December 21, 2007

“Ghosts” of Christmas Past

Category: News — Ira @ 6:53 pm


“At Christmas, all roads lead home.”
—Marjorie Holmes

I am a Grinch when it comes to Christmas. Not the virulent “bah, humbug” variety, but a solid out and out Grinch nonetheless. I carry these credentials proudly. This year, I mailed out one lonely Christmas card, to my parents. I have yet to buy a single gift for anyone. The plastic Christmas tree (just assemble it and plug it in, and behold, a thousand little twinkling lights) remains stored in the garage this year. No Christmas lights, iceberg or otherwise, flicker outside on my porch. And yes, the house is dark and cold, devoid of Christmas cheer. (Well, perhaps that is a bit dramatic. I do indulge in Christmas cookies and candy, shattering my carefully controlled diet to smithereens in the process.) Unlike the original Grinch, I do not have a dog to kick around.

It’s not that I hate Christmas, far from it. I always look forward to the season, the good food, a good day to watch college football. Same this year. And it’s not that I’m turned off by all the commercialization. I don’t blame any merchants for hyping the season for sales. I would too. It’s just that Christmas, other than being a day off, was never the huge event for me that it seems to be for many people. I never had visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. I don’t even know what a sugarplum is.


We observed Christmas when I was a child. Observed, not celebrated. We always knew Christmas was approaching when the Eaton’s Christmas Catalog arrived in the mail. A great, bound, thick book of goodies. I spent many hours paging through and drooling over the toys section. I always wanted a toy barn and little animals. The catalog displayed them in full tantalizing, colorful detail. Of course, such an item was only a dream, beyond the realm of possibility.

Then one year, my sister Magdalena, who taught school in Conneautville, PA, brought home a box with a toy barn and animals. Store bought. Made of bright plastic. White with a brown roof. At Christmas. We were ecstatic. Dad frowned darkly at spending money on such trivial things, but he let us keep it. It provided hours and hours of fun on cold winter evenings.


In Aylmer, some grim but influential church members (radical elements) had a strong aversion to getting too excited about anything that remotely smacked of Christmas. They were actually hostile about it, almost to the point of ignoring Christmas alto-gether. At least we didn’t have school on Christmas Day. But we did have church service every Christmas afternoon. Which was a downer for us children. To have to go sit on hard backless benches for three hours did not seem to us a cheery or particu-larly Christmassy thing to do. That’s because it wasn’t.

It was always cold. Bitterly so. The winter winds whipped and the snow slithered about like a living thing, creating huge drifts and piles along the sides of the roads. We got up on Christmas morning, stood shivering around the great wood-burning furnace Dad had just lit in the living room, waiting for the heat to penetrate. On the kitchen table, Mom had always set out a row of coffee cups, one for each of us. Each cup was filled with candies and nuts. Usually a piece of fruit, perhaps an orange, lay beside each cup. My brothers and I raced to be the first one to get to the table, so we could carefully compare the cups and choose the fullest one. Once chosen, it was yours. No switching. We munched on the sweets before heading to the barn for our morning chores.

After breakfast, Dad always read the Christmas story from Luke, Chapter two. In German. We sang some mournful slow-tune church songs. Which never went that well. Then had the rest of the morning to ourselves. We normally just lounged about, reading or playing. After a noon snack, we had to get ready for church. If I remember right, it was acceptable to have guests for the evening meal. The next day, it was back to school.

We sang Christmas carols at school. As a child, my favorite Christmas song was “We three Kings….” It still is. At school, we staged an occasional Christmas program, even though the aforementioned radical elements fiercely opposed such a thing. Too much like the “world.” They were downright grim about it. Killjoys. Bears, we called them. And that’s what they were. Glum, grizzled bears. I remember only a few such pro-grams, and I don’t know how we got away with even those. Must have slipped through when the bears had let down their guard. Or were hibernating.

Later, in the spring, we were allowed to have a school program where we sang and recited poems, but of course it had nothing to do with Christmas. I guess we were all better Christians that way, what with denying ourselves what little joys we could and all. Or so some thought. And what they thought mattered in that world.

We eventually moved to Iowa, where Christmas was much more vigorously and openly celebrated. Some families there even had a tradition of giving each other presents. We were awed that such freedom could exist. I was a teenager then, just entering the magical “sweet sixteen” years, when a youth thinks he’s an adult and no one has the heart to tell him otherwise.

We went caroling in the cold with the youth group, driving from house to house about the community, our steel-rimmed buggy wheels squeaking loudly on the frozen snow-packed roads. We stood outside the houses in the cold and sang “Stars of December” until we sickened of the song. We hollered, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” Folks invited us into the warmth of their homes. We ate lots of sweets and drank coffee and cocoa. We got home at midnight, or later, slept in delicious exhaustion.

