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First Christmas: A Short Story by Jeff Hampton

Texas Town Christmas
Photo credit to "Stuck In Customs" on Flickr

“It’ll be okay,” she said in a soothing, sleepy voice.

“No it won’t,” he said, pounding the steering wheel. “We’ll never make it. We’ve made a mess of it.”

“It’ll be okay,” she said again and squeezed his hand.

It was 7 a.m. as they hurtled eastward on U.S. 59 toward Houston. The sun wasn’t yet above the horizon and the roads were deserted as would be expected on Christmas morning.

Their plan had been a good one – at least on paper. The engaged nearly-weds would celebrate their first Christmas together with both of their families, made possible because her family celebrated on Christmas Eve, and his on Christmas Day. The only thing to work out – and not a small matter – was the fact that their families lived 300 miles apart. Looking at the map, studying travel times, considering options, he believed the best way to bridge the gap was a two-hour drive to Houston and a one-hour flight to Dallas – cutting the six hour city-to-city drive in half.

It all started well enough. On the morning of the 23rd he drove downtown to the Waco newspaper with his bags in the trunk. He hustled all day with his assignments and when the city editor had blessed his last story, he jumped in the car and headed out of town, whipping around Waco’s infamous traffic circle onto Highway 77 for the four-and-a-half hour drive to her hometown of Victoria. The time went quickly as he passed farmhouses, trailers and town squares strung with twinkling lights. Arriving at midnight, the whole family was up to greet him with hugs and a late-night snack before going to bed. He was exhausted but stopped at her bedroom door for a goodnight kiss before walking to the room at the end of the hall that had become his over the past couple of years.

The next morning he was quickly absorbed into her family’s Christmas Eve routine. They took flowers to the cemetery to place at the graves of family members. A trip to the grocery store secured all the needed elements for their annual Christmas Eve buffet: breads, sliced turkey and ham and salami, chips and dips, fresh vegetables and fruit – everything but handmade tamales, which were purchased at a little shop on a side street. He’d never had tamales at Christmas, but then he’d never celebrated Christmas in South Texas either. The last piece of preparation was to go to the nursing home and spring out the favorite great aunt so she could enjoy the evening with the family. Pushing 90, partially blind and nearly deaf, she was none-the-less the life of the party.

And the party officially began around 8 p.m. with all the food spread out on the kitchen table where everyone could nibble and graze. Along with the food they’d bought earlier in the day there were plenty of homemade cookies and her brother’s special holiday punch. Roundabout 9 p.m. it was time to go into the living room and exchange gifts. Unlike the free-for-all that he was accustomed to, the family took turns opening packages so they could ooh and ahh in unison at the revealing of each gift. As they went around the room in this way, he had fleeting thoughts of what was happening 300 miles away: his family was gathering to hear a reading of Luke’s account of the ultimate gift in the beautiful poetry of the King James Bible.

When all the gifts were unwrapped and the thank-yous were said and photos were taken with new blouses and sweaters and neckties, the night began to take a more solemn tone. The great aunt was taken back to the nursing home and it was time for midnight mass.

His family usually went to a candlelight service earlier in the evening and was in bed by midnight, so this act of literally starting Christmas Day at the stroke of midnight in church was a new and exciting experience. With the interior of the old church – the one where they’d say their vows in just four months – decorated beautifully with candles, lights and garlands, and the congregants sitting quietly in the dim light, he had a sense of what it must have felt like to have been awake in the wee hours of that first Christmas in Bethlehem. As they sang, prayed and read scriptures, he was impressed that this was not a Christmas “production,” but rather a simple, reverent celebration by common people worshiping the birth of an uncommon child.

When mass ended they stepped out into the chilly South Texas dampness, and it was 2 a.m. when they finally crawled into bed. They’d get just a slight three hours of sleep before getting up and driving to Houston to catch an 8 a.m. flight. That would have them in Dallas by 9 a.m. and around his family Christmas tree by 9:30 a.m.

