I hope this post finds you and yours well and celebrating the season in whichever way your tradition dictates. Whether its Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, Solstice or Sadeh, Christmas or Pancha Ganapti, I wish you all the best.
Following is my version of the Winter Tradition; at least as it was when I was a child. Ours, my family’s and mine, was one steeped in the Christian and Secular Tradition. Informed by the Christian Bible and embellished with the story of Old Saint Nick, we observed the birth of Christ and the Spirit of Giving embodied in Santa.
I hope you will enjoy this little story of mine and I also hope you will enjoy the company of good friends and family at this magical time of year. “Magical” in that, for many, all differences are set aside and an overarching sense of togetherness and good will are the markers of these days.
So without further ado, here is my A Child’s Christmas in New England (or somewhere thereabout), inspired by my favorite poet Dylan Thomas who decades ago wrote his A Child’s Christmas in Wales and for who I named my son.
Mele Kalikimaka! Slainte! Merry Christmas! Le’chayim! Matunda ya kwanza! Feliz Navidad! Etc! Etc!
A Child’s Christmas in New England by Philip Scott Wikel
(Video At Bottom of Page)
One Christmas was never quite like the other in those years in upstate New York, nearby the black dirt and the pines and Sugar Loaf Mountain all covered since Thanksgiving with a healthy velvet of white; slick, crisp and slippery (depending upon the time of day, night or clouds, and angles of the sun).
One Christmas was never quite like another, but all, from the morning of my eyes to the time when this snow-packed, snow-suited, frost-bit and chapped-lip boy went bounding toward the adulthood that swallows us; left as such to wish for the simple truth of a greyish-yellow snowbound sky, and snowflakes that gave chase and cooled the tips of tongues.
And then there was the radio that gave us the freedom of a snow day:
“Following are the school closings for the greater Middletown area…”
“That’s mine,” said little Philip, squealing with glee.
“Quiet! I want to hear mine,” said Chris, the big brother, chomping at his bit.
“Quiet both of you,” said Carol, the sister sandwiched between two boys and wishing at least one was a sister.
“Breakfast is ready,” mom yelled from the kitchen.
Dad was off climbing poles restoring salvation to the phoneless, cut off by the crack of swirling winds with the intermittently gloved fingers to saving the hands that made us and brought home the turkeys and hams and the makings of egg nog, nutmeg and spice. Trudging in snow, cerrelled and scarfed, he strode like Gawain or Arthur and breathed deep draughts of freezing ether and blasted forth great clouds of short-lived warmth that fought with the air like messianic gospels, swallowed but never digested. His fight was alone in the cold, while we fought each other down the stairs that led to breakfast and a snow day on the edge of a Christmas vacation; two glorious weeks sans schoolbooks with unfettered sledding and ice-skating on the pond turned silver and soft where the seven year wreck sunk slowly in the ice-covered muddy banks and forgot about the factory. The brick factory and all its industry now defunct, but red and lettered forever in the walls of my school and every home that rose from its opening to its closing, decades later; its oral history a tradition known only by the few who dabble in trivia of livings and lives once lead.
Seven days ‘til Christmas,” exclaimed Philip, “better get this letter to Santa, who’s coming?”
The mailbox was just around the corner but, breakfasted and warm and snug in their snow day, the brother and sister couldn’t be bothered.
Perhaps I’ll see Mike McGar, he thought, and his guns and souvenirs from WWII or Mario and eat lasagna or Punky and his seven sisters or maybe still I’ll see Kevin and the whole of the Foley clan and they’ll invite me for egg nog and games and staying up all night if we can.
The days blend then, one to the other, and the clarity is in the coming, and Santa and drummer boys in the whistling wind of carol-singing strollers, mufflered, mittened, and smitten with the instance of meeting a thankful face and regular requests for more.
“Should we shovel driveways? Old Mr. Deanotoris might slip and fall,” said Philip.
“He pays good too,” replied Chris, well on his way to becoming an accountant.
“You’re like Ebenezer.”
“No, I just know what makes things go ‘round… come on little man, I’ll split it with you.”
Each driveway seemed to say something about the occupants of the house. This one had two strips of cement and one must be careful to keep on the track, and, at the same time, in spring they had more places for grass to grow. Another was blacktop and potholed and it might be said these folks could scarcely afford our labors and it was Christmas spirit that gave them to open their purses to two boys of seven and eleven. The Fancher’s house was a grail of sorts, and shiny. Ms. Fancher, the “lollipop lady” in summer, had a park named for her and the icicles that hung from her long porch glistened like silver corinthian columns and we’d get five dollars for just the walk, and tipped with candy canes for the family.
“You boys be good now, Santa’s watching, and be good to your mother and father,” she’d say as we left now moving to the far reaches of a tundra which seemed to encompass the known world. Brother would tell then of Jack London in the Yukon and cutting dogs open to keep your hands warm and I’d be glad that home was just a block away and that we hadn’t a dog for brother to butcher.
Flour, sugar, water, ginger, oil, baking soda, salt.
Dry stuff first, then wet; mixed in a Pyrex bowl.
cut it (allowing for windows and doors)
then bake it.
White frosting mortar,
red & green M&M’s,
peppermint candies and red hots.
The kitchen is filled with the heavy scent of gingerbread.
“Now don’t eat too much of the icing, it’ll make you sick and rot your teeth.”
“Ok mom, but my stomach already hurts.”
“Drink some club soda. And Carol, can you hand me the icer.”
A classic “Saltbox” blueprint pressed in the pages of a 1962 Betty Crocker cookbook. The instructions written in a hand long since passed on.
“It’s important to get the first two walls together straight and strong.”
“Here mom, I’ll hold’em.” says the little boy.
“Thank you Philip, and Carol, can you get me a wet towel.”
