Today Robin Reichert shares a beautiful story of a watershed moment in her childhood. Giving and growing go together, don't they?
The Christmas Secret
By Robin Reichert 2007
In the first grade it was no secret that I was the tallest, very shy, and a minister’s daughter. At that tender age, my friends and I had already begun to be surprised by daily onslaughts of merciless teasing about anything and everything. Rebecca was made fun of because her parents were from another country and had an accent. Debbie was laughed at for living in a pink house. The only reason anyone found reason to snub Mark and Randy was because they were the only boys in my tap dance class so they were dubbed “sissies.”
In reality, Rebecca was a sweet girl with beautiful, long, golden braids and kind, welcoming parents. Debbie always wore a dimpled smile and she and I often served as “bookends” when our dance teacher lined us up according to height. Mark was funny and always made us laugh. Randy was a polite young gentleman and the first boy to ever give me a Valentine.
At Halloween that year, I came home crying after some older boys had followed behind me on my walk home from school. They teased about the witch costume that my Mom had worked so hard to make. My normally dove-passive mom (who hated to sew and had made the costume with pricked fingers and huge heaps of love) surprised me when she responded with, “Honey, go out and shake your broom at ’em!” I surprised her in a flurry of orange stars, moons, and brown ringlets, when I turned with a swish of black sateen and stomped my shiny-shoed feet back down the sidewalk. I shook my broom at the perpetrators, as the point of my tall witch hat fell forward threateningly. In a loud, thundering six-year old voice, I spoke my vow to stop the heinous act of ritual childhood taunting for all eternity. The shocked boys quietly scurried out of my way.
As the Christmas season approached that year, I was catching on to the yearly traditions of the holiday. I kept my role in the school play a secret until Mom and Dad were seated in the school auditorium, where I once again broke out of my normally shy countenance and belted out a solo as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
My friends and I whispered secrets to each other about what we hoped Santa would bring, then wrote our letters to him and sealed those secret wishes into an envelope destined for the North Pole. I kept my Dad’s secrets and he kept mine, when he took me shopping for Mom.
Mom started baking early while Dad was at work. She let me help with the cut-out cookies, but after packing them away in tins, she withheld the whereabouts of those and other sweet morsels until they were brought out and displayed in a festive jumble on crystal plates for her holiday open house. Secrets and surprises were the glue that kept the magic of the season in place.
On Christmas Eve, the scents of pine mingled with sugar cookies and hot chocolate were almost too much to bear for an excited six-year old. The rainbow of lights on the tinseled tree gave a special glow to mom’s homemade decorations. Around windows and doors she made a garland-like display of the greeting cards that came in daily. The dining room table held candles and greenery arranged on a burgundy pinecone studded tablecloth. I was finally allowed to hang my stocking from the mantle beneath a colorful set of cardboard kings – Three Wise Men who I learned had humbled themselves and followed a bright star a long distance to bring gifts to a baby king.
I sat and stared at those cardboard kings on the mantle and the ones made of plaster that were part of the nativity scene under the Christmas tree. I marveled at their opulent robes, shining crowns, and the tiny gilt flasks and boxes that represented the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. My eyes traveled to the plainer, weathered garb of the shepherds and the holy family. I was warmed by the sight of them all, gathered together peacefully in the golden light of that lowly stable. I wondered what secret they all shared.
My six-year old thoughts turned to the next morning and what it would be like to see what Santa had brought. Then there would be calls to my friends to review how well our secret wishes had been fulfilled. As I pondered the child in the manger, I imagined how happy he would be when Christmas morning arrived and he too received gifts.
At sundown, that Christmas Eve, my Dad announced he’d be leaving soon to make deliveries of the food baskets and gifts our church folk had put together for less fortunate families. I didn’t know what “less fortunate” meant or how it manifested in the lives of people. I was just beginning to understand giving and the good feeling that came from the exchange for both giver and receiver. “I want to go!” I shouted.
Somewhat surprised, probably thinking a child would rather be watching some Christmas television show or setting out treats for Santa and the reindeer, my Dad replied, “Sure honey! I could use some help.”
