By Jill Apel
Image by Alexis Apel
With the holidays fast approaching, my mind turns to my childhood, as it so often does this time of year. I have many wonderful memories of those days, but one Christmas Eve in particular stands out. It made such an indelible impression that even now, thirty years later, I can recall it as if it were only yesterday.
December 24th, 1983, started out much the same as every other Christmas Eve with my mother making final preparations for that evening, fixing trays of homemade baked goods, numerous phone calls to my grandmother about the night’s festivities, and lots of repeated admonishments of “Don’t touch those cookies, they’re for tonight!” With my brother being only eight, she was still able to use the old threat, “Santa Claus is watching you, so you better behave!”
As day turned into evening and we all got ready to go to church, my sister and I talked over what we thought would be under the tree the next morning, whether our Aunt would be getting us pajamas, AGAIN, and if there would be snow. The weatherman had been calling for it for days, but up to that point we had yet to see any of the soft white flakes. It was certainly cold enough, and as we got out of the car at my grandparents and walked down the hill to church, little puffs hung in the air with every breath I took.
I had grown up in the church we attended, starting Sunday school there even before entering kindergarten, but even in its familiarity, the transformation at Christmas was something I never got tired of! There were huge pots of poinsettia in all their red splendor placed in front of the pulpit, a beautiful Christmas tree decorated with gold and silver decorations, and the lighting was soft and comforting. The first two rows of pews were filled with giggling children awaiting their big moment in the Christmas pageant and the sounds of parents shushing their excitement as the choir began to sing.
The children dutifully took their places in front of the congregation as the pastor began the story of that night in Bethlehem, pausing for each little shepherd, wise man, and manger animal to say his/her part. As the children filed back to join their parents, the pastor began the sermon; his lyrical voice weaving the tale of peace on earth and good will towards man. The service came to an end with the reverberating sound of “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” as everyone bundled into heavy winter coats.
Stepping out of the doors of the church, the cold made me shiver. As I pulled on my gloves and started up the hill, the snow began to fall softly in big white flakes like puffy, weightless cotton balls, swirling all around us, gently landing in my hair. The farther we got away from the church, the quieter and darker it became until the only light was that coming from the stars. I looked straight up into the heavens and my breath was taken away. Not by the cold, but by the color of the sky. It was a deep midnight blue the likes of which I had never seen, and it was so incredibly clear the stars were twinkling like millions of diamonds. There was one very large, very bright star all by itself, and I wondered if that was maybe the star the wise men had followed. I looked ahead at my parents walking arm in arm, my sister a little behind them, and the feeling of love and happiness I had was so big I felt I was going to burst!
Even though it was only a ten minute walk, by the time I reached my grandparents yard my cheeks were frozen and I was ready to thaw out. I mounted the few steps to the back door, kicking snow off my shoes as I took one last look at the night sky. I hung my coat up in the sun-porch and hurried to get out of the chill. Opening the door to the kitchen was a sensory overload with the warmth and light emanating from that entrance. Oh, the smells and sounds bombarding me after the quiet outside! My Gram bending over the oven to take out a ham. The smell of homemade bread mingling with the scent of pine from the Christmas tree. My Uncle playing carols on the piano, and family; aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents all talking and laughing. A feeling of peace and belonging enveloped me.
I’ve often wondered over the years why this particular Christmas Eve made such an impression on me. Certainly there were other holidays that must have been just as special, just as filled with wonder, but oddly enough, I cannot recall a one that moved me as this one did. Maybe it was an underlying premonition that this would be my last Christmas in this place I knew so well, surrounded by some of the people who meant the most to me; although at the time, I had no inkling of the things to come.
I graduated that spring and by midsummer my parents had made the decision to leave my hometown and move our family to Florida. Although my grandparents came every winter, I was never to know another Christmas Eve like that one.
They are mostly gone now, those I shared that time with; passed on or scattered across the country, but they live on in my memory of that Christmas Eve. I now have children of my own, and it is I who tell the stories of times past and Christmases remembered. As we decorate the tree and prepare for our Christmas Eve, I am sometimes filled with a profound longing for that time; then I look at my own family, smile to myself, and hope that they too will experience a magic that has nothing to do with presents under the tree, but everything to do with the people they love and the sense of wonderment at the intangible things that make for the most special kinds of memories.
No matter what you celebrate this time of the year, I wish you all a season filled with happiness, love, and peace.