It was dark, cold, and snowing outside as I found myself wedged into the back seat of my dad’s blue 1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88. My mom was in the front seat and three of my siblings were in the seat next to me as we waited for my dad to come out of the house. It was Christmas Eve and we were on our way to my grandparents house for the annual gathering where we exchanged gifts and ate way to much food. I remember staring out the car’s front window into the garage. I was looking at the house entrance door when I said, “What’s taking him so long?”. One of my older siblings smiled at me and said, “I think dad had to go to the bathroom.” I was quite then as I listened to the car heater blasting out hot air and I could feel the heat building inside my jacket. I thought about the small plate of cookies with a half-glass of milk we left on the counter for Santa. I was excited and anxious about having this man or super-natural creature in our home when we were gone. I felt a sense of wonder how Santa could get all of the presents delivered across the world in one night, but also excited to see what he would bring.
The drive to my grandparents house was usually met with cold snowy weather and there was always a sense of tension about being stuck in the snow or even stranded at their house and not being able to get home. Since I was very young, I had to release my fears of this and have faith that my father knew best and would always keep us safe. The conversation during our drive was usually about local events in the town or sometimes a bit of gossip about the relatives we were going to see. I mainly did not have any input, and for the most part would just listen and try to make sense of it all. I found that my thoughts would drift back to the counter at home where the cookies sat, wondering at what point he would break into our house to eat them and leave us gifts under our tree. I wondered what else Santa would do while he was there. Did he go into my room? Did he take a dump in our toilet? In a way, the thought of this creeped me out, but I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. After all, Santa was a good guy right?
When we reached my grandparents farm, the yard had turned into a makeshift parking lot. The snow had been plowed carefully allowing a maximum number of vehicles near the house. As we unpacked ourselves from the warm car we immediately could feel the cold sharp wind on our faces. My mom said, “Take the roaster inside Becky. Boys, you grab the bags of gifts from the trunk and take them into the house.” Without much fuss, we followed orders and gathered our food and gifts. As we walked slowly toward the house, I could hear the crunch of snow under each step as I steadied myself for any unseen ice. Growing up in the northland, I had created a sense of the earth and how to interact with it based on the season. I had a respect for the outdoors and always guarded myself for the unknown and the unseen.
As we came closer to the house, I could hear the voices of many people inside. I could smell the aroma of turkey and savory foods coming out the door as we entered the house. We were met in the porch entry by my Uncle David with him saying, “Hello! Come on in! It’s a bit crowded as usual. You can put your boots and shoes over there, and coats can go in the closet if you can find a spot.” We quickly surveyed the room and found a place to stash our things.
As we filed through the door into the kitchen, I could see my grandma Mildred at the stove wearing a flower print apron over a dress that was likely the one she wore everyday. She was tending to the mash potatoes, turkey and various other traditional foods. She had an innate non-verbal way to direct what happened in the kitchen and everyone understood this language. She was a quiet presence in the home from what I remember. Whenever I would visit the farm in the summers, she was always working in and around the house. I would often spend time helping her tend the chickens, pull weeds from the garden, and taking lunches out to the fields for the men. I loved my grandma as she always smiled at me and gave me hugs. When I got sick, she tended to me with practical remedies and patience.
I also saw that my Aunt Caroline was sitting at the table talking non-stop with her sister Ginny who was blocked in between her and the wall. “Well, I couldn’t believe it when Tim was just standing there holding the tire iron and not moving, and I says, “Tim what are you doing?” And he looks up at me and says, “Nothin ma, just thinking about which is the best tire to use.”, and I says, “Well, what would Robert do in this case? Maybe you can just ask him.” and he says, “Okay ma.” And then …” I saw the look of numbness on Aunt Ginny’s face which was common when faced with the onslaught of words from Aunt Caroline. It was amazing, as I could swear that she had some kind of special ability to speak without ever pausing to breathe.
It was often overwhelming to me to take in all of the people in the house. My mom was one of 10 children which made for many aunts, uncles, cousins and associated spouses and children. The home was packed with people in every corner and room on the main floor. I would scan the room to see familiar and unfamiliar faces. The room that most of us kids would occupy was the back porch of the house. This was where my grandma kept her freezer with my favorite cookies and of course a cupboard with an assortment of toys. When I arrived in the room, I found my cousins eating cookies they had found in the freezer (lucky not my favorite ones) and sitting around card tables telling stories of their farms and families.
