I was born much later in our parent’s lives than my sisters. It was never made clear to me whether I was an accident, an afterthought, or simply a last gasp attempt to get a male to carry on the family name. Regardless of the plan, or lack thereof, I was born into the same generation as my nieces and nephews, and we grew up together, nearly as siblings. I was the oldest by only three years. It was always a bit odd for me to call my parents “Mom” and “Dad,” when they called them “Grandma” and “Grandpa.”
For the first 25 years of my life, Christmas Eve was celebrated by all at my parents’ house. Though there were gifts for everyone under the tree, my sisters’ families would also celebrate Christmas morning in their own homes where my nieces and nephews would finally receive the lion’s share of their annual yuletide loot. Mine, however, was received in total on Christmas Eve.
Since this was the arrangement during my childhood, I knew nothing else and never questioned it. My family was far from well off but, because we lived on a farm where humans were infinitely outnumbered by cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, sweet corn, potatoes, and other fruit and vegetables, we never went hungry. I remember each Christmas receiving one “big” gift, which usually meant it was the most expensive. The most notable of these was a miniature slot car racing set that stoked my boyish love of Midwestern dirt track stock car racing.
My Christmas Eve was always made special, however, by a mystery. After our holiday dinner of chili soup, oyster stew, and assorted delicacies, including pickled herring, mincemeat pie, and a canvas of sweets, including German Christmas cookies handmade by my mother, we would eagerly await the time to open presents. The mystery usually happened in the brief calm between dinner and the wild chaos of opening presents. It began as a faint jingling and would grow until we knew it was the unmistakable sound of Santa’s sleigh bells. All of us children would fly off to the only window we could reach and peer into the night. Never once did we catch a glimpse of him, but we knew he was there. We had the proof still ringing in our ears. When we finally peeled ourselves off the window and turned back to the Christmas tree, it always seemed a little bit fuller and brighter, and the gifts slightly more plentiful.
When I was on the verge of becoming a teenager, the mystery was revealed to me. The sleigh bells were real but they were not attached to a sleigh. They were dangled out another window (near the one we would race to) tied up by bailing rope, and hidden to all visitors outside the house by a small bush and the winter darkness. At the appointed time each Christmas Eve, my father would slip away to the room and start yanking on the bailing rope to play the orchestra of bells. It was, I believe, the only musical ability he possessed.
On this particular pre-adolescent Christmas Eve, I was shown the sleigh bells and invited to ring them for the others. Even more, I was invited to take over the annual tradition. Things and families change as they tend to do and the tradition was lost. But I still have the bells. Every time they jingle I am transported back to another more innocent time.
My last Christmas Eve adventure with the bells came on my son’s third birthday. By this time the sleigh bells, which really are from my great-grandfather’s sleigh, had been reconditioned and placed on a new leather strap and were hung on a wall in our home for display only. However, on this Christmas Eve, the only in which I (a guy named Klaus) would ever play Santa Claus, I conspired one last time with the bells.
I left the house to run an errand and changed into the Santa outfit in a nearby parking lot. I returned home as Santa, where I asked for my son. He came down the steps and stood frozen upon seeing me. His eyes were about to pop out of his head when I asked…”You must be Jakob. I just saw your dad and he helped me with a problem. I forgot my sleigh bells at the North Pole and he said I could borrow yours, but I had to ask you first. Is it okay?” Still frozen in silence and staring wide at me, it took several seconds for Jake to slowly nod his head. I thanked him for the bells, slung them over my shoulder, and left. When I returned home as dad after running my errands, Jake was no longer at a loss for words. He told me all about the visit from Santa, how Santa had asked for the bells, and how he and Santa had just talked…and talked…and talked.
I still have the bells and, in fact, they hang in my office today where, occasionally, as I walk by them I brush against them and, once again, the symphony of bells takes me back to those Christmas Eves in our Iowa farmhouse.
May your holidays be filled with wonderful experiences that become the most enduring stories of your life.
More later…in 2016