Christmas is our most beloved holiday. No other holiday is so richly decorated, seasoned by joy, and trumpeted with music. It is so big it must be celebrated in a variety of traditions.
The Christmas Stories is a collection of twenty pieces that explore these traditions, sometimes with humor. The stories were written and read aloud by the author, one each year, at an annual advent worship service at St Stephen Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, to not only entertain but to inspire readers and listeners to find their own Christmas stories to share.
The stories in The Christmas Stories are a mix of fact and fiction but, regardless, address certain truths about Christmas we never question. For example, we know that every year we go home for Christmas, even if it’s just a journey of the heart, and that children agonize having to wait one slow day at a time for Christmas to arrive, while adults embrace the wait and even give it a name, advent. And that even secularists celebrate the holiday as the highest altar of peace, love, and joy.
The Christmas Stories is meant not only to entertain but to inspire readers to find their own stories to share about this most beloved season.
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The Christmas Stories
By Ted Field
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Ted Field
All rights reserved.
Good Receivers 1999
Tis the season of giving. And receiving. At Christmas we call it giving — rather than receiving — gifts, even though the transaction requires both. One doesn't happen without the other. It's like a game of catch, needing two people, one to throw and one to catch. But we don't call it a game of throw. By its name, we take the throwing for granted and place the greater burden on catching the ball. The success is in the receiving.
Giving gifts may be an important ritual of Christmas but I submit that more responsibility for a good Christmas gift exchange should fall on the receiver. Good receiving can be hard, particularly when it's a gift that challenges the limits of your appreciation, like a tie resembling all the others hanging in your closet. It's like a game of catch where not every throw hits you in the hands.
My brother was an honest, if not diplomatic, gift receiver. A distant aunt once sent him a dress shirt that he didn't care for. It was a nice shirt, but just too highfalutin for his Salvation Army tastes. When he told me he was impartial to the shirt, I remarked how much I liked it and he tossed it to me in a quick exchange of ownership.
"Here," he said. "It's yours."
Fulfilling his responsibility to send a thank-you note, he took the honest path and confessed to the aunt what he had done, pointing out the double benefit of his act. He wrote that Ted loved the shirt while he was touched by the thought behind the gift, something he was able to keep. Two gifts for the price of one. A gift that keeps on giving.
But in truth he got the better end of the deal. He received the genuine emotion from someone who cared for him, while all I got was the symbol of that emotion. The shirt wore out one day, but the emotion never did.
Sometimes it's hard to find the emotional intent. At those times it's a challenge to remember that the thought behind the gift should be honored, rather than the gift itself.
One of my favorite stories about Christmas receiving comes from a novel called Sometimes A Great Notion. It's not a book about Christmas, but rather the story of a bunch of roughneck Oregon loggers, the Stamper family, led by older brother Hank.
The Stampers were brawlers, attracted to fisticuffs and bloody noses. The exception was Hank's cousin Joe Ben, whose charitable and optimistic nature contrasted sharply with the combative approach to life of the rest of the family, and Hank in particular. Joe Ben was kind and generous and believed everyone else was too. He had grown up viewing the world as a simple place filled with people of good intentions. He smiled at everything. To Hank and the others, Joe Ben had a tinker toy mind. During the day, as he worked amidst the roar of chain saws and crashing timber, he sang to the music playing on a transistor radio that hung from his neck.
The Stampers were not rich, so there were never piles of presents under the Christmas tree. As loggers eking out a living in the woods, they didn't have any trouble getting a tree, but decorating it was not always easy. So, every year when they were young, the Stamper boys got presents that were limited to whatever their stockings could hold: candy and yo-yo's and marbles and such. But on Christmas morning every year Joe Ben cheerfully sifted through the spare contents of his stocking and expressed his gratitude that Santa Claus had once again included him in his rounds. He always saw good fortune in his gifts before anyone else did.