But something happened – or didn’t happen. The alarm didn’t go off, or it did go off and he slept through it. Whatever the cause, he awoke suddenly and instinctively knew something was wrong. He ran down the hall and burst into her room shouting, “We’re late!” And when he looked at the clock, he saw they were more than an hour late. In an all-out panic he dragged her from her slumber to throw themselves together. If the events of the night before were new to him, this crashing out of a restful Christmas morning sleep was new to her, because the beauty of opening gifts on Christmas Eve was that you could sleep as late as you wanted on Christmas morning.

But not today. Their commotion awakened the rest of the house and her family watched in robes and pajamas as they tumbled out the door and into the car. Somewhere in the wild scramble to get ready someone called the airline to change their reservation. And somehow he found the time and the courage to call his parents and tell them they’d be later than planned. They said “don’t worry,” but he thought he heard a sigh of disappointment in their voices.

During the drive to Houston the rhythm of the road calmed his nerves and lulled her back to sleep for an hour or so. He thought about all the Christmases of his childhood and youth – the 20-plus years of wonderfully familiar traditions. The arrival of all four of his grandparents. The Christmas Eve dinner of beef stew and cornbread. Going to church for the singing of hymns, topped off by the lighting of candles while singing “Silent Night.” The restless sleeplessness of the night as he was gripped by excitement for the morning and tormented by the rough itch of brand new pajamas. And then the early-morning dash to the Christmas tree.

His daydreams faded as they made the turn on the freeway that took them to Hobby Airport. He dropped her off at the terminal to buy their tickets while he parked the car. By the time he got to the gate, lugging their carry-on bags, he was panting and damp from the swampy humidity. He felt like he might explode, but as they lifted up out of the Gulf Coast Plains and headed toward the Blackland Prairie, she took his hand and said again, “it’ll be okay.”

The flight was on time and they landed in Dallas an hour later. They hurried down the crowded concourse and out the doorways where they found his father and brother waiting. “We’re so sorry,” he said sheepishly and wanted to say more but he was calmed again when they said, “don’t worry, it’s fine.”

And it was fine. Even though they were late, Christmas was still waiting for them. There were gifts to open, snacks to munch on while waiting for the main event – Christmas dinner – and then an afternoon of sitting around and chatting lazily with parents, brother and wife, and grandparents. Despite the calamity of the early morning, they’d done it: they’d celebrated Christmas with both of their families.

It was a wonderful blessing – this celebrating Christmas twice – but while there would be years of blessings to follow, they’d never again attempt a dual Christmas. The effort might have been valiant – trying to honor their families – but it was just too hard, too stressful. Time and circumstances changed things anyway. Siblings married and further stretched the family trees. Grandparents and great aunts passed away, taking with them some of the old ways. Nephews and nieces were born, bringing new energy and joy.

After that first Christmas they decided their goal should be to see all the members of their families sometime during the five-week stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, and the next 25 years would be an ever-changing mix of holiday scenarios. Sometimes on Christmas day they’d be with his family, sometimes with hers, and as they grew older they even enjoyed quiet Christmases in their own cozy home. They also found themselves in memorable locations: Thanksgiving in Hot Springs, Christmas in New Mexico, New Year’s in New York City.

Wherever they were, and whoever they were with, their celebration always included the best pieces of that first Christmas. They always attended midnight mass. They ate tamales if they could find them. They opened a few gifts on Christmas Eve and set aside a few for Christmas morning. Most important, no matter where the push and pull of the holidays took them, they were always together. After trying so hard that first year to still be their parents’ children, from then on they belonged to each other.

As it usually happens, they didn’t know until it was too late that their last Christmas together would be just that – their last. Had he known, he wouldn’t have grumbled and delayed about digging through the dusty boxes in the garage for the decorations. He would have insisted on them getting a live tree to fill the house with the aroma of spruce, pine or fir. He would have strung a million lights from the trees and bushes outside to create a winter wonderland to beat all. He would have cleaned out the bank account and showered her with amazing gifts. Most of all, he would have held her tighter and kissed her longer.

Looking back, he couldn’t remember what he had given her that year, but he’d never forget what she’d given him. Despite her illness, she pushed herself beyond reason to carry on with the celebrations. In hindsight he knew that she did it just for him, and he would forever count that as her greatest gift. Or was it? His mind went back to those words she spoke on their first Christmas. Now, as he faced the holiday without her, he knew he would always have that sweet assurance: “It’ll be okay.”