My cousin Duane was sitting at one of the tables shaking his head with a half-smile as he listened to my cousin Dustin spin another of his never-ending tales. Duane had bright red hair and his cheeks always seemed red too from their constant exposure to the cold winds and sunshine of the North Dakota winter. Dustin had dish-pan blonde hair that was always tousled and he had a facial twitch that always seemed like he was winking at you. Dustin said, “I was feeding the cows, so I was driving the 1456 tractor pulling the feed-wagon into the pasture, you know the one where Uncle Newton as that big angus bull? Well, as I was driving in the bull wouldn’t move, so I jumped down and yelled at him and gave him a swift kick in the side! Boy did he beller and run!” On hearing this, I looked at Duane and my other cousins and they were either rolling their eyes or shaking their heads. Dustin’s younger brother Cameron said, “You are so full of shit Dusty. That bull would have squashed you like a bug if you got off that tractor. They don’t call him old grumpy for nothin!” Just then my uncle Roger poked his head in the room and said, “Ok kids, it’s time to pass out presents.” Duane said, “Ok, let’s go!” As we were getting up, Dusty pushed Cameron out of the way so he could be first out of the room. Cameron gave him a playful kick in the butt. We all started pushing them both through the door into the living room trying to prevent a fight from breaking out.
Christmas presents at these events would involve bringing a present for someone of your own age and gender. These gifts would have a label stating, “Boy, Girl, Man, Woman” and then numbered. When it came time to open gifts, each of us would pick a number and when the gift’s number was called, you would get it regardless of your age or gender. I often thought this was confusing, but somehow it seemed to worked. As my cousins and I filed into the living room, Uncle David had a small basket raised higher than eyesight and he said, “Okay kids, reach in and pick out a piece of paper for your number. Remember, just pick one.” Each of us obediently stepped up one by one and took out a small piece of paper with a number on it. Immediately, Dusty exclaimed to our group, “I got number five, what did you get Lyle?”, speaking to another cousin of ours who was about my age. Lyle said, “I got number 23.” “Hah!”, said Dusty, “I’m going to get a better present than you because my number is before yours!” Once everyone had a number, my uncle David said, “Now there are 23 of us here tonight and I thought we’d do something a bit different. I think we will start in reverse order.” I could see that Dustin was obviously annoyed at this change-up of things. David looked over at Lyle and gave him a quick wink but I don’t think anyone else noticed. David said, “Who’s got number 23?”. With a smile on his face, Lyle said, “I do!”
When the presents were all passed out, we had the opportunity to exchange it with someone else if you wanted to. This was likely the best part of the gift exchange as it encouraged us to engage with each other and was often accompanied by laughter and poking fun at each other. Lyle ended up getting a new pocket knife with a pearl inlaid handle. Dusty received a girl’s gift which was a small toy pony that had a long braided mane and colorful saddle. Dusty tried desperately to trade the present with someone, but even some of the small girl cousins would not give him the satisfaction. He ended up walking over to the pile of presents belonging to my aunt Ginny (who’s daughter Kara was several years younger than I) and mumbled, “Stupid present to get.” and he quickly laid in on the pile and walked away. I think he was feeling a bit sheepish about spouting his mouth off and ending up with a girl’s toy.
When I look back at these visits, what I really enjoyed most was hearing stories of my grandparents, aunts and uncles as they homesteaded the area, grew their farms and worked the land. I never had a sense that Christmas or the presents given where the important part of this time of year. I thought of the bible stories of baby Jesus, the Wise Men and the Angels. I thought of the teachings of Christ and how it felt right to me that this time of year was about connecting with each other and most importantly, giving to those less fortunate. It may seem strange to most, but the receiving of a random present given with no consideration of who I am, made no sense to me. I always felt awkward in having to act surprised and happy at what I received. I was amazed when I observed that as quickly as the presents were opened, they were then piled up and readied for whenever each family left for the night. All of the “pomp and circumstance” of the presents and reasons for them was over as quickly as it began. Even in my young mind, I could never reconcile the way we gave presents to each other, with what I was being taught about the reason for Christmas. It was all so rote and mechanical that my feelings would get muddled and confused.
