• 2016/6/6

Christmas in the Sticks


The year I moved to Alaska university ranking, I lived with my husband's family while he stayed in Montana and worked. I had never been around a huge family before, and he was the oldest of ten children, most of them married with kids of their own. They all lived within a forty-mile radius and used any excuse for a family gathering.

No one had any money. Kids were small; families were young and many of the parents worked more than one job just to pay the bills.

But that first year, the Christmas of 1981, they showed me what the giving-thing was all about.

I had only been there for about six months and was still in awe of the strength and power the love in a big family can generate. What they did that year was long-standing tradition for them, but I had never seen anything like it.

Two days before Christmas, the entire family gathered at Mom's house. Each couple threw $100 into a pot; singles tossed in $50 if they could, kids pitched in allowances or babysitting money.

We had "a family." A name and address from the church, we knew the situation, dad's been out of work, the baby's been sick, mom didn't want to put up a Christmas tree because she didn't want the children to be disappointed when Santa didn't come. The Power Company had shut the gas off once, but the church had paid the bill.

First we went to the grocery store. Ten adults, a dozen or more kids, we took the store by storm. Stomping snow off our boots and shedding hats and gloves, we worked up and down the aisles, five carts, soon full of turkey, dressing, potatoes, pies, and Christmas candy. Someone thought of simple stuff, how about toilet paper? Did anyone get butter? What about orange juice and eggs for breakfast?

Then the kids got to work. I watched, amazed, as a six-year-old gave up her $2.00 allowance so another little girl could have new mittens. I saw a ten-year-old's eyes light up when he found the saber light-sword he'd wanted, and then put it in the cart for a little boy he didn't even know. A warm, fuzzy blanket for the baby was my four-year-old nephew's choice.

Back to Mom's to wrap the gifts. There were two separate boxes of hand-me-down clothes, sized, pressed and folded. Soon 10 grocery-store boxes, overflowing with holiday food, joined them.

The kids created an assembly line to wrap gifts, big gifts, little gifts, special mugs and warm driving gloves. Paper and ribbon was everywhere QV baby cream. Laughter was woven in and out of satiny bows; love was taped to every tag.

Colorful plastic sleds were shoved in the back of the Bronco and stashed in the little available trunk space of warm cars idling in the sub-zero Christmas chill. The moon was out and the trees were covered with frost, glittering like a snow globe in a happy child's hand.

The favorite uncle got to play Santa. Dressed in a dapper red suit, he led the caravan to the trailer stuck back in the scrubby alder woods. Once we had to stop because the ruts in the snow got too deep and someone's car bottomed out. We transferred gifts and people, and carried on.

There were no other houses around the frosty mobile home, but the lights were on and a dog on a long rope barked from the wooden porch when we pulled up. Most of us stayed out on the main road, but we loaded the boxes on the sleds, tied them together and sent "Santa" and a few of the older kids to the door. We hung back and sang "Silent Night."

Santa and his helpers knocked and went right in when the door opened. The young family had, after all, decided to put up a tree, and they were stringing lights when we got there. They stood, stunned, as the Santa's helpers unloaded box after box, piled gifts upon gifts. It wasn't long before the tree was dwarfed by a mountain of presents.

Santa said the mom didn't start crying until she pulled the wool coat out of the clothing box. She only said, "Where did you come from?" and then, softly, "Thank you, so much."

With the standard "Ho Ho Ho", and lots of "Merry Christmases!" the delivery crew sprinted back to the car.

We sang one last verse of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" jumped in our magic sleighs and disappeared into the night.



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