As we piled in the car, I turned my head and gazed upward into the night sky. The air was cool and unconsciously I pulled my favorite blue sweater tighter around me. I felt my mother's hand pat me on the shoulder, encouraging me to stop my star gazing and pay attention to the task at hand. Daddy had his head in the trunk where I could hear the Christmas packages landing with a thump and a brief rustle of paper.
Half the fun of Christmas, I was thinking, is that it goes on and on. Tonight was Christmas Eve and like so many other Christmas Eve's we were headed just down the drive to visit my father's parents, my grandparents. Tonight the festivities began. Tomorrow morning my brother and I would open the gifts my parents had bought us, and tomorrow night there'd be fun with my other grandparents and the rest of my mother's family.
Now seated, I turned my head again and pressed my face to the window glass, allowing my gaze to cross the overgrown farm fields. The glass felt cold on my forehead. With my active seven-year-old mind, for a moment I pictured the field as it was in the summertime. I saw the field covered in long rows of healthy fruits and vegetables, and I pictured my grandfather there, plowing the soil on his rusty red tractor, or walking about watering and fertilizing. I smiled as I thought of the familiar scene.
My reverie was interrupted when I heard the car engine roar and felt the wheels begin to turn. They crunched across the packed dirt of the driveway as we made the trek to Pop-Pop and Granny's house.
Our house sat on one end of a winding dirt road. To one side was the field and on the other stood a thick stand of live oaks, which we called "the woods". Pop-Pop and Granny lived at the other end of the driveway in a small wood-frame house set in the midst of a grove of citrus trees.
Their house was already crowded with relatives when we arrived. The youngest of a crowd of cousins, my brother and I slipped in the door, letting it slam behind us. Compared to the darkness of the night, the house was bright and cheerful. I smiled as the familiar faces began the wave of expected greetings. "My how you've grown!" "What grade are you in?" and "How's school?"
Gazing around the room I could see that every square inch of space was filled. The dining room table and chairs dominated the space, and the walls were covered with shelves, placards, and family photographs. I heard my mother enter. In her hands she carried a casserole she had prepared earlier that day. My dad came in behind her with his arms full of colorfully wrapped gifts. The wave of greetings began again and the room filled with happy chatter.
Christmas Eves were always like this and I thought it was the best thing. In my young thinking, every family everywhere did something similar. They gathered together during the holidays, swapped stories, gave gifts, and ate too much food.
Speaking of food, I was hungry. The table was already laden with dishes. Along with baked ham, I saw chicken and dumplings and macaroni and cheese. There were bowls of Pop-Pop's homegrown vegetables: green beans, collard greens, and black-eyed peas. There was the ever present tray of sliced tomatoes. Another table held a multitide of desserts: cookies, brownies, and coconut cake. I was especially fond of Granny's pound cake all slathered in sliced sugared strawberries and whipped cream.
As if on cue, my grandfather entered from the living room just beyond. In his booming voice, he declared it time to eat and lumbered over to his favorite chair. The room fell quiet as he prayed, thanking God for family, for togetherness, and for the health of all in the past year. Afterward, everyone rushed over, filled their plates, and drifted off to other rooms to find a seat.
When the meal ended, everyone seemed content to just smile and digest the feast. Looking straight ahead, I thought Granny with her fluffy white hair and flowery printed dress looked so pretty and Pop-Pop so distinguished in his plaid flannel shirt and black trousers. I could hear a few last minute bits of conversation and laughter from the other portion of the house.
The atmosphere changed when Pop-Pop rose from the table. Suddenly, everyone knew it was time for the presents. The floor of the house shook as many feet traveled in the same direction. The already small living room became even smaller as people searched for a spot to stand or sit.
Being young, it was easy for me to slip in and find a square to sit in the floor. While everyone settled in around me, I gazed at the Christmas tree with its shiny lights and wondered which package beneath was my own. I didn't really expect anything grand. After all, Granny and Pop-Pop had so many people to buy for. But every child looks forward to whatever is beneath all those ribbons and bows.
My anticipation would have to wait a little longer, however, because I could see Pop-Pop was reaching for his Bible. Resting deep in his brown leather chair, he cleared his throat and said it was time for the Christmas story. A deep silence descended in the room, and elbow-to-elbow we all listened to those familiar words from the book of Luke.
"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed ..."
If I stop here and fast forward, from the age of seven, to twelve, fifteen, and then twenty-three, this Christmas Eve scene repeated itself many times. Oh, the people in it grew older; my cousins married and had children, and their children married. I myself married and had a child, but always the little house and the hearts of the family managed to fit everyone in. Each person was sure to receive a gift, no matter how small it was, and everyone came glad to see everyone else.
For me, Pop-Pop's telling of the Christmas story was pivotal to the entire evening. I enjoyed opening the presents, and I loved the food. But everyone who attended knew none of it mattered until the story had been told.
The scene changed forever when my grandfather died. He was the first grandparent in my life to pass away. We cried for him and yet rejoiced, knowing his place was in heaven, knowing he was happy, and healthy and free. That Christmas, the family gathered again at the little house. There was time to eat and share, to laugh at the antics of the children, to catch up on all the family news. But when the moment came, and everyone gathered in the living room, I stood there with tears in my eyes.
The room was still the same. The old piano still sat in the corner covered in photos and Christmas cards. The huge wooden casement TV still took up the center. Even the couch and coffee table remained the same. And it was still crowded. The kids, as they always had, sat in the floor, and I, now an adult, instead stood in the doorway. But this year Pop-Pop's brown leather chair was empty. I couldn't help but think that now none of the children would know the story.
Then someone, just who I can't recall, reached over and picked up his old Bible, and one of the children opened it and began to read. There before me were new faces and old ones, familiar people and a story I had heard all my life. But that year, though the voice was that of a child, what I heard instead was Pop-Pop reading, just like he always had.
"And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem...to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger... "
I miss my grandfather still. In my head I can see him working the fields. When I see any antique tractors, like his 1952 Allis Chalmers, I think of him. No vegetables anywhere are ever as good as his were. Yet at Christmas time, when I miss him the most, I can always hear his voice reading the Christmas story. And it never fails to transport me to a place where I know what it all means, where there is love and joy, and where things make sense. The Christmas story for me is the greatest story ever told.