I followed him over to the church and up the stairs to the vestibule where the “Giving Tree” stood. The pungent Douglas fir was covered in paper chains, pinecone angels, and yarn dolls that had been made by the Sunday school classes. Beneath it were several baskets of food and festively wrapped packages with tags marked according to the age and gender of the intended recipients.
The food baskets already overflowed with canned goods and fresh fruit. Dad topped them each off with a plump turkey, then carried them one by one down to the station wagon. Together we filled pillowcases with the remaining packages. By the time we were done loading the back of the car it looked like I imagined Santa’s sleigh did as he began making his way from town to town throughout the winter night.
From my place in the front seat, I peered up into the night sky hoping for a glimpse of one bright star that might lead us on our journey. I hoped then, that I might see Rudolph’s red nose guiding Santa’s sleigh through the heavy clouds. I saw nothing but raindrops slipping down the smooth surface of the car windows. Dad led us through some Christmas carols to the beat of the windshield wipers. Once we’d passed the town limits, the only thing lighting our way were the car headlights mingled with a large helping of Christmas spirit.
Finally, Dad dutifully signaled our turn onto a dark, mud-covered driveway. The tires sloshed between the tall pines that stood on either side of the long, uphill entrance. This was it. Our first delivery and the only one I remember from that night.
Butterflies danced in my belly in anticipation, then stopped suddenly as we rounded the bend at the top of the drive. Dad parked the car in front of a cinderblock foundation that sat in the middle of the biggest mud hole I’d ever seen in my short life. The four walls of the foundation were covered with a makeshift flat “roof” of plywood and tarpaper.
Dad stopped the engine and said, “Ready Sweetie Pie?”
Ready? I thought, “Ready for what? Where’s the house?” as I gazed at the odd sight.
Dad tromped through the mud, lifted the rear door, and rummaged around in the back of the station wagon. He came around to the passenger’s side where I sat looking confused, still staring at the mud-splashed walls of the foundation. He handed me a package, then went back to get one of the food baskets and a pillowcase full of other beautifully wrapped gifts.
Rain dripped from the brim of my Dad’s fedora as I followed him down the steps to the below ground door. I saw that the tag on the package I held said, ‘Six-year old boy’. The door swung open and there stood a woman holding a baby boy about nine months old. She smiled and then moved aside to let us pass. I followed Dad into the cave-like, damp living quarters where more smiling faces lit up the dimly lit room. One of them was the woman’s husband. The other was Randy, the tap-dancing, Valentine-bearing gentleman from the first grade.
Randy thanked me when I handed him the package in stunned silence. He sat it beneath the branches of a small, sparsely decorated tree that stood barren of any other gifts, in a dark corner of the room. Dad placed the basket on a table near the door then carefully laid out the remaining packages under the tree next to Randy’s gift.
I stood like a toy soldier near the doorway until Randy’s mom motioned for me to sit at the small table where the food basket sat overflowing with staples and treats. Randy sat down in a chair next to me as she brought out two cups of steaming hot chocolate, and warned us to let it cool before drinking it. She then poured the adults some coffee while her husband spoke of how hard things had been since losing his job just as he was getting started building his family a new home and how much he appreciated the gifts from the church folks. Randy and I stirred our hot chocolates with candy canes from the food basket.
I watched the baby squirm and drool in his mother’s lap and felt I’d been transported to a long ago place. A humble dwelling; visiting strangers bearing gifts; weary yet grateful parents.
Randy and I never said a word to each other beyond, “Hello”, but made frequent non-verbal exchanges as our eyes glanced past each other now and then. When my Dad finally stood and started making his way to the door, Randy shot me a look that seemed to say, “Please don’t tell.”
I returned a look that said clearly, “Your secret’s safe with me.”
To this day I still can’t find adequate words to explain it, but I know that on that night it became clearer - the secret shared by those represented as small Nativity figurines under our Christmas tree. I knew a little more about kings and shepherds - what it takes to be truly royal and how many different ways there are to tend a flock. I had a greater understanding of what made an event or a person holy and sacred. I’d learned a little more about holiday spirit, and a lot more about Love.
Contact Robin at:
Unitarian Universalist and Interfaith worship providerhttp://uumetrony.org/help/worship.htm