A white Christmas for me growing up was not simply that snow had blanketed the ground by Christmas, but that it actually snowed on Christmas. By either definition, I don’t remember many white Christmases. It was often bleak and cold on December 25th in our part of Wisconsin, but at least in my memory the snow, or at least the snow that did not melt away, came later in the season. And since winters did not depart Wisconsin easily, I saw more Easters with snow on the ground than Christmases. In the shadows behind the garage that the sun never reached, there could still be pockets of snow in May.
But there was one Christmas Eve…
Christmas day was largely for playing with new presents and ended with a boring family get-together at Aunt Hazel’s house. I remember little about it other than that the sister and Cousin Margaret lit into the olives at the first opportunity. Instead, as it is for many Germanic and Germanic-descended people, our main focus for the Christmas celebration was not Christmas Day but on Christmas Eve.
By Christmas Eve, the tree would have been up for a week or so. The buying and mounting of the tree were always a difficult process. Now all the Christmas trees I see for sale seem to be nearly perfect—symmetrical with needle-laden branches everywhere and a straight trunk. Not so back then. Finding an acceptable one without too many flaws was always a difficult and time-consuming task, and when it was brought home, much discussion would ensue about which portion of the tree should face the wall to hide the most defects and whether the tree stood as perpendicular to the floor as the often-wavering trunk allowed. Rarely did the family agree on the accepted solution. But the tree was up and decorated well before Christmas Eve.
We opened our presents on Christmas Eve. Nothing was placed under the tree (except for a toy train and a miniature village) before then. I remember that we (I was the youngest of three) were sent to our rooms for a bit. Then there was a “Ho! Ho! Ho!”– now I wonder if that could have been the father—followed by a cry, “Santa’s been here!” One year the family ran to the kitchen window overlooking our backyard. Pointing to a deep, starry sky, one of the parents shouted, “There he goes!” My sister, the eldest, said, “I see him.” (Was this the only time she lied to me?) I looked and looked, but I saw no sleigh, no reindeer, no Santa. I had missed him yet again.
Before the presents were opened, however, we went to a Christmas Eve service at the church. This churchgoing was highly unusual because both parents attended. As far as I can remember, this was the only time of the year my father went, and my mother, at most, went only a few other times a year. (My father drove us kids to Sunday school and then picked us up afterwards. In between he went somewhere else.)
And then one year it happened. We walked into church on this crisp winter night. Even though I can’t sing one note on tune, I have always liked Christmas carols, and, unlike on many Sundays, I enjoyed this service. The last carol was “Silent Night,” then my favorite, and it always gave me a peaceful feeling. We left the church, and there it was: A blanket of snow. During the hour of the service, an inch or two had fallen, and the church steps, the sidewalk, the lawns, the road were all white. The snow was continuing, but it was not so much falling as floating. It was the kind of snow that compelled you to catch some on your tongue. The snow almost hung in front of the streetlamps causing a light that seemed otherworldly. Every pine tree looked like a Christmas tree. It was a white Christmas the way I had imagined a white Christmas should be. It seemed the correctly beautiful and peaceful way to welcome the baby Jesus into the world.