Dad finally came in from the fields to the early dinner Mom had prepared. All us kids sat around the table, eager to eat dinner so we could get to the annual Christmas Eve service at Harmony Ridge. Large glasses for fresh milk with homemade cornbread crumbled in it were at our places with spoons. Mom indulged my dislike of milk and laid a biscuit and a slice of ham at my place. We'd all tried to look our best. Eleven year old Norma Lee and 9 year old Elsie were wearing their Sunday-go-to-meeting dresses and I had on my favorite frock, feeling as beautiful as any five year old could. Even 3 year old Laurie had allowed Mother to slick his hair. The anticipation in the air sucked all idle chatter from us. In just a short time-which seemed like an eternity to my 5 year old mind-we would see the decorated Christmas tree and receive the gifts Santa Claus has most likely already delivered to Harmony Ridge Church for us.
Dad commented he was glad we didn't have to depend on the horse and buggy tonight. It was always a concern using them at night because they had no lights. Secretly, we knew he was just proud to own a Model T Ford to transport his family in style. Although riding in the buggy was fun, the Ford would take us to our destination lickety-split and much more comfortably.
After the dishes were cleared, Dad announced, "Ok kids. Load up!" He didn't need to ask us twice. We ran and jumped into the open Model T. Norma Lee took charge and directed her adolescent charges to pull down the Isinglass shades to keep out the cold Texas air and allow the carefully coiffed hairdos to remain intact. Dad gave the car a hardy crank and it puttered to life. We were on our way to Christmas!
The two mile ride to Harmony Ridge took us down a long lane cutting through Dad's fields and pasture land. Laurie mooed at the cows. He wanted to keep on good terms with them since he liked drinking their milk. We skirted the hill and traveled up to the top of Harmony Ridge, where Grandad had given the land and the community had worked in great harmony to build the church/school. Even though we attended church services here on Sundays, tonight it seemed magical. The three windows on each side of the wooden structure glowed with mellow kerosene lamplight. The Johnson's, Uncle Arthur's family, Uncle John's family, the Senterfitts, the Richmonds, Pattons, and Dawsons had already arrived and were waiting outside for the Oliver family to arrive so we could all go up the three steps into the church and behold the Christmas tree together. Laurie and I took off running as soon as Dad stopped the car under the lone tree beside the church. We made a bee line for the front door.
The spectacle stopped us cold. A tall cedar tree, reaching up to the ceiling, was glimmering and twinkling with lit candles clipped to every branch. The aroma filled the church and our noses. Long white ropes of popcorn circled the tree. And yes! Santa HAD come and left presents beneath the tree. I was glad Santa Claus had such a beautiful place to visit as he delivered our gifts. I was sure he even rested for a while on the rough hewn pews Grandad Risien had designed.
Rev. Dysart opened with prayer in an unsuccessful attempt to take my focus off the red and green wrapped presents beneath the tree. How could I close my eyes when the flickering candles had me hypnotized? Eventually, the singing of carols took my mind away from the gift with a sprig of holly attaching my name to it and back to the story of Jesus' miraculous birth. With a calming sigh, I thought nothing could be more wonderful than sitting next to my family, in a church my Grandad's founded, basking in the glow of candles and lamplight, and hearing how Jesus came to Earth as a baby to one day save me from my sins. On top of that, Santa Claus had left a gift for me under the tree!
The service ended with a rousing "Joy to the World" and the youngest child, Laurie, was presented with his gift. The paper flew off and everyone clapped at the delight Laurie showed as he held his new metal truck . I was next. Being five made me open my present a bit more decorously, but I couldn't help but squeal when I saw my new baby doll in a blanket. "What will you name her?", Mom asked. Words wouldn't form in my mouth. It may take a couple of years to name my baby. After all, that's how long it took Mom and Dad to find a perfect name for me. Hugging my baby doll close to me and "swaddling" her as best as I knew how, I hardly noticed the others open their presents.
Outside was clear and cold. Too bad it wouldn't snow tonight like last year when we discovered boot tracks left by Santa on our front steps leading right into our house. Tonight he'd be able to slip in and out with no forensic evidence left behind, other than missing cookies.
Once home, we hung our long, clean stockings on the chair knobs. We checked them thoroughly. It would be a shame for Santa Claus to see any holes and a bigger shame if the orange he always left us fell out. After Dad insured the cookies were left for Santa, we tumbled into bed and somehow managed to drift into sleep.
It was still dark when Laurie kicked me under the covers. "He's been here! I think I heard him eating the cookies." It didn't take much effort to rouse the rest of the family. Yes indeed! He HAD filled our stockings with candy, an orange and a new pair of house shoes. Mine were just like my big sisters' and we all slipped them on. Santa had left Laurie a wagon and he was jumping and pacing and beggin' to ride it. Out to the hill we all scampered. Laurie got the first ride and eagerly lugged it back up the hill. Norma Lee demanded to go next, as she was the oldest. Time after time we took turns carooming down the hill and pulling the new vehicle back up. We heard Mom calling us for breakfast and we were more than ready for it. At that moment, I saw Norma Lee look down and Elsie do the same. I mimicked their motion and discovered we had worn out our new house shoes trudging up and down the hill.
Eighty six Christmases have come and gone since then. Many pairs of house shoes have been given and worn out, uncountable oranges eaten and even real babies have been swaddled. Yet, the Christmas of 1923 set the standard for the joy of Christmas. May the true Joy of Christmas, His abiding love, and dear family and friends be with you this blessed season.