Joe Ben's unbridled glee irritated his cousins to the point that one year Hank decided to pull a nasty trick on him. As boys, they lived in the same house, and late on Christmas Eve, after Santa had come and gone, Hank snuck downstairs, careful not to awaken the others. He took Joe Ben's stocking down from the mantle and emptied it and filled it with horse manure. Giggling to himself, he re-hung the stocking and slipped back into bed.
In the morning the boys dashed to the fireplace. Joe Ben grabbed his stocking and peered inside. His eyes grew wide as saucers. Then he suddenly dropped the stocking and ran to the front door. Hank, holding back a chuckle, asked, "Joe, where you goin'? What did ol' Santa bring you?"
Joe Ben reached for a piece of rope hanging from a hook by the door and answered, "Brought me a bran' new pony, but he got away. I'll catch him if I hurry." And then he ran out the door.
If someone had showed Joe Ben there was no pony, only a bad joke, he would have thanked the giver of the fertilizer and started a vegetable garden. He may have been holding the gift of a bad intention, but it was still a gift — with an intention of some kind — and he couldn't help but look beyond it in search of some good emotion that accompanies any gift. He was thankful, a good receiver.
This year, let's be like Joe Ben and dream of ponies, but be thankful of fertilizer. Let's not overlook the emotions behind the gifts. As we all know, the best gifts, large or small, come from the heart. Let's remember what the gifts are: the symbols of something that connects us every year at this time. Let's be good Christmas receivers.
It's been said that the wise men started the tradition of Christmas giving with the gifts they brought to the manger. They placed frankincense and myrrh at Mary's feet and stepped back to admire the Christ child. But, really, who was giving and who was receiving that night? And for the past two thousand years, every Christmas we celebrate again receiving God's greatest gift. We try to be good receivers. We're given the same gift every Christmas and unwrap it with the same wonder, joy and thanks. Year after year it goes on. It's been like a good game of catch.CHAPTER 2
Waiting for Christmas 2000
My grandmother had an expression that comes to mind this time of year. Anytime she thought I was moving too slowly and ordered me to speed up, I would always reply, "I'm coming", and then she got in the last word. "So is Christmas. You're as slow as Christmas."
These are words every child understands and knows to be true. Nothing is as slow as Christmas. Nothing approaches you slower than Christmas. The weeks leading up to Santa's arrival move imperceptibly with the speed of a glacier. For kids, the wait is agonizing, while grown-ups embrace the wait and even give it a name — advent — and celebrate it as a special event of its own. There is as much joy in knowing something wonderful is coming and having to wait for it as there is in actually experiencing it. We prefer a slow and sweet approach to Christmas but try explaining this to a child and he'll look at you like you have mistletoe sticking out your nose. Wait for Christmas? Are you crazy?
Christmas can't come too fast for a kid.
My father told me a story from his youth about a year he had to wait longer than usual for Christmas to arrive. It was the year he turned ten.
As usual, my father — Bill — went to bed on Christmas Eve with such anticipation of the next morning that sleep would not come, so he rose from his bed and sat at his bedroom window to look out over a neighborhood of snow-covered rooftops. This was Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where it always snowed. To say White Christmas in the U.P. is to repeat yourself.
His bedroom view took in countless chimneys, something his own house lacked. He was still young enough to believe that Santa Claus was on his way with a toy list that included Bill's name. He was sure he passed the "naughty or nice" test. After all, if every broken window or eruption of profanity sentenced a boy to the "naughty" column, Santa might as well cancel his trip and stay at the Pole on Christmas.
Bill's father had no trouble convincing Bill that the lack of a fireplace in their home wouldn't stop Santa from entering the house. He would use some other portal, like, say, the front door. Of course. It had to be. Surely, Santa's talents included the house-entering skills of a burglar.
Bill lay down and finally fell asleep. When he awoke, his room was still dark. Outside, the dim light of dawn was on the horizon, but there was nothing dim about his eagerness to get downstairs and see what Santa had left him.
