And there is no time like Christmas for pulling us back to such a place. Usually, how much we love and look forward to Christmas as a holiday is in direct proportion to how close to this ideal home really is. Sadly, for many the reality of the holiday is one of the most painful experiences of the year.
Perhaps the reason we cling to the ideal at Christmas more than any other time is that this celebration is in honor of the One who came to bring true peace, joy, love and a place to belong. And the truth is that no family home and no human relationship can ever totally give us what we need. Every parent fails sometimes. Even love falls short. Children can disappoint and turns prodigal at one time or another. Siblings may fail to protect the secrets with which they hasve been entrusted.
Even so, home is the nearest thing we have to a metaphor for belonging. The imperfection of us all keeps us yearning for another place — that place that will truly be Home.
Thankfully, our memories tend to preserve the good and forgive the flawed. I’m sure my grandma’s house in the country was not as good as I remember it. The “front room,” as she called it was not as big, the kitchen not as warm, the snows not as white or as deep as I remember trudging through to get to that farmhouse with the fieldstone porch.
As I recall, she and Grandpa opened the big double doors to that front room only for special occasions. The piano was in there, and she would always have the old itinerate piano tuner come just before Christmas so we could sing carols around that piano when we all crowded in.
The Christmas tree she put in that room was not a pine, but a cedar tree Pa would cut fresh from the woods behind the barn. The ornaments were of World War II vintage and before — scenes painted on clear glass balls—and there were strips of foil we called “ice-sickles,” big lights of every color and real candy canes. Grandma would always make fresh popcorn balls with sorghum molasses, wrap them in a new thing called Saran Wrap® and hang them on the tree for us kids to “snitch” when no one was looking.
Grandma baked for days before Christmas: pies of apples and cherries from their orchard, fudge, taffy and divinity layered in boxes between buttered sheets of waxed paper, cinnamon rolls for breakfast and homemade bread. These were all prepared before the real cooking started.
To this day I find myself running my fingers over mixing bowls in antique shops that have brown and gold sheaves of wheat on them or picking up green Fire King baking dishes and pie pans, longing to take them home to see if they would somehow turn things I make into the magical tastes of my childhood for my grandkids to remember.
Country life always seemed to separate the boys and the men from the women and girls. The guys would “mosey” out to the barn to talk to Pa while he milked the two cows they always kept to supply them with milk and butter. The boys would help him throw down hay for the night, feed the cats and gather the eggs from the henhouse. On summer mornings gathering eggs was Grandma’s job, but in the winter when she was less sure of her footing, Pa brought in the eggs.
Meanwhile, the women would take up stations in the kitchen peeling potatoes, opening jars of green beans Grandma had canned the summer before and cutting up squash, onions, brussels sprouts and turnips. The girls would set the table in the living room, then work on the puzzle that became a family project all through the days of Christmas.
I don’t remember much about the gifts. They were simple, practical and usually handmade. I do remember hugs and 'thank you’s'. I remember Grandma loving whatever I gave her as if she’d been wanting it all her life. I love the picture of me with the family holding up a string of pearls — probably ordered from the Sears catalog (“the wish book,” we called it) — and looking as if this necklace was as precious and rare as diamonds.
There was never any doubt why we had Christmas. Since Grandma had lost most of her eyesight, my daddy read the Christmas story from Luke while the children sat on someone’s lap or on the floor leaning back on some seated grownup’s knees. We all knew the words by heart, but familiar as they were, they always brought tears to our eyes — like we were hearing this wonderful story for the first time.
Grandma would pray, and when she prayed, the angels quit fidgeting around, swishing their wings and got still. We knew that sooner or later every one of our names would be specifically mentioned; Grandma would thank the Lord for the gift of each one of us and ask His tender care and guidance as we grew and changed and became what He intended for us to be.
After prayer and presents, the music would begin. Grandma played both the piano and the guitar; Pa played the “fiddle” and the “mouth harp.” We all knew sooner or later he’d grab Grandma by the arm and try to make her dance around the room; she’d say, “Oh, Pop, quit!” And we’d all laugh.
The children would ask for their favorite of the songs that Grandma had always sung to them: “Redwing,” “Mockingbird Hill” or “Listen to the Mockingbird.” It never seemed strange that all our favorite songs were about birds.
We also sang Grandma’s favorites: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “I Must Tell Jesus” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
It seems to me now, looking back, that I was the most adored of children, and I know all the grandchildren would say they thought they were. Truth is we all were.
As night fell and the kerosene lamps were lit, it seems to me that the love in that house could be touched — like soft velvet or the smooth fur of a kitten. The snow could pile to the eaves for all we cared. We were home, we were fed and we were loved.
For other articles featuring Gloria Gaither, click here.