What follows is an excerpt from a book–as yet unpublished–I’ve written with the assistance of some of my grandchildren. The main character and narrator is nine-year-old Jude who hates to sit still. But he loves his grandpa. The two built a treehouse the summer before–and they look forward to climbing the nearby mountain together next summer. But in between, comes Christmas.
That month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is longer than any other month in the year. All us kids kept our teacher Mr. Norman busy trying to distract us from looking out the window and dreaming of Christmas presents.
At last, Dad, Mom, and I made our way to Grandpa’s house on Christmas Eve. While the older folks talked over some hot cider, I sneaked off to search for presents. I peeked under the beds, in the closets, up in the attic, down in the basement, and behind the sofa. No luck.
We brought the tree in—a real one from Grandpa’s hillside. Grandpa guided the tree into the stand as Dad and I held the trunk.
“More to the left,” Grandpa said. “Now, just a bit to the right.” We made the adjustments until the tree stood straight. Then all of us started decorating.
The year before, Grandpa had packed the lights with care to keep them from tangling. So that part was easy.
I picked a wad of tissue paper out of a cardboard box and unwrapped an ornament. It was one I made in Sunday school when I was little. I painted a mom, dad, grandpa, and myself on a cardboard circle. I was about to put it back in the box, embarrassed at my artwork, when Mom said, “I love that one, Jude. Put it right here.” And she pointed to the center of the tree.
When we were done, we helped Mom make stuffing. Dad and Grandpa cut the celery and onions, and I watched the butter in the frying pan to make sure it didn’t burn.
Mom had brought tons of cookies she’d baked. My frustration at not finding any presents melted away as the smells of fir and stuffing filled the house. For supper, we ate toasted cheese sandwiches. The feast would come tomorrow. After a cinnamon cookie for dessert, I climbed the stepladder next to the tree so I could put the star on top.
Mom said, “It’s the best tree ever.” She says that every year, and every year she means it.
Then we headed down the road in Grandpa’s old Buick toward the big stone church. We got there just as the congregation started singing “O Holy Night.”
Being still in church on Christmas Eve is tough. Candles and music help. After the service, a man Grandpa called Mr. Bob stood at the back of the church handing out candy canes to the kids.
Each cane came with a note explaining its meaning and the beginning of the cane tradition. Hold it one way, it makes a J for Jesus. Hold it the other way, it’s like a staff to remind us of the shepherds.
The best part is how the canes came to be. A long time ago, a children’s choir leader had them made to keep his young singers from moving around and making noise during a long church service. I wished Mr. Bob had passed them out at the beginning of the service instead of the end.
Back home, we celebrated with hot cider and cinnamon chip cookies.
Then Dad said, “Time for bed, Buddy.”
I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t . . .
I woke to light glaring through the window.
“Merry Christmas!” I yelled. Everybody! Let’s go!”
I say that every year, and every year I wait while Mom, Dad, and Grandpa go downstairs, put the turkey in the oven, light the tree, and turn on the radio for Christmas songs. Mom says mood sets memories in stone. She says that every year too.
When they finally came back upstairs, Grandpa read about the shepherds and angels. I read the part about the kings who came to see Baby Jesus.
When I was younger, this waiting tortured me. Now, Christmas wouldn’t feel right without the stories, lights, and music.
After I finished reading, Grandpa talked a bit as he did every year, but not for too long.
“Jesus was a surprise to the world. He astonished the shepherds. The world didn’t know what to do with Him. He bewilders folks today. He’s a present we didn’t expect. A present that can surprise us any time in life.”
He quoted Isaiah: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.”
Beside the tree was a blue Huffy bike for me. We covered the floor with wrapping paper.
Grandpa gave everyone the usual—books. I got The Genesis Trilogy and Whalesong.
“These books look great, Grandpa. Thanks!”
Mom, Dad, and I hung around a few days that year. That was different. We usually headed home a couple days after Christmas. Not that year.
Two days after Christmas, we were still there. The weather warmed turning our spaceman snow alien into a pitchers’ mound.
That evening, Grandpa and I headed for the treehouse with s’mores cookies.
“Y’know, Jude, every year, you look for your presents, but you never find them.”
“I can’t figure that out, Grandpa. They hafta be somewhere.”
“There’s a reason gifts are supposed to be a surprise. They’re like life. Ya have
“I know, Grandpa. Every year, I just wanna know. I can’t figure out where you guys put everything.”
“When you get old enough—and when you stop lookin’—maybe we’ll let you in on
Christmas is always slow to arrive, but over too soon. When we were getting ready to leave, Grandpa seemed sadder than usual to see us go. But then an idea lit up his eyes.
“Next summer, Jude, we climb the mountain!”