Like most families in 1961, we celebrated a traditional Christmas Day, beginning with church service and returning home to presents and toys under the tree for our children. Our lives changed six months later, though, when my husband, a utility lineman, sustained third-degree burns over eighty percent of his body while working on a pole.
Immediately, Ed was driven by ambulance to the local hospital. No one, other than one nurse and me, was allowed into his private room. He developed an infection, so reverse sterile techniques—masks, gowns, and gloves—were followed as a protection to all. In the whole series, per week, of 151 surgeries, operations were devoted to grafting one small patch of skin at a time to begin regrowth. My husband’s and my families took over the care of our two young children, which allowed me to assist in Ed’s daily care. Recovery would take three years, and eventually an intensive-care unit would be built for him specifically.
Our first holiday season after the accident brought highs and lows. One week before Christmas Day, relatives found for us a house with no stairs for Ed to climb. As their present to us that year, they wallpapered and painted before moving us in. For 3-year-old Eddie and 6-year-old Jan, visits to the hospital had previously taken place outside the screened door to their father’s room, but we planned for them to enter the room to celebrate with their dad. But Jan left the hospital on Christmas Eve crying that Santa wouldn’t find her. Christmas was very much on my mind. How could Santa find the children?
The hospital staff began planning an elaborate Christmas dinner to be served in our room, and their enthusiasm was contagious. I brought in a small artificial tree to set on the window ledge next to our statue of Saint Jude. All decorations and gifts had to be wiped with a disinfectant—books also, page by page. Toys had to be small, able to be played with on a sterile sheet on the floor. We all wore masks, gowns, and gloves.
I don’t think any representative of Santa arrived at our door, but I was too overwhelmed with joy to notice. To see Ed smile for the first time at his son pushing Matchbox trucks, with rubber gloves twisting around his fingers, and to hear Ed responding weakly to his daughter’s questions was a true Christmas miracle.
Our first Christmas together as newlyweds, we were stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, with the United States Air Force. This was 1954, when there were no paved streets in town and no traffic lights.
When December came, my husband and I decided one night to brave the elements and cut our own tree. We donned our arctic gear, grabbed big flashlights, and drove out to the woods. We tromped through the deep snow and hurriedly searched for a perfect tree. It was forty degrees below zero and dark. In a short time, we cut one down and dragged it to the car. When we arrived at the base gate, we were told that fresh-cut trees had to be sprayed with fire retardant. We followed the rules and drove to the fire station. Arriving back home, we set the tree in the stand and planned to decorate it the next day.
In the morning, we descended the stairs and were shocked to see our tree completely bare. The fire retardant was warm, so as the frozen branches thawed overnight, all the needles had fallen off. We had a good laugh at our Charlie Brown tree.
Being young and determined, we decided to try again. So we chopped another tree but didn’t stop at the fire station this time. We set it up and decorated it with our newly purchased ornaments. We had a wonderful Christmas with newfound friends in Alaska. The second Christmas, we bought a tree in town! Those original ornaments now grace the trees of our children and grandchildren.
IDA MAE KELLER
St. Louis, Missouri
Christmas has always been traditionally observed in my Italian family. Christmas Eve dinner consists of seven fishes, and there are relatives who would count to be sure! My mother hosted this celebration for years. As it became more difficult for her, I took over. The whole family would gather at my house, and it was a wonderful time together.
A number of years ago, Peter, a first cousin, began to suffer with Parkinson’s disease. When Pete’s illness confined him to home, we invented a new way to celebrate: “Christmas Eve in a Box.” The first year we did this, there were some kinks to work out, including which foods traveled well and what fare had to be eliminated. Well, we thought it could be eliminated. After he was served appetizers, Pete looked at his plate and asked, “Where are the calamari?” My husband explained that it was difficult to transport. Pete insisted that it was Christmas Eve and we always had fried calamari. That was the last time it was left off the menu.
We celebrated with a portable holiday feast for a number of years; this will be the first back at my house. The break from tradition provided for some of the dearest Christmas Eves I remember.
MARIA D. EILER
My girls and I were looking forward to celebrating Christmas with my parents in South Carolina and my grandmother, who would be coming from Alabama. Gifts were wrapped, the cat was scheduled for boarding, and excitement was growing as the time to depart grew closer. Then came the news that my parents’ house had been sold sooner than expected, and they needed to move before the new place was ready. At the same time, the boarding kennel had electrical problems and couldn’t take pets over the holidays. For days, plans were swirling in confusion.
Just when we were about to give up trying to find a solution that worked for everyone, close friends of my parents offered their cabin on the lake. It was isolated and only meagerly furnished but a gift nonetheless. “Bring what you can,” my mother said, “and come on.”
On a bitterly cold morning that promised snow, the girls and I started out for South Carolina with Midnight, the cat. We had no idea what we were getting into, but I had a feeling, when we pulled into the circular drive in front of the cabin and saw my folks standing on the porch in the sunshine, that it was going to be an unusual and wonderful holiday.
It was. The weather was warm and sunny. There were woods to roam and to forage for natural treasures for the Christmas tree. We spent afternoons rowing a boat around the lake and observing the wildlife as it observed us. The evenings found everyone on deck to watch the moon and stars light up the lake. At night, the girls thought sleeping on a pallet was delightful, and Midnight found a cozy spot behind the tree for napping. Everyone agreed that it was one of the best Christmases ever. The important gifts were friends and family being together; place didn’t really matter that much.
Boone, North Carolina
For more holiday memories from readers, see “An Uncommon Holiday” on page 11 of the November/December 2018 issue.