Christmas 1984

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here in Snow Valley, and like all of our holidays, folks are decorating and doing all they can to make the season bright.
The smell of Christmas Trees, cookies, cloves, and cinnamon ushers me back to Christmases of my childhood.  It was a simpler time but as nostalgic as I may be, I am mindful that not all Christmases were ‘postcard perfect.’

In early December 1984, Mary Stewart threw her annual Christmas party, and because it turned out to be a disaster, it was her last.
Mary was our town’s best cook, decorator, author, housekeeper, beekeeper, skunk trapper, and gardener.  She was also known for her two-time award-winning dog, Duffy.  His claim to fame was his odd shape.  He was white and so plump that he looked like an egg.  And just like poor old Rudolph, people use to laugh and call him names; poor old “Humpty Duffy.”
Mary’s party featured her newest holiday concoction: “Holly Jolly Punch.”  She made it with crushed holly berries, tonic water, and  as she said, “a whole lotta Gin.”  Everyone who drank it went crazy over it —  insane, to be precise — because the berries are poisonous and, in addition to causing all sorts of abdominal issues — issues I refuse to discuss in polite company — it also causes delirium.
The only person who didn’t get sick was Miss Hilda who, by that time in her life, had built up an immunity to nearly every dangerous substance one might ingest.  The others, however, needed their stomachs pumped.  Within minutes, that’s what happened – right there, on the floor of Mary Stewart’s elegant Queen Anne-style Parlor.

Poor Judith Tabby.  She couldn’t get enough of that punch, and after six glasses of “holiday cheer,” she lost her mind and dredged her entire face through the punchbowl.  Then, she stood on top of Mary’s antique coffee table and started reciting “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Judith fancied herself a thespian, but in her compromised state, she couldn’t remember anything beyond the first two lines — but that did not stop her.  Adhering to the two golden rules of the theater: “The show must go on,” and “Fake it ’til you make it,” she carried on reciting several more impassioned monologs with great Shakespearian pomp:

Fish…do they not fry in the kitchen?
Beans…do they not burn on the grill?
Did it not take a whole lot of tryin’
just to get up that hill?

Dost thou straighten the curves?
Dost thou flatten the hills?
Someday the mountain might get them
but the law never will.

Witnessing enough of Judith’s overly dramatic display, Miss Hilda took a long drag off her cigarillo and, with a puff of smoke accompanying each syllable, yelled, “Woman, those ain’t poems. You’re talkin’ ‘bout The Jeffersons and Dukes of Hazard.”
Hopped up on H.J.P (Holly Jolly Punch), Judith ignited into a rage that resulted in an abrupt and sobering end to Mary’s party.
Judith, who was typically soft-spoken and refined, jumped off the coffee table yelling “Yee Hah!”  She ran across the room and tried to slide across the top of Mary’s 9-foot Steinway piano — just like the Duke boys — except she slid head-first.  Luckily, when she flew off the piano, she didn’t crash onto the floor.  Instead, Duffy, Mary’s schnauzer, was beside the piano and broke her fall.
Judith was alive, Duffy was dead, Mary was devastated, and everyone else except Hilda was fighting over who had the bathroom next.

On the bright side, Duffy wasn’t beyond repair. He had been dead for about eight years.  In that time, he had won two of Snow Valley’s annual Spring Taxidermy Contests.
As soon as Mary was well enough to leave the house, she rushed him to the taxidermist.  It took Mr. Floyd “Stuffing” Atwater and all of his men about three days to put “Humpty Duffy” back together again.  When they finished their work, Duffy looked better than ever and would go on to win two more competitions.
A few years later, Duffy finally concluded his long and drawn-out journey over the Rainbow Bridge when Mary set him down a little too close to the fireplace.  I can’t even talk about it without getting upset.  Pardon me for moving on to happier thoughts.

I remember that Christmas very well.  It was the first year I understood the whole “Santa” thing.  Until then, I had been resistant — to say the least — about sitting on that oddly dressed stranger’s lap.  Still, my Grandmother Marian made me face my fears.  Every year, she took me to Tabby’s to have my picture taken with Santa.
Those weren’t photos you’d send to relatives or hang on the walls.  Those were photos a Child Psychologist might use to show what a kid looks like when they experience absolute terror repeatedly.
Thoughts about this strange man, Santa, entering our house through a chimney haunted me.  We didn’t have a chimney, and when I asked my Grandmother about this, she explained that she always leaves a window open for him.

That did not help!

It also didn’t help that she tried to pacify me by singing “Jolly Old St. Nicolas.”

“When the clock is striking twelve,
When I’m fast asleep,
Down the chimney with your pack,
Softly you will creep.”

While most other boys were sending Christmas Lists to the North Pole that included Atari, Star Wars Figures, and cap guns, all I wanted for Christmas was a security system and bars on our windows.
And, on Christmas Eve, while children around the world were “nestled all snug in their beds,” I was laying awake in an utter panic, and there weren’t “visions of sugar-plums dancing” in my head.  I had visions of a bearded man wearing gloves and boots, carrying a sack, opening my bedroom window, and sneaking into our house while his nine-reindeer-powered getaway sleigh was waiting outside, stretching their legs, stomping their hoofs, and raring to go.

