We four kids knew from experience not to expect the glittery gifts and toys we coveted in the Sears & Roebuck catalog or in the store displays during our family’s annual shopping trip to downtown Birmingham. But somehow, it escaped us that our family was poor, so Christmas was still an event to anticipate with hope and relish with joy.
Gail, Lynn, Larry and I awoke on Christmas morning in 1949 to find three inches of snow on the ground. We rushed to the Christmas tree, opened our few meager gifts, and celebrated life as only children on Christmas morning can do. We were 13, 12, 10 and 4 – a season of life when Christmas holds a wondrous power over our whole being. We were excited about Christmas and ecstatic about the snow, a rarity on our Alabama family farm.
The calendar put that particular Christmas on Sunday, and therein lay a dilemma. The Sunday factor was a threat to our euphoria. It could ruin everything. Sunday did not come to our home without the family making our way to Antioch Methodist Church.
Nonetheless, we felt a glimmer of hope. Surely the snow would help Dad realize we couldn’t go to church. After we had emptied our stockings of fruit, nuts and trinkets, and played with our few toys for a short time, Dad reminded us it was time to get ready for Sunday school and church.
We knew better than to argue, but we objected anyway, convinced that our sound reasoning would surely show Dad the error of his decision. You can imagine the chorus of whines and pleas that filled the air.
“Ah, come on, Daddy! Nobody can drive over all those hills between here and the church.”
“But, Daaaddy, nobody else will go to church!”
“We’ll slide off the highway and get stuck for sure!”
Of course our sound reasoning lost the battle. We were soon dressed up, bundled up and packed in the car on our way to Antioch.
Carefully and slowly, Dad drove across the rolling hills of an almost deserted Highway 231. We were the first to arrive at the little white frame, country church, and we entered a sanctuary that felt colder than the freezing temperature outdoors. Dad built a fire in the coal stove, and roaring flames began to heat the big room.
We boys busied ourselves playing chase up and down the aisles and between the rough hand-crafted pews. Finally, we realized it was past time for Sunday school to begin, and we were still alone. We waited awhile longer, but still, no one else came. Not even our pastor.
Of course we began to clamor, “Nobody’s coming, Dad! Let’s go home.”
But as for Dad and his house, we would serve the Lord. Dad instructed my sister to sit down at the old upright piano. We three boys, Mom and Dad huddled behind her as she played, and we sang all the familiar carols in the tattered, paperback hymnals. Then, with his family lined up on the front pew, Dad stood and read the Christmas story.
It made an impression at the time, and my 4-year-old heart sensed that there really was something extraordinary about the baby Jesus if He commanded that much respect from my dad. Only years later could we four siblings reach a true appreciation for that kind of legacy. Our father had demonstrated faithfulness and obedience rooted in love – love for the Lord and love for his family.
I don’t remember the gifts I received that snowy Christmas. But I remember that legacy.
(A version of this Christmas memoir first appeared in Decision magazine in December 1996.)