He had been advised not to get up so early, so he quietly tip-toed down the stairs to the living room, which was also dark as a cave. He chose not to turn on a lamp and instead relied on his keen memory of the room's space and furniture layout to advance to the corner where he knew the Christmas tree stood over a bounteous assemblage of presents. Dropping to his knees, he felt underneath. The moment he had been dreaming about for months had finally arrived.
But there was nothing there.
His hand struck the bare hardwood floor and nothing else.
He extended his reach further to the other side of the tree. Still nothing. A panic seize him. He crawled to an end table and reached for the lamp. Convinced that Santa had left gifts somewhere else in the room, he turned it on to look. Still nothing. There wasn't a toy or a ribbon or a bow in the entire room. Even the stockings were flat-empty.
There are many things that can devastate a ten-year old, but nothing can utterly crush him as much as the realization that the biggest day of the year has passed him by. The wishes and expectations, the anxious weeks of waiting, the promise of Christmas — everything leading up to this single moment of reward had failed Bill and left him with an emptiness that made him ill. As unimaginable as it seemed, inexplicably, Santa had missed him and would not be back for another year.
All this struck him in a matter of seconds.
Bill dropped to his knees and began to cry, so loud that he awoke his father, who put on a bathrobe and came downstairs muttering to himself. When he saw Bill, he didn't have to ask why he was up at the early hour — he knew why — and rather than scold him he crossed to room to give his son a hug. Then, he assessed the situation.
With Bill at his side, he walked around the house and into front hallway, where he found an important clue to the calamity: the front door was locked. Grasping for hope of any kind, Bill wiped his tears and watched his father turn the deadbolt and swing the door open. Together, they peered out through the storm door.
It had snowed the night before. Again.
In the blue, pre-dawn light, Bill could see that the front step and yard and sidewalk lay under a blanket of fresh, unbroken snow. There wasn't even the trace of a footprint. Bill looked up at his father. He wanted to believe so much that this was it, the cause of the problem. In moments of crisis, kids place their highest trust in their parents.
"Son," his father said, "let's go back to bed. I think Santa will try us again if we go back to bed. What do you say?"
What could he say? He had no other choice. Giving Santa a second chance was unheard of, but what did he have to lose?
Bill nodded and mumbled a few words of approval. His father turned off the lamp and they went up the stairs. His father tucked him in and assured him everything would be fine. Somehow, Bill was able to rid the crisis from his mind and fall asleep again.
Three hours later he awoke to a room bright with morning sunshine. He rushed downstairs and peered into the living room. Under the tree lay a sled and a football and other presents. The stockings on the fireplace bulged and sagged with great promise. Santa had come! He had really come! Shortly, the rest of his family joined in his celebration of Christmas's arrival. His father watched Bill move happily from toy to toy and then commented that Santa just needed a little more time to come this year.
The pre-dawn events of that morning came back to Bill, and after a moment of private reflection he set his new toys down and moved to the front door. He grasped the doorknob and pulled, and when the unlocked door swung open easily, he nodded with approval. The simple opening of the door was enough for him to accept what had happened, but when his gaze wandered out beyond the doorway and across the front yard, he found the clincher.
There was a carpet of clean, white snow extending smooth and unmarked out to the street, covering everything up to the door, except for the newspaper rolled up and laying out by the curb, and. ... something else. The snow on the front steps was trampled by boot prints, which also made a trail down the steps and across the yard and around the edge of the house to some unknown source — and destination — behind the garage. The line of prints was straight and purposeful. In a landscape of new-fallen snow, the prints were out of place and beyond explanation.
Bill couldn't take his eyes off the tracks. He stood there at the door until finally his father came to his side. Bill peered up at him for some confirmation of what he was seeing.
"Yeah," his father said. "Santa just needed a way to get into the house. Sometimes he needs a little help." Bill nodded.