As the evening wound down and people were stuffed with food and drink and feeling the effects of the tryptophan high we got from the turkey, we parted ways and packed into our cars to go home. A few minutes into our drive home I asked, “Mom, why do you think Dusty tells such tall tales?” I looked up to see her shaking her head and she said, “I don’t know Dwight. Maybe he’s just lonely.” I wasn’t quite sure what to think about this. Everyone seemed to have an attitude about Dusty. I’ll admit I was uncomfortable with him at times too. I just wish I would have been a better cousin and friend to him.
The rest of the drive home was a bit treacherous as the snow was coming down harder and the roads were difficult to navigate. I was getting pretty sleepy and my mind was wondering about what we would find at home. Would “he” have been at our house? I had mixed feelings of excitement and fear each time I’d think about it. I suppose this is normal, but I never really had anyone else I could ask.
It varied from year to year on when my family would open presents. Sometimes it was the night we returned home from my grandparents, sometimes it was the next morning. This year we had left the farm fairly early as we had heard the weather was going to get worse. Arriving home we drove into the driveway to find a two foot snow drift had formed across the main area of the yard. It blocked our passage around to the car garage. My dad had to decide whether to try driving through it, or parking and getting out the FarmAll tractor to scoop a path through it. To this day, I’m not really sure why my dad decided to go for it. He put the car in reverse and backed up almost to the highway. He said, “You ready?!” and my brother Dale said, “Yes!” Then putting it in drive, by dad punched it and headed straight for the snow drift. I’m not sure how fast we were going when we hit, but all you could see was white powder everywhere. The car lurched left and then right and I slide forward off my seat onto the floor. We almost came to a complete stop but managed to have enough momentum to punch a hole through the drift and make it to the other side. With a cheer and small applause, we continued our way around to the garage entrance. We all piled out and grabbed the loot from the evening and the left over food we just “had” to take home with us and headed inside for the evening.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I was told the truth about Santa and why it always took dad so long to get out of the house on those cold Christmas eve nights. To tell the truth, I actually felt relieved when I found out that the sanctuary of our home was not being violated by a old man who had a passion for making toys for boys and girls, and loved it when they sat on his lap to hear their secret toy desires. I think it was about this time that I was able to clarify how I really felt about getting presents at Christmas. Now that the “Santa” mystery side of the equation was resolved, the only thing left was giving and getting the presents themselves. I had a strong belief that the act of giving presents was supposed to include two things. First, it was a way to honor someone you cared for. If you knew them well enough you could buy them a gift they really needed or wanted. Secondly, it was supposed to be a way to give to those less fortunate than ourselves in order to give them some joy and respite during that time of year. Unfortunately, what I witnessed about Christmas and giving gifts usually did not include either of these things. As I got older, this phenomena became more and more prevalent. I can’t say that I never received presents that I wanted, but I seemed to be very disenfranchised by the whole process and began to resent it. This effected me for years to come.
When we all got into the house, my mom turned on the stove top and pulled out a Jiffy-Pop popcorn pan to cook up a treat for us all as we prepared ourselves to open presents that night. I looked at the counter where I had left the cookies and milk and only saw a few remaining crumbs on the plate and just a few drops of milk in the glass. I looked around at my family, but no one else seemed to care that someone had been here when we were gone. I backed into a corner of the room and looked around thinking, what if he’s still here?! I cautiously looked around the edge of the doorway toward the living room and Christmas tree only to see blinking lights in a darkened room. I made sure to stay close to my mom pretending to want to help her with the popcorn and heating up the apple cider. I wasn’t about to go into the other room by myself. My brothers could go first!
My dad had come in from the garage and announced that the car was fine after our snow drift rampage. We all gave out a sigh of relief and I could see my dad winking at my mom as she smiled at him with a knowing look. It was a few years later that I finally had some kind of clue what those looks meant between them, but that’s a whole other topic for another time. Dad walked into our dining room and over to the stereo cabinet sitting in the corner of the room. He put on the traditional christmas album he always played. It had a kind of Mexican mariachi band sound with trumpets and of course, accordion music. He began to bob and weave in front of the cabinet to the beat of the music. I could always tell when my dad was in a good mood based on how close attention he paid to the music being playing. I remember one time in the milk barn, he was sitting on a small metal milk stool next to the calf pens when K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s song, “Shake Your Booty” came on the radio. I was watching him move to the music when the “Shake, shake, shake…” part came on, he raised both of his legs straight out in front of him and shook his knee high rubber barn boots. He fell straight off the stool onto his butt on the floor! He was laughing the whole time and it always made me smile when he goof around.
When the popcorn and cider were ready, we all gathered in the living room to find our spots for the remainder of the evening to open our presents. It was always the job of the youngest in the family to pass out the gifts, so I got busy sorting and routing the gifts to everyone in my family. I enjoyed finding each of my gifts and piling each of them safely as I’d keep count of them (just in case one of my siblings got any smart ideas to steal one). Once they were all passed out, we took turns opening one gift at a time. I didn’t realize it then, but as much as I liked to see what the gift was, I actually got more excitement from not knowing what was in each box. To this very day, having an unopened box represents endless potential of what it could be. Even if I order something on-line and get it a few days later, I will still let it sit on the table for awhile before opening. I know what should be in the box, but there is still a chance it could be something completely different! As I slowly opened each of my gifts, the mystery of the gift and the day faded a bit more.
There were a few times over the years that I tried to convince my family the idea of all of us giving to a local family in need rather than giving gifts to each other. This idea came about as we would struggle to figure out what to give each other. This was especially difficult when our families began to grow. The ideas I had were met with understanding and they seemed to like it, but they could not move away from the habit of giving presents to each other. We did however adjust our consumeristic practices a bit more when the family became so large it was very costly to buy for everyone. For several years we drew names so you would buy for just one other person. Then we moved to just buying the young children gifts, and finally dissolving the family wide gift exchange all together.
One thing that kind of revived my feelings toward giving presents, and the idea of Christmas, was when I started having my own kids. I supposed there was a part of me that could relive those days of fantasy, and I wanted my boys to feel that sense of wonder around the season. The hardest time came on the day that my youngest son also found out the truth about Santa. He took the news pretty hard. For some reason my older son had figured it out and when he was talking with his mom about it she said, “If you still want to get something from Santa, just don’t say anything.” When my youngest son found out he was crushed. At first I thought it was because the illusion or fantasy of Santa was something he whole heartedly believed, but later on I realized that it was not that at all. He was crushed because the two people he trusted most had lied to him for years. I also believe he was an advocate for the Santa story in the midst of his friends when they were telling him it wasn’t true. When he found out later that it was all a lie, he was very embarrassed. As a parent who subscribes to the story of Santa and tells this tale to their children, I think it’s difficult to know when you should let them in on the truth. I know for my son, he was angry about this for years until he himself started to have children, and now I see him spinning the same tale to them.
I became more and more hardened toward Christmas and the holidays the older I got. Nothing about this time of year is joyful for me. The season’s purpose is lost to consumerism, spending time together was at a minimum and a struggle to organize, and even if I told someone the things I wanted, it is usually ignored. I thought that the illusion of Christmas was just that, an illusion; and very few people actually remember what it’s all about. I dread this time of year more and more, especially after I got divorced and remarried and my family splintered even more. It feels as if our children see it as a burden or inconvenience to spend time with us. There is a huge focus on what should be bought without much consideration for actually spending time together. At the ending of the season we are left with things we don’t need, a lot of debt we also don’t need, and a sense of emptiness that we really never had time to just sit and connect.
I’ve been asked for many years to tell people what I want for Christmas. I have become adamant that all I want is time with my family. To me, this is the most important thing there is since I can see and feel how short life is. I can connect to my childhood an now understand that it was the time that I spent with my family that meant the most to me. Time is all I ask. If someone needs to give me something tangible, then write a card out to me that says it’s good for one date with them. It doesn’t need to be extravagant. We don’t need to spend a bunch of money on restaurants or meals. I’d be happy just to sit with my each one in my family and talk about life and how things are going for them. I want to hear their stories, their struggles and their dreams. I want to be available to them to help them in any way I can. This to me is the real reason for Christmas. To be present for the ones I love and in return, for them to be present for me.
Dwight J. Raatz 12/02/2017