Each year, my sister Naomi made a special Christmas candy. It became a tradition. She laid row upon row of the freshly-coated candy on large flat pans and set them out to cool in the porch or the pantry; we furtively swiped a piece or two as we walked by. The candy recipe was a secret, I think, a rich mixture of cream and butter and sugars, covered with dark brown melted chocolate. She learned it as a young girl from Eli Hostetler’s wife Mandy. Naomi still makes it today because she sent me a box of it this week. It tastes as good as I always remembered it, the most delicious confection imaginable.

I left home for good in 1988. After emerging from all the dust and baggage of that experience, the old home place seemed far away, in another lifetime. It felt like it would always be that way. But, as Christmas approached, some of the battle weari-ness receded, the old longings stirred within. I could not ignore them.

And so my brother Nate, who had also left, and I began a tradition of our own. For a stretch of years from the early to mid 1990s, we went home for Christmas. Despite the scorched earth we had fled, it was still the only real “home” our hearts knew. We returned again and again for that special day.

We always stopped in town on the way out and bought Mom a large red poinsettia and Dad a box of chocolate-covered cherries, his favorite. Mom always met us at the door with a smile of welcome, jubilant that her boys were home, if only for a few days. Dad greeted us politely and went bustling on about his business. Mom fluttered about, laughing and filling us in with the latest tidbits of news and gossip as she hovered above the crackling Pioneer kitchen stove, brewing strong black coffee and stirring our favorite soup concoctions for the next meal.

Dad and I developed a small tradition of our own. On the first night home, we sat up late, until midnight or after, just the two of us, discussing many things. The old mantle lantern glowed and hissed behind us, blending with our muted voices. Somewhere in these conversations, he ceased his endless admonitions and we just talked, man to man. It was a new experience for me, a milestone I will always cherish. He asked a lot of questions about my college classes. I often told him he should have gone to college. He always chuckled and claimed he had no regrets, which may or may not have been true.

Usually, after two or three days, it was time to leave, to return to our world. We could always feel it. Nothing overt, just a subtle nudging. Maybe it was just our weariness of living the old lifestyle, which receded ever deeper into unreality every year.

Then, one year we did not go. It didn’t suit one of us. And the tradition simply faded away and died. It has now been probably ten plus years since I’ve been to my parents’ home for Christmas.

Traditions come. And they go. As did this one. I don’t particularly mourn it. But I’m glad it happened as it did and when it did.

This year I will spend the day with some of my family and some friends. I plan to enjoy it. Eat lots of food. Watch lots of football. Relax. Watch “A Christmas Story,” which plays on TBS for 24 hours straight. And since I have been so lackadaisical about mailing out Christmas cards, here goes. To all my readers: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

And I’m still a Grinch.





  1. Ira,

    Merry Christmas! Excellently written, as usual; though I am puzzled that you left a grinch upbringing, yet remained one.


    Comment by Len — December 22, 2007 @ 6:23 pm

  2. Ira:

    Meeting you at Weston Priory was one of my best blessings this year.

    I enjoyed this essay on Christmas. My wife, son and I love Christmas and hold some kind of traditional carol sing every year for friends. What we don’t do much is gather for the day with other family members (only three times in 31 years of marriage). My mom and grandmother always turned the occasions into a soap opera of sorts and by adulthood, I had just worn out on the “big reuniuon event” theory of family Christmas. You can always see who you need to see in January or July or whenever.

    But the news is good: Christ was born to and for us.



    Comment by Kent Hansen — December 22, 2007 @ 9:42 pm

  3. I was shocked there was no German “Second Christmas” (on the 26th) in your childhood, but I guess that plays up Christmas too much. It’s a tradition I quickly adopted, and usually a good day for quiet reflection after the bustle, especially while everyone naps or are off playing.

    This is not place or time for philosophy and debate (but moralizing never leaves me!), so I add only this preface: “Some celebrate special days, and some do not. Let all be done to the Lord.”

    That said, here’s the tidbit. In Leland Ryken’s fascinating survey of America’s Puritan forebears, “Worldly Saints,” an illustration preserves a sign that hung in a New England town: “Gift-giving and other Satanical practices strictly forbidden.” Indeed, they had civil penalties for breaking these Church-induced community rules. While I, too, find it curious, I reflect that much of what is left of our country’s blessing probably remains because of their (heard) prayers, sincere-hearted service to the Lord, and their hard work in a Biblically-guided attempt to lay foundations for a society that would be a “city set on a hill” in the world. Would that we could recapture that essence.