In 1984, my Grandmother Marian finally explained how Christmas worked.  I was both relieved and somewhat disappointed but with my newfound confidence in “Kris Kringle,” I eagerly awaiting “his” arrival to see if he’d bring the gift that every boy my age wanted:  The Lego Train Set.

It was also the first Christmas that I wanted something more than gifts.

That Christmas Eve, my Grandmother and I walked to the church for the 11 PM service.  We stopped briefly at Vernon Memorial Park to gaze at our town’s Christmas Tree that seemed to glisten and light up the night sky.  Carols rang from the steeple bells of the Methodist Church.  Their sound filled the whole town and, even though it was below freezing, hearing “Away in the Manger,” and
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” that night, we felt warm in mind, body, and spirit.
It seemed like everyone in town was at church, and we had to sit in the back row because there were so few seats.  Two minutes before the service began, my grandmother leaned over and “whispered” as loud as is humanly possible, “They better get this damn show on the road.”
She had needed hearing aids for years but refused.  Her “whisper” echoed throughout the entire church.  The choir even heard her — which caused some of the singers to break focus in the middle of their prelude, “Still, Still, Still.”

Midway through the service, the pastor began sulking around the church with burning incense — which was highly unusual in a Lutheran Church.  The smoke was so thick that people started coughing and sneezing.  I thought that the fire alarms might sound at any minute.
I was ready to get out of there, get home, get to sleep, get up, and get presents.  I leaned over and quietly asked my Grandmother, “What time is it?”
Of course, she didn’t hear me, but she smiled and replied, “Oh yeah — they’ve got the incense hot!”
The people sitting near us turned and sneered at my Grandmother.  I mouthed the words, “She can’t hear” while discretely pointing my right ear and shaking my head.

I waited in the pew while she went up for communion.  All the way up the aisle, she greeted friends with a joy-filled smile and a “Merry Christmas!”  I am sure she thought she was whispering, but she was so loud that you could hear her over the Tuba Ensemble’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.”
By the time she made it up to the front, she had offered a message of goodwill to at least 37 people.  The Tubas, in their frustration, quit playing right in the middle of their “Rum, pum, pum, pum,” and I was a little embarrassed.
While it is standard practice to quietly reply “Amen” after receiving the bread and wine, my Grandmother — unable to hear — responded with a booming, “Amen, Father!”  She sounded like a holy roller slain in the spirit.  Her outburst after downing the plastic shot glass of wine was the same, only louder.  Becky Hampton was so startled as she sang her solo, “O Holy Night” that she lost her place.
One woman turned around, glared, and shook her head.  The only thing I could say was, “I’m sorry…she’s just very religious!”

Instead of coming back to the pew, she waved at me from across the side aisle of the church and “silently” said — in full voice — “I’m going to see John.”  I uncomfortably acknowledge her code for “I’m going to the bathroom,” slid down in the pew, and watched as she tiptoed down the side aisle.  She thought she was covert, but it was her attempt at being stealthy that attracted everyone’s attention.  Despite her best efforts, she fooled no one as she tried to “sneak” out the door.
Thankfully, she “tiptoed” back in just before we lit candles and sang “Silent Night.”

As candlelight and the sound of voices filled the church, I could see the light illuminating the tears that began to well up in my grandmother’s eyes.
She wasn’t alone.  The eyes and cheeks of adults all across the room started to reflected the light, and for the first time, I knew why they felt moved.  Many of them were thinking about loved ones who were no longer with them.
I held Grandmother Marian’s hand as she wrestled with her emotions.  She was thinking about Grandpa, and we were both thinking about my mom.
The moment caught me off guard as I felt a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat.  She squeezed my hand and pulled me close.  That was the first Christmas Eve that tears streamed down my face and they’ve flowed freely every Christmas Eve since.

As we walked home from church, we experienced a Christmas miracle — snow.  It is rare to see snow here even though our town’s name might suggest otherwise.
Just as it began to fall, the bells from the Methodist church played, “Joy To The World.”  Nothing could have been more appropriate at that moment because I could sense the spirit of joy that dwelt among the people of Snow Valley.
Hand-in-hand, we walked.  I don’t know how well my grandmother heard the bells, but I heard them and when they played “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” — a carol we had just sung — I understood what the song meant.

“It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heavens all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.”

The bells were new to Snow Valley.  Earlier that year, the Methodist church installed the latest and greatest church innovation:  an Electronic Bell System.
The sound generator could not only chime the hour, but it could also play whatever songs you wanted, whenever you wanted them.   When amplified, the four 2000-watt speakers could be loud enough to annoy everyone in town.
During the trial phase of the installation, the bells were so loud that they would disorient anyone within 50-yards of the church.
Several drivers found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.  One afternoon, precisely at 4 PM, Ethel Hemingway became so bewildered by the bells as she pulled into the church’s parking lot in her 1978 Ford Pinto Wagon, that by the time they finished chiming the hour, she had demolished her car.  Along with her car, she also destroyed most of the landscaping in front of the church, the mailbox, and four 30-gallon metal trashcans.