Mom breathes heavily through her mouth, though her lips are close together. The air makes almost a whistling sound and Philip thinks how like music or the sound of the wind it is. Mom is copying the weather outside he thinks. Jack Frost north winds blowing across the continent and threatening to collapse the gingerbread walls. The weather sent dad out on overtime, fixing phone lines.
Her thumb struggles against the icer and turns red in places and flushes to white in others and the pressure looks to Philip as if it might hurt.
“Hard to push that thing down Mom?”
“Yes, but I’ve got it. It shouldn’t come out too fast or too slow. Do you want to try it?”
“You better do this first part mom. I’ll try on the next one.”
“Ok, hold the two walls up and steady.”
Philip holds the walls up and hopes his hands won’t shake or wobble. He feels his shoulder muscles tighten and his fingers tense. He starts to breathe like his mother and now he’s Jack Frost.
“Steady,” says mom.
“I’m trying,” says Philip.
Mom squirts the icing all the down the length of the walls where they make a corner together. “Ok,” she says and motions for Philip to let go. Mom then wiggles the walls so they fit tightly.
“Hold’em again, please.”
She squirts more icing on the inside and the outside of the walls and leans and takes a long satisfying breath.
“You guys want to go out and play now? This is going to take a while to dry.”
“I’ll get my sled.” says Philip.
“Your big brother should be down by the pond. Get your warm jackets on and I’ll see you in about an hour.”
Sister Carol has the watch and Philip admires that she will be the one to know when it’s time to come back. Out through the back door, the ground crunches under their feet with Philip nearly falling as he walked down the back steps. There is a layer of ice under a couple inches of snow and his rubber boots can’t find friction.
“Hurry up you little poop,” his sister says.
“It’s icy,” says Philip.
“Well step down hard like me.” Carol steps down hard and Philip sees that her footsteps are deep and the ridges around her footsteps serve as support walls for her boots. They don’t slip and she strides like an eskimo around the back of the garage and into Mr. Van Leuven’s yard.
“D’ya think we could toboggan Mr. Van Leuven’s yard?” Philip asks.
“Not steep enough,” Carol replies.
They trudge through the open space of the yard. The snow is deeper there in the open space away from the trees and it threatens to sneak into their boots. Philip keeps his head down watching for it to do so and runs head first into his sister.
“What’re you doing?” he asks.
‘My underwear is crawling up my butt,” she says, adjusting the seat of her pants.
“You’ve got a wedgie,” Philip says smiling.
“Shut up you little poop.” Carol says.
At the guard rail where [Washington] street turns and goes down they drag their sleds around the end of the rail and look for signs of their brother and other kids. Their breath is like pipe smoke and Philip thinks how it looks like they’re a couple of Godzillas about to burn each other.
“I’m Godzilla,” he says and rushes at his sister, “Rarrrrrr.”
“Get away you little dork.”
“Stop calling me names or I’ll tell mom.”
“I’m sorry,” she replies smiling, “you little dork.”
“How’d you like it?” he says.
“All right, I’m sorry.”
“I’m going first.” he says and jumps in front of his sister. The trail is steep but smooth. In summer it’s strewn with craggy rocks and divots but the ice has filled it in and Philip flies like an Olympic luge racer on a Yankee Clipper. He negotiates the twists and turns with grace, ducking beneath “sticker” bushes as he nearly derails a couple of times, then slows to the opening of the woods, where he grabs the sled’s “leash” and begins to drag it toward the pond.
He looks up at the hills which they call the pines and is projected in his mind along the dusted treetops and imagines himself again as Jack Frost; this time flying and blowing the snow into little tornadoes. The pines are his Sherwood or Black Forest and he situates himself among them as some claymation figure from the Christmas shows on TV.
Carol comes sliding in behind him, red-faced and smiling.
“The trail’s perfect huh?” he says.
“Yeah that was a good run.”
The two continue walking toward the pond.
“Can I drag your sled for ya,” asks Philip.
“I’ve got it, thanks.”
“How do ya think the gingerbread’s doing?”
“We’ve got a little time.”
“I love you sis.”
“I love you too.”
The two would be grounded together soon after and it was because they loved each other that it would be ok.
Snowmen rolled in spheres that revealed the green of grass beneath and, stacked in threes we endeavored to emulate the likes of which we’d seen on TV with Rudolph and Hermy, Silver and Gold, Yukon Cornelius and Heat Miser, the story of Jesus and Nestor the long-eared donkey, an ugly-duckling made blesséd in the great act of carrying divinely chosen mothers.
In the evenings when dad returned from Siberian drifts and pole-high wind-chills we huddled on an itchy couch and wound ourselves for a concert of five voices in the firelight, Mitch Miller songbooks chocked with chestnuts roasting, winter wonderlands and Merry Gentleman resting with the chiming of silver bells and memories of our grandparents in Yonkers and the clean streets of Manhattan made glorious with garlands and “Chock full of nuts” cups of coffee and hot chocolate with peppermints, the buildings lit like candies dancing toward a sky that reached for the convening of Santas race around the world.
John Denver shared Aspenglow and taught us the beauty of a cowboy’s Christmas, myself riding a black beauty in the heart of plains with thanks given to the stars that cities never see. And I would imagine his Zachary as me and think dad would have sung this to me if song had been his life. Talk then turns to the wooded journey for our tree and me pretending I’m Tiny Tim and finding a pine branch to use as a crutch.
And in the end the scene descends to a baby in the manger placed by my mother with loving insistence and a wish for another year filled with love and hardships overcome.
Children asleep, parents take the last minutes of this silent night to assemble that which Santa hadn’t time then settle in for a few hours rest and the best day of the year when all will rise to the birth of Christ and open the gifts given in His honor.