    Nevertheless, I kind of wish I could walk up to one of the black-suited men in an inordinately tall hat, shake his hand, and wish him a hearty, “Merry Christmas!” (Judging from the books they read, that would probably issue in a several hour conversation, if not weeks and months of theological debate — and I no doubt would learn a few things. Might even have time to reflect in the stocks!) Celebrate!

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — December 23, 2007 @ 3:51 pm

  4. Christmastime! A special time for family and friends-when all thoughts and hearts turn toward home… Let’s remember the true meaning of Christmas-peace, love, forgiveness, sharing, etc.

    Remember Christmas of 1989? Southern Iowa was COLD COLD, with zero to subzero temperatures through December. You and Nathan parked your Nissan inside our dairy barn to keep it from freezing!

    Christmas Eve was a special time for us as our second son was born. You guys stopped at the hospital to see him before heading south to sunny S.C. on Christmas Day.

    Comment by marvin & rhoda — December 24, 2007 @ 11:32 am

  5. HAPPY BIRTHDAY to sister Rachel, the Christmas Birthday lady whose birthday always gets passed over somehow, because of all the hustle & bustle!!!

    See you tomorrow Ira…

    Comment by wilma wagler — December 24, 2007 @ 4:26 pm

  6. Uncle..I always remember with fondness the time you and Nate spent patiently teaching us about playing football and the fun hours we spent, usually on cold holiday afternoons, (Thanksgiving and Christmas) lots of loud shouting, running in all directions…”TOUCHDOWN”

    My heart will stay forever young with these special memories! Merry Christmas one and all!

    Dorothy (posting from Janice’s computer)

    Comment by Dorothy — December 25, 2007 @ 6:30 pm

  7. Speaking of traditions… my memories of Wagler Christmas includes THE MONOPOLY GAME. Much LOUD shouting, blustering and complaining- and that was just in the warmup phase! Could it have been as rowdy as I remember it?

    Merry (belated) Christmas to all!

    Comment by jason yutzy — December 26, 2007 @ 4:03 pm

  8. Ira:

    I am so proud of my Colts for how well they have played despite having enough injuries to fill up a small hospital. Fully healthy, we absolutely can beat the Patriots–in Foxboro too. But without Freeney, I’m just not sure. One of the main reasons we hung in so long when we played them in November is that we were able to put pressure on Brady. Without Dwight, that task is now extremely difficult. However it ends, it is pretty cool that they (Colts) are the first team in NFL history to win at least 12 games in 5 straight seasons.

    Comment by Ken Miller — December 27, 2007 @ 5:23 pm

  9. Hello Ira,

    Great article! I enjoy your writing, although I’ve discovered we are not on the same page on certain subjects: I love Christmas, horses and the Buckeyes, but we would get along well on Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Glen Graber.

    Today I wished the local Amish chainsaw fixer a belated Merry Christmas and he said, “Nay, sis net shpote, sis frie! Grishtdaag is Jan. 6!” So, Merry Christmas again. You’ve got one more chance this season.

    Thanks again for your articles. I don’t check regularly because here in Holmes Co., our computers are powered by kerosene and the fumes make me sick, but I got to thinking about you today and fired this thing up. It was worth the smoky kitchen. God bless you.

    -John Schmid

    Ira’s response: You really should try the propane gas computer, if your church allows it. I hear they burn a lot cleaner. Of course, the quality of today’s kerosene isn’t what it used to be, either.

    Comment by John Schmid — December 27, 2007 @ 8:04 pm

  10. Now that was funny! (previous computer comments)

    What ever became of your brother Nate? We used to know a “Mack” back in the Fla. days in the early 90’s and I assume his real name was Nate… altho I don’t know that for sure. Could also be that I am mixed up and you don’t have a brother “Mack”….

    Comment by Linda — December 28, 2007 @ 12:40 pm

  11. Anne Marie Zook had her stitches removed today. Pathology report will not be back for another week. She is feeling fairly good – nausea comes and goes (from the meds).

    -A friend of the family

    Comment by Anonymous — December 28, 2007 @ 4:48 pm

  12. Ira,
    Are you still a Grinch at Christmas? Well, quit it.

    Christmas. Eighty degrees plus today and I pick a Christmas writing. IL has outlawed Spring. For the ten or so years I’ve lived here there has never been a decent spring or autumn. Drats! Listen to me, fussing at you for acting like the Grinch at Christmas when I’m carrying on so about the lack of acceptable seasons… blay, blah, blah.

    What’s there to write? What’s there to say? I’m spent, but sleep does not …

    Comment by Francine — May 1, 2013 @ 12:51 am

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