Skip to content

Blog / The Year I Dreaded Christmas

The Year I Dreaded Christmas

Walter Wangerin Jr.By Walter Wangerin Jr.

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” Galatians 4:4-6 (NIV)

In the 1950s the milkman delivered milk to the doors of houses—six bottles in a wire basket, each with a bulge at its neck. As it separated from the milk, the cream rose to fill these bulges. Cream was common in those days. So was butter. But butter was too expensive for our family’s budget. My mother bought margarine instead. To protect its dairy farmers, Alberta, Canada, had passed a law requiring margarine to be sold only in its original, unappealing, lard-white color. A button of orange powder was included in each brick-sized box. Mix this powder with the