unrolled the rubber band, unfolded the note and read “Dear Mommy and Daddy. This is good. Merry Christmas, Chris.”
No! thought Chris. Not good, God! This is God! Spelling! One O, one O, numbnuts!
But Mommy was crying and Daddy was pulling him into them. “Yes, honey, it is good. It’s very good,” Mommy said. They enveloped him. Mommy was clutching the candle and still crying. In the warm dark between them, he closed his eyes and felt God again.