CHRISTMAS EVE 1967
The snow flakes fell through the glow of the street light like crystal white butterflies stopped in mid flight to float gently to the ground. Laying within the glow of the street light which created the stage onto which the flakes transformed into a crystal blanket of white.
It was 6:00 pm on Christmas Eve of 1967 and I watched the the magic of the snow fall from the small porch of our small duplex behind Saint Josephs Catholic Church on Third Street in Topeka. At 11 years old I was in that in between age where I still wanted toys for Christmas but I wanted mature toys. I worried that my mother would buy me kiddie toys instead of the race cars and construction sets I craved.
She had given me good reason to worry this Christmas without knowing she had. I kept my concerns private and locked away. My mothers mental state had always been fragile but it had worsen within the past year after her and my grandmother had a falling out that had resulted in our eviction from my grandmothers home and into the duplex where we now lived.
I sighed. Mom had purchased an artificial Christmas Tree. I had always been fortunate, at least in my view, to have big and glorious live trees. But now we had this grotesque wire and plastic green monstrosity that resembled a Christmas Tree in name only. Yet for me that wasn’t the worst of it. This was the year that my mother decided that she would trim the tree in miniature twinkling lights instead of our large colorful bulbs and bubble lights. She had also not trimmed the tree with our beautiful glass ornaments. Rather she had found some punch out books of paper ornaments and had trimmed the tree in those. From the fake plastic flowers in which the twinkle lights rested to paper wise men, angels, elves and Santa’s the whole tree, to me, was a monstrosity. I was struggling to find a Christmas spirit.
I stepped back inside and surveyed the tree trying to find something of redeeming value in it and I could find nothing to like or care for in it. I shut off the ceiling light and looked at the small blinking lights through slighted eyes. Nope, it just was not working for me. I had to get out of the house and away from the tree that seemed to mock our life. I grabbed my coat, hat and gloves and left the duplex.
As I walked up Third street towards Jackson Street through the new fallen snow I started to feel more peaceful than I had a few minutes before. My sister, who was 4 years old at the time, was spending the evening at the babysitters house up the street. My mom was at work in the Toy Department at Pellitiers Department store downtown and that is where I had decided my feet would carry me.
The snow fell in big flakes softly to the ground. The air was still and because of the lack of wind the cold December air did not have the icy chill it normally did. As I walked the snow lightly crunch, crunch, crunched beneath my foot steps. I was aware that I was the only living thing walking down Jackson Street on this snowy Christmas Eve night. No dogs barked at my passing, no curious eyes gazed from windows as I walked by, no cars disturbed the clean snow in the street and no human, besides myself braved the night and the snow. I was a lone in the world, the last human on earth and I revealed in it. I prayed that this quiet fantasy world that I now found myself in would not end. The solitude was mine and belonged only to me. I did not want to share this peaceful, glistening, white covered world with anyone else.
As I approached the Capital Building I saw that the snow obscured the top of the green copper dome. I could just barely make out the glow of the search light at the top which seemed to float along with the falling snow. I turned onto 9th street and my fantasy of solitude dissipated. The sidewalks were alive with last minute Christmas shoppers flocking in and out of Pellitiers. The street crowded with vehicles picking up those shoppers or looking for places to park. I few minutes before I had walked by Crosby’s Department store which had closed early on this Christmas eve and the lack of activity there was a very stark contrast to the chaos here that was not lost on me.
I entered the warm lobby of Pellitiers and made my way past shoppers into the main store. Walking past the candy counter the Holiday tunes floating down from the organ above on the Mezzanine blanketed the store in Santa’s, Mangers and Winter Wonderlands. I found my way to the stairway down to the basement and smiled as I looked at the large ceramic Santa standing on the landing. His bag of goodies thrown over his shoulder held there by his green mittened left hand, while his green mittened right hand waved to all that transcended the stairs. I rubbed his shiny red belly as I passed and said “Ho, Ho Ho” giving him a voice he did not have.
I wound my way through Toyland stopping now and again to look at toys I would never have. As I passed the Pellitiers Santa he smiled and waved at me. I smiled and waved back. He was an old wino that they hired every year to fill the boots of the jolly old elf. He was a good man who liked children. He would not drink while on duty but if you had seen him away from his Christmas duty it would be obvious that his true love was the cheap vino he picked up for a fistful of change at the liquor store.
I pushed through the swinging doors of the stock room and opened the door to the small room behind Santa’s Throne. “Hi Mom” I said as I entered the room. My mother looked up from the bicycle she was assembling, clearly startled she said, “Oh Hi James, what are you doing here?” I shrugged, “Just thought I’d come down and walk home with you.” My mother smiled and said, “That will be nice.” She went back to assembling the bicycle. I spent the 30 minutes before she got off work and Pellitiers closed for the night flipping through a stack of Doctor Seuss books in the stockroom.
As my mother and I walked home we did not talk for a while. The snow was still falling but not quite as hard as it had been on my journey to the store. We retraced my steps and my mother noticed that my footprints were the only ones in the snow. As a large green Oldsmobile rounded the corner of 4th street and turned onto Jackson Street my mother pointed over at the Bluebird Lounge. “If your Dad was here we would find him there.” I laughed, “Yep” was my response. We walked along in silence a little ways further and as we turned onto Third Street my mother said, “I can’t believe you walked through all this snow to walk downtown and back home with me.” I shrugged, “It was something to do.” I didn’t tell her that I needed to get a way from her idea of Christmas cheer.
As we walked past Saint Josephs we could hear Christmas Eve Mass taking place inside. The internal lights lit up the colorful stain glass windows which illuminated the stations of the cross. It was a very surrealistic effect as the snow fell across the window panes bathed in the bright colors. White snowflakes turned blue, red, yellow and green, my artist eye captivated in the dance of color. While mom walked on up the street to retrieve my sister I stood on the porch of the duplex watch the display and listening to the beautiful music.
From the moment I had stood on the porch watching the snow fall through the street light to standing on the porch watching the colorful display and listening to Christmas Mass less than two hours had past. Yet within that two hour period on that long ago Christmas Eve I had regained what I had lost; the Christmas Spirit. I wish I could find that spirit again. I have never again, since that time, felt that same sense of magic or wonder of Christmas. I have tried to find it and recapture it but it has remained elusive.
I am now 63 years old and that Christmas Eve is a thing of my past but I have always held it close, my own private personal treasure to occasionally visit. It is my memory of the last time I truly felt the Christmas Spirit with the wonder of a child and it is a memory more valuable to me than all the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh the Wise Men carried to Baby Jesus.
CHRISTMAS EVE 1967