My father told me this story when I was the same age he had been when it happened. In my immediate reaction I was spellbound by a story proving the existence of Santa. Great news! And, besides the importance of keeping the fireplace clean, I thought the lesson was that great disappointment is always lurking and can settle on us unexpectedly. But I missed the real message. The story really is about the absolute certainty that Christmas will come. The story tells me to have faith. Don't worry about its arrival. Kids will fret, and they'll value Christmas by the presents under the tree while adults will value it for something more, but either way, there is great joy when it comes. We sense it long before it happens. And when we are certain of its arrival, we revel in the anticipation. Waiting brings the same joy. We don't agonize over the wait. We welcome it, because Christmas always comes.CHAPTER 3
The Christmas Party 2001
Thirty years ago this week I joined the Army and prepared to spend Christmas away from home for the first time in my life.
I left home with light luggage. Besides a toothbrush, a change of underwear, and a paperback novel, I carried only the simple advice of a friend who had recently been discharged from the military. He told me, "Ted, whatever you do, don't ever, ever volunteer for anything in the Army. Nothing good comes from volunteering. It can only get you into trouble." The advice lacked any trace of holiday cheer but I still regarded it as an early Christmas gift.
I remember leaving home. It was a cold night in early December and my father drove me to the bus station in Alexandria. As the Trailways bus to Richmond pulled in to load, we stood on the sidewalk and said our goodbyes.
Dad recognized the moment as a parental milestone and that we were observing a rite of passage.
"I never imagined it would be like this," he said. "I pictured you going off to a job and getting your own place, starting a career, maybe close to home. But look at you." He was commenting on the sparseness of the belongings I carried, literally the clothes on my back and a rucksack over my shoulder. The Army wants you to leave home that way. They're waiting for you at the other end with everything you'll need. In that way, Army is a lot like camp.
The next day I was in the barracks in Kentucky to start boot camp.
My adjustment to basic training didn't go well. During my first week, for some unknown reason, I couldn't sleep. Despite long, rigorous days I lay at night wide-eyed in my top bunk staring at the high dark ceiling and struggling with my awakened state, listening to the barracks creak and moan against the wind outside and other recruits like me stirring restlessly in their bunks or moving about. Maybe the new surroundings were the cause of my insomnia. Or maybe it was my uncertain future in an overseas war. I never figured it out.
Whatever the cause, I knew I couldn't go on like this. Eventually, I would have to sleep. I felt that I needed just one good night's snooze to recharge. Without it, my condition would undo me in some unexpected and calamitous way, like a fumble on the hand grenade range. Or maybe my general health would deteriorate to the point I couldn't think or function. Restricted to only the barracks and mess hall, I couldn't get to the PX to buy a chemical aid for this sort of problem, so there seemed to be no cure other than to wait for my mind and body to reach their absolute limits of endurance and succumb to exhaustion on the verge of unconsciousness.
Meanwhile, I rose each morning to revile and struggled through the routines of boot camp orientation. Christmas liberty was two weeks way. My problem needed a solution sooner than that.
Then, on the sixth day, a fix appeared on the horizon. Our drill sergeant gave us some good news. That evening, all of us in the barracks would be granted a short liberty, two hours at the enlisted men's club at the end of the street, nothing ritzy, just a place where we could play cards, listen to music on a juke box, play ping-pong, or shoot pool. Or, for refreshment, drink some beer.
Excerpted from The Christmas Stories by Ted Field. Copyright © 2016 Ted Field. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
Good Receivers, 1,
Waiting for Christmas, 7,
The Christmas Party, 13,
Yes, Charlie, There Is A Santa Claus, 21,
I'll Be Home For Christmas, 27,
The Christmas Program, 35,
Where Have All the Shepherds Gone?, 41,
Friends You Choose, 47,
Christmas Bell, 53,
O Holy Night, 61,
This Little Light Of Mine, 69,
White Christmas, 77,
The Garage Singer, 85,
No Room In The Inn, 91,
A Christmas Carol, 99,
'Tis The Season, 113,
Away In The Manger — Part 1, 119,
Away In The Manger — Part 2, 129,
The Greatest Christmas Story, 141,