“No Mom, we aren’t going.” It would be the only time our voices would be in unison all night.
“Get your coats on, we’re going.” She stated emphatically. Upset by our lack of any reaction besides the rolling of eyes and huffing in disgust she enlisted reinforcements. “Honey, tell the kids to get their coats on.” She looked down at Dad who was reading the evening Deseret News. Getting closer and adding volume she says, “Honey! We need to go, tell the kids to get their coats on.”
Putting the paper down he began to grasp what is going on, something he failed to note despite a very vocal argument having occupied most of the last 10-15 minutes. He shifts in his chair uncomfortably. Even with the amazing talent of being able to ignore sounds far beyond the limits OSHA would consider safe, he still deep down really just wants peace. As such, he hated taking sides, but quickly realized that there was only one side safe to be on. “Kids get your coats on.”
“Fine.” We know we have lost, but we know this is only the first battle. So we ad, “but we are only going to go to the homes on our street.”
“Okay, then grab some windex bottles, and a stack of newsletters.” Every year we handed out the family newsletter that always focused around the same joke, how Dad and the kids hated doing a float in the South Salt Lake City 4th of July Parade and how Mom had forced us to yet again. With the newsletter Mom gave a gift to the neighbors. So this year our living room was filled with a hundred bottles of windex.
The gifts were always something practical and cheap. She didn’t really have many other options. Dad for the past several years, had worked on and off as a substitute teacher, tutorer and newspaper delivery man. All jobs that made for hard work but little income. But what they lacked in income they made up for with conviction. Conviction to never take government or other forms of welfare. That is except the bags and bags of hand me down clothes that everyone knew they could drop off at our porch any time and that Mom would put them to good use.
“These pants I think would fit Megan, we can send those to the Millard’s.” She would say as she pulled the jeans from the large pile of clothes she had dumped out of the bags, carefully folding them and adding them to the stack she would take to the next family, since they didn’t fit any of us.
But now was not time for sorting clothes, she was preparing to give something else to the neighbors. We pulled on our hand me down coats and hats and headed out into the snow. Marie Landace, a kind widow, who lived next store since before I was born and her pet turtle were always our first stop.
“Hark the Harold,” Mom called out.
“We don’t know that one. Let’s do Jingle Bells.”
“No, here we go, she’s coming. Hark the Harold angels sing.” Mom started out loudly.
“That’s too high.” Dad interrupted but not loudly enough to stop her.
“Glory to the new born king.” She continued. By this time, the door was opened and slowly we each joined in, some even in the same key as Mom.
After the song ended Mom would say, “Who has the card and gift?” One of us would walk up and hand the newsletter and Windex bottle which Mom had added a note on the bottle saying, “May you see clearly this Christmas Season.” Or something, a little more clever but no less corny. “What’s your favorite Christmas Song?” She’d ask. Most people would then say Silent Night and we’d sing that. Then we would begin walking away as we sang, ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’
As soon as we finished the street as we predicted she would push us to go to the next house and the next, and the next. With each house the murmuring and mumbling would increase. We would look for any sign of hope we would be on our way back home. When the windex bottles ran out we thought for sure we’d be done. But Mom would just plow on and carol even without the great gift. That was one of the advantages about giving out windex, you could be fairly sure neighbors weren’t going to brag to each other about the great gift they got from the Gee’s and thereby let out of the bag that one of them had been robbed out of there free cleaning supplies.
At some point Dad would sense that if we went on any longer he would end up with Children lying in the street refusing to take another step, and at that point he would say, “Honey, maybe we should head home.”
She would glare at him, adding, “Don’t you start to,” but she could sense things were falling apart as Children sang further and further from the doorstep and started trying to sing, ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ for the opening number hoping to shorten the performance. We would trudge home feeling frozen and hard done by, only to go out and do it the next night.
Caroling to the neighbors was as much a part of my Christmas as Santa, the Nativity, or presents. I loved Christmas and couldn’t wait for that day when I’d get presents. We, like most kids hoped to get the latest game console or other big ticket items but deep down we knew that wasn’t in the cards. Many of our friends would get those things but our presents were always less expensive, and our gifts were just as often practical as fun. Socks were almost a guarantee. My whole outfit may have been hand me down, but I had a brand new, fresh out of the wrapper, socks at Christmas.
