Published on catapult magazine, Tradition II edition, December 2011
by Amanda Cleary Eastep
There was something about that big paper sack.
The weight of it in my small hand promised something wonderful. It was heavy with possibilities, with the chance to share and exchange with my little brother whatever treats it contained.
As we filed out of the church after our grade school Christmas Eve pageant, room moms, like wisemen, handed each child the same gift, a treat for our many days of pageant practice, something to take home and rummage through or spill out onto the empty table and devour.
We sang our hearts out that night, gathered around Joseph (the tallest eighth grader) and Mary (the prettiest eighth grader) and baby Jesus (an old rubber doll wrapped in a blanket).
The lights were turned low in the sanctuary, with only night shining through the stained glass windows, blackening the mosaic of colored glass to fractured shadows.
Our teachers had drilled us on our lines in class; we recited them over and over to our parents after finishing our math homework. There was no moving your lips, no faking your worship of the Christ. The songs were easier. We had grown up hearing and singing them. My favorite was “Oh, Holy Night,” and I wished I could hit the high notes right after the “fall on your knees” part. There was something in the singing of that song.
We children, along with our parents and grandparents and teachers, praised God.
We felt a perfect peace that sat high like a giant pearl on the pedestal of our raised voices.
We felt peace despite the turmoil in life: no work for two years for my carpenter father during the recession, only side jobs and hushed and heated talk of work in Saudi Arabia.
We felt peace despite the troubles that didn’t cease for the observance of tradition, but dared all of us to find comfort in something so weak and small as a baby.
The songs and recitations and prayers ended, the shepherds returned to their pews, we children formed a long, trembling line down the center aisle, silencing giggles of relief and anticipation of continued Eve celebrations at home and of the coming morning.
At my grandmother’s house, my brother and I dumped our paper sacks onto the table, spilling pounds of loose peanuts in their dusty shells, apples and oranges far more exotic that night than they were yesterday sitting in the fruit aisle of Knuth’s Kountry Korner, and Tootsie Rolls and caramel chews with vanilla or raspberry or hazelnut cream.
Our grandmother served a smorgasbord of even more exotic treats: pickled herring and tiny cheeses and sausages and butter cookies with maraschino cherries on top. It was only our small family every Christmas Eve — and the pageant, and the songs that turned many voices into one, and the church at night, and the dark sky with snowflakes that looked like they fell from just below the street lights, and the cold outside and the warmth around the kitchen table.
There was something that made Christmas Eve feel like a secret party at midnight, like we had all changed into otherworldly creatures, celebrating something miraculous.