To prevent future wrecks, and for everyone’s safety, they decided that the bells could not be any louder than 30% volume.  Even at that, most folks thought they were still too powerful, but it wasn’t long before we began appreciating them.  It was nice hearing chimes every hour and hymns on Sunday afternoons, but it was hearing them on Christmas Eve that made all of the “volume trials” worthwhile.
Little did we know what “gift” the bells would bring to Snow Valley on Christmas Morn.

Because I knew that “Santa” would not break into the house, it was the first Christmas Eve I slept peacefully.  Of course, I was up early to see what gifts “Santa” brought but was disappointed to find that we were without power and it had stopped snowing.
I lit a candle and was so happy to see all my gifts.  I went right to work assembling my new Lego Train Set.  It was nearly complete by the time Grandmother Marian had finally gotten out of bed.
As she lit the kerosene heater and a few more candles, she commented about all the new toys.  She gave me a hug and with a twinkle in her eye said, “I guess Santa thought you were good this year.”
Soon, the two of us exchanged presents — taking turns opening them.  To this day, that morning spent with my Grandmother is one of the most treasured memories I possess.  It’s just too bad that it didn’t last longer.

Moments after opening our last presents, the power came back on and with it came one of the worst experiences Snow Valley has ever endured.

It sounded like an explosion at first, and the house began to shake.

The power surge short-circuited the new bells, and the volume was maxed out at 100% — and they weren’t chiming the hour. They weren’t playing hymns. They weren’t playing carols. They weren’t playing church music at all.
The noise was so intense that I thought Santa might have given someone a space shuttle.
Somehow, someway, and for whatever reason, they began playing easy-listening hits of the 1960s. To this day, I can’t hear “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” without thinking of that Christmas Morning.

Folks rushed to the church, but no one could get any closer than 250 yards without experiencing permanent hearing loss and those who tried became discombobulated.
I was going to suggest they send my grandmother but even she couldn’t tolerate the sound.
Worse still, there was no way to turn the system off without turning off the power to half the town.

Thankfully, four of Snow Valley’s most gifted tech gurus arrived on the scene wearing coveralls and heavy-duty ear protection. Their toolbelts were well-stocked, and they carried power tools. It was like a scene out of Ghostbusters.
We watched as they slowly approached the building but once the made it inside, most folks went home to wait for the sonic attack to end.

They rang hour after hour, and the non-stop hits nearly drove folks to drink themselves silly, but with Mary Stewart’s disastrous party so fresh in people’s minds, most refrained from going overboard.
After hearing the bells play “We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore” three times that day, I can now understand why the folks at Woodstock stayed stoned out of their minds.

By late afternoon, with the “bells” still peeling, families finished their Christmas meals and began heading to Vernon Memorial Park – singing all the way. How could you not sing along to hits like “Unchained Melody,” “My Guy,” and “Stand By Me.”
Even with clanging bells, one could not help but enjoy being together. By that time, everyone was so full of holiday cheer that no one seemed to notice them. We were all relieved when, around 4:30 pm, we heard the last of them.
Since most of us had experienced temporary hearing loss, we continued to yell for the rest of the day. I laughed as happy Snow Valley residents smiled, hugged and screamed “Merry Christmas” at each other.

Miss Hilda was always a sight to behold but especially on Christmas Day. It is her custom to dress up in a fully decorated Christmas tree costume; ornaments, garland, tinsel, and a halo atop her head.
That day in 1984, her slurred speech was more pronounced than normal. According to Brenda Beckroach-Trapp, Hilda was still drinking what remained of Mary Stewart’s H.J.P., but that didn’t matter to any of us. In a moment of peaceful unity, she called everyone over to Le Pavillon and led us in one more Snow Valley tradition: caroling. In the glow of the Christmas Tree and a bonfire, we sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” When we finished, when enjoyed a moment of silence – even though our ears will still ringing. Hilda broke the silence by jumping onto a picnic table and leading in what has now become a standard carol in Snow Valley: the 1968 hit, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”
Thanks to the bells and our hearing loss, our singing had never been so robust than it was that night when we screamed those songs at the top of our lungs.

Right now, as we prepare for this year’s Christmas, everyone in Snow Valley is safe and at peace.
Before this holiday is over, I’ll have shed a tear during Silent Night, and we will have gathered once again at Vernon Memorial Park. Kids will talk about what Santa brought them. Surely, someone will recall Mary Stewart’s Party and “Humpty Duffy,” of course. Someone will probably kid me about how loud my Grandmother was at church. And, like every Christmas since 1984, we’ll have a good laugh about the “bells.” If she’s upright, Miss Hilda will wear her costume and lead us in singing carols and probably a hit or two from the 60s.

Thinking back to 1984, I remember why Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year.
No matter what else might be going on in the rest of the world, everything is “right” in Snow Valley…and that’s one of the reasons Snow Valley is the happiest place on Earth.

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