As much as I complained you would think I and my siblings hated caroling but I loved how it made me feel. I wouldn’t admit it to my Mother and I’m not sure I even was mature enough to admit it to myself when I lived at home. But I remember one of the first Christmas’s I spent away from home. I was in Wisconsin on my Mission in the town of Beaver Dam. Christmas Eve can be a tough night for missionary’s. People are with families and busy and not usually up for visits. Our mission president said we could stay in after 6 that night. An unusual treat since most nights we stayed out proselyting until 9PM.
As I prepared to spend the night just shooting the breeze with my companion I thought of all those nights caroling back home. Part of it was simple homesickness but I knew that what I wanted to do more than anything was to go caroling. I asked my companion and being a brand new missionary he said sure. I don’t recall how many people we sang to that night but I recall one home very vividly. It was a small white home in need of some paint. It has steps leading up to a small 3 foot by 2 foot porch. The stairs had an old splintered hand rail made of 2x4s along it. We knocked and began to sing, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing or the plains...”
As we sang an elderly women slowly opened the door. She couldn’t have been younger than 80. As she listened tears fell from her face. We sang as she wept. When we finished she said, “This is the first time in my life I have ever had carolers sing to me.”
From that time to this, I don’t think there has ever been a Christmas that I have not caroled. And while at times this has led to awkward moments. We caroled to a couple and the wife was from Eritrea. She looked very confused as we stood at her door singing. She turned to her husband and in her native tongue asked what we were doing. He thought and said, “Well, in America people...actually no people don’t really do this.” We went on to become very close friends after this.
Near the beginning of Charles Dickens the Christmas Carol, Dickens gives us two conflicting views of what Christmas is. First Scrooge gives us his view after his Nephew Fred says, “Don’t be cross Uncle.”
He replies, “What else can I be, when I live in such a world with fools as this. Merry Christmas? What is Christmas time but a time for paying bills without any money. A time for finding yourself a year older and not an hour richer. A time for having your books balanced and having every item in them presented as dead (debt) against you.” He then says to Fred. “What good has it (Christmas) ever done you.”
And Fred reply's, "There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from... the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"
To which Scrooge replies, “Humbug.”
These two views of Christmas may seem contradictory, one right and one wrong. Yet the truth is, they both simultaneously exist all around us.
I have no doubt that at times, Christmas was a great stress to my parents. They knew they could not get us the gifts we really wanted. Indeed, if it wasn’t for them, doing what they both hated to do, rely on the welfare of loving neighbors and friends there may have been several years where I may have not even gotten socks. No doubt, in those years it would have been tempting to see things in the light of Scrooge. I’m sure at times my parents felt a year older and not an hour richer. That they were paying bills without any money and that if they spent almost anything it would simply add debt to their lives, something they refused to do.
But that is part of what’s so beautiful about these two descriptions of Christmas. They are describing the same thing, the same situations, only different viewpoints.
Too often, we get caught up in the consumerism of Christmas, buying things for people that they don’t really need with money we don’t really have. When we do, we allow Scrooge’s view of Christmas to seep into our lives and drowned out, what Christmas is really about.
That was the beauty of caroling with my family. When the only gift you have to offer is a bottle of windex, your presence and a song; you begin to see what Christmas is really about, what he who’s birth we celebrate wants us to focus on...People. To make it a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable time.
I know that my parents like everyone else, struggled in a world that can’t decide between Scrooges and Fred’s view of Christmas. The conflict of these two perspectives and figuring out how to make Fred’s the more dominant in our Christmas season is what A Christmas Carol is all about. In my mind, the key difference is found in Fred’s phrase, “men and women seem to open their shut up hearts.” That is what we get to witness every time we watch A Christmas Carol, one man’s journey through the process of opening his shut up heart.
Most of us won’t be visited by three spirits in order to guide us through such a journey. Instead God has placed people and loved ones who can help us change from someone who is shut up and looks inward to someone who truly opens up and begins to see ‘people below us as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’
I now realize that was what my parents were slowly helping me to see, with each door knocked and carol sung. How grateful I am for this time of year when I can once again head out, Christmas newsletters, and grumbling kids in tow and remind myself what Christmas is all about.