Yesterday's Magazette

4 – In Keeping With Christmas Past

Author and her sister in their nurses outfits.

By Madonna Dries Christensen

The Salvation Army’s holiday donation drive is a long-standing tradition. The unobtrusive manner of the workers and the merry tinkle of their handbells is all it takes to make me reach into my pocket. In addition to the familiar red kettles, the Salvation Army erects angel trees in shopping malls. Each paper angel lists a child’s given name, sex, age, identification number, clothing sizes, and a wish list. Shoppers choose an angel and place packages under the tree for that child.

My small hometown in Iowa has a similar program, called Sharing Christmas. The weekly newspaper lists participating families by number only, along with their wish list, mostly basic items that many of us take for granted. Family #7 would like a grocery box and boy’s thermal underwear, sizes 10 and 12. Family #23 woman needs a pair of overshoes, size 8, husband needs a sweatshirt, extra large, and warm work gloves. Family #30 needs baby formula, and flannel pajamas for girl, size 4. One little girl wished for a hairbrush. Imagine a child not having a hairbrush. Some lists include the latest popular toy or game, but those requests read like an afterthought, as if it might be considered frivolous for a child from a needy family to wish for an expensive toy. Some requests are simply for a food box.

The Sharing Christmas program and Angel Trees are reminders of my childhood. Like many families during the Depression and thereafter, we were monetarily poor. At Christmastime, we received a food box from the town’s Community Chest.

By Christmas Eve afternoon the house was dressed for the holiday. The fragrant pine tree in the parlor, propped in a bucket of wet sand, held homemade ornaments and strung popcorn. Lead icicles sparkled in the soft glow of blue, red, and green bulbs hidden in the branches. A worn cardboard crèche sat on a table (one of the three Magi was missing); a lighted plastic wreath hung lopsided in the window, its electrical cord dangling to the nearest socket. Strung corner to corner of the dining room ceiling were red and green construction paper chains we kids had cut and pasted together. The heat from the room often loosened the chains and they had to be rehung time and again.

Ma bustled about the kitchen rolling piecrusts and making turkey stuffing from dry bread, onions, and sage.

“When will the box come?” one of us periodically asked.

“It’ll come when it comes,” was her unsatisfying answer.

The clock ticked slowly. As the afternoon drew to a close, the sky became splashed with variegated colors bleeding together like a child’s watercolor painting. Drying her hands on her apron, Ma walked to the window and called, “Santa spilled his buckets of paint.”

We scurried from all directions, wondering aloud which of the many colors spilled across the horizon had been used for the toys Santa would bring. Had he finished painting before the buckets tipped over? Was this his way of showing us that he had finished his job, that all was ready for that flight from afar?

“When will Santa come?” a little brother asked.

“Not until you’re asleep,” Ma said.

“When will the grocery box come?”

“Before long.” She went back to work and, sure enough, within minutes the delivery truck lumbered around the corner, its tire chains squeaking on packed snow.

The box was delivered by our neighbor, at whose grocery store some of the food was purchased. He and Ma visited for a moment, she thanked him, and they wished each other a Merry Christmas as he left.

We kids gathered around the kitchen table. From the box Ma pulled a plump turkey, a pound of butter (a glorious treat for oleomargarine users), a can of coffee, a jar of pimento olives, a can of jellied cranberry sauce, a fat clump of celery whose leafy top smelled as fresh as spring, several warty sweet potatoes, and cans of mince meat and pumpkin that would become pie before Ma’s work day ended.

“That’s everything,” she said, closing the lid. I knew that wasn’t everything. In the bottom of the box were goodies for our stockings: ribboned candies, nuts in the shell, and fragrant oranges. Fresh fruit during Iowa’s severe winters was expensive, so oranges were as welcome as St. Nick himself.

Today, reaching back to my Midwest roots, and in my parents’ name, I contribute to the Sharing Christmas program in the small community that once nurtured my family. I do it for the kids who might be waiting at the window, wondering when the delivery will come.

And I pluck an angel from the Salvation Army’s tree. My latest angel was Maria. I’ll never meet Maria, but I know her; she’s the child I used to be. I’ll wager that Maria, and the scores of children whose names appear on the trees, will someday, in one way or another, sponsor angels of their own, in keeping with Christmas past.

[Madonna lives on Worlud Pond in Sarasota, Florida, where oranges are plentiful. She’s the author of Swinging Sisters and Masquerade: The Swindler Who Conned J. Edgar Hoover. Web site: ]


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