When I was new and the world was young, at that wonderful age of six, my younger brother, John, and I celebrated our first Christmas in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at the Churchman family home place where my Dad was born and raised. Called Chapel Hill (all these old Southern homes have names) the gracious Georgian style house has been in the family since 1816. In those early days, John and I had only just grasped the concept of Santa Claus because our family had spent the previous three years in Taiwan where my parents taught English and only returned to the states that previous summer.
Everything about an American Christmas was new and wondrous to us, especially the amazingly generous fat guy in the red suit who was just waiting to give us presents. But it seemed that he required snow, the cold white stuff we had not yet witnessed, for sleigh travel with his flying deer. A bit eccentric perhaps, but I was an imaginative child and willing to indulge him. It wasn’t lost on us, though, that this weather phenomenon didn’t fall from a clear blue sky.
Our parents hadn’t made much of Christmas in Taiwan. We were tiny tots and toys scarce, the few there were being some that other missionary families shared with us from those their children had outgrown. There were no toy stores in Taiwan then like there were here. Chewing gum was a major treat. We caught our breath at the delights we saw in the American shops.
Barbie dolls had just been introduced and I longed for one with hair to comb, an endless perfect wardrobe, and furniture of her own. John had his eye on a racing car set. We’d seen picture books with Santa in them and there was always snow. What to do, what to do? Nothing but wait and hope.
The journey to Virginia began in the mountains of Tennessee, jolting along in our old Ford on Route 11 to Augusta County in the Shenandoah Valley. Our grandmother, whom we all called Mommom, Aunt Moggie, Uncle RW and our five cousins awaited us on the family farm.
Dad spent what seemed like days in preparation for the trip, packing and repacking the car. Finally we got underway. I’m amazed as an adult to find that the trip normally takes about six hours, or less, because I have vivid memories of this ride going on all day and far into the night, playing ‘I Spy with My little Eye,’ and singing carols until we were hoarse and my parents must’ve been nearly half mad.
Mom taught us a song on the way about Santa, ‘You’d Better Watch Out,’ a worrisome ditty. I wasn’t an exceptionally naughty child, but knew there were the occasionally times when I had been what, in some person’s minds, might be construed as bad. What if Santa, this wonderful provider, had seen me at less than my best? What if I got switches?
My father told us about his Uncle Gus who’d received switches. Horrors of horrors. Deep down I felt it was no more than I deserved if my every move had been carefully noted. I hoped Santa was a forbearing fellow, but doubts lurked, a new worry on top of the snow thing.
Eventually we arrived in the Valley and the paved highway turned into bumpy dirt roads as we wound deeper into the country with its unique smells. My father pointed out the lights of Chapel Hill glowing in the distance, then unbelievably we were driving up the long lane and the yard filled with family to warmly welcome the weary travelers.
The first night we went straight to bed. I slept upstairs in the yellow room––every room has a name––with my two cousins, Margaret and Elizabeth Page. In the morning, John and I got our wish. We awoke to heavily falling snow, a magical world. We went sledding down the lane, made a giant snow bunny with my father and had the time of our lives, clambering back into the kitchen ravenous and soaking wet. We peeled off layers of pants––no snow pants back then––and took our wet clothes and mittens to hang them by the stove in Mommom’s room, before downing bowls of homemade soup.
The day before Christmas finally came and the old brick house filled with tantalizing smells. The kitchen door opened periodically, the sleigh bells on it announcing the arrival of yet more friends bringing yet more gifts. Friends, neighbors and family all exchanged gifts, even if it was only a plate of cookies exchanged for yours.
Presents were stashed in every corner of the front room, covering the old piano and stacked beneath, wrapped in paper and ribbons which I found almost too beautiful to bear. I knew there were some for me among them, that I was not in total reliance on Santa. Even so, I longed to be kindly remembered by him.
As any child can attest, Christmas Eve is the longest day of the year and one in which we made extreme nuisances of ourselves, asking endless questions and climbing over and under the furniture to see which gifts were ours. At last we gathered together in the front room in the presence of the magnificent pine decorated shortly before our arrival. My uncle cut it from a nearby woods and I loved its fresh smell, also new to me. A stern glance from him quieted us down and my grandmother read the Christmas story from The Book of Matthew.
The ancient story evoked a new-found sense of awe at the holiness of this night as I gazed at the little wooden crèche and the figures carved by my father. I felt the love in the room and understood that it had something to do with this sacred child whose birth we were celebrating.
All right, Jesus loved me, so did God, but what about Santa? After all, he was the one to fill the stocking I’d hung carefully in between my cousin’s on the mantle under the portrait of our great-great grandmother. All of our stockings had been knitted for us by an elderly relative and had a scene of Santa on one side and a reindeer on the other with little bells that jingled when I lifted it. A reminder of his imminent arrival.
After the stockings were hung and The Night before Christmas read, we heard sleigh bells ringing far off in the meadow. Good heavens, Santa was that close. We tumbled over each other in our haste to get to bed lest the old guy should discover us still up and promptly leave. Touchy fellow, peculiar ways, but ours was not to question why. We scampered under the covers and did not dare to peep until dawn.
After that, it was every child for him or herself. We launched out of bed, vying to be the first one to wish each other “Christmas Gift!” then paced about in acute impatience while the adults had a leisurely breakfast. Who could eat at a time like this? And dressed with slow, careful deliberation. I was wearing the same clothes I’d donned two days ago. As for bathing, only under duress.
We practically gave up all hope of ever seeing inside the front room and paced outside the closed double doors where no child could enter until everyone had gathered. Mommom, her blue eyes twinkling, reported that Santa had come and relieved our troubled minds. Uncle RW told us he’d seen reindeer hoof prints in the snow on the roof of the house. Imagine that. We never once questioned what he’d been doing on the roof. Not that this would make the slightest difference if we eked out our days waiting in the hall.
Then, glory hallelujah, the family assembled and lined up according to age, as required by the law of our clan. The all-important doors opened. Great was our wonder. There was the tree lit, the stash of presents sorted into individual piles, and the stockings filled. Mine bulged with promise. Praise be! The old fellow was extremely tolerant. I’d truly feared to see those switches.
It’s ages later now and Mommom has gone on before us. Lining up outside those omnipotent doors with my brother, cousins, parents, aunt, uncle and her at the end is a distant cherished memory. Christmas is a place I return to in my thoughts whenever I need the sense of joy and reassurance it brings. And I remember that time so long ago when my brother and I despaired of snow.
This account is included in A Very Virginia Christmas collection by Wilford Kale
*Pics of Chapel Hill, the old Virginia Family homeplace in the Shenandoah Valley
*The dog under the tree is Mia, a friend who has passed on, taken by daughter Elise. Images of vintage family Christmas cards by our mom, Pat Churchman.
*Pic of Beth Trissel and younger brother John Churchman from our Taiwan days taken by our mother.
Image of Old Order Mennonite horse and sleigh passing our farm in the valley taken by my husband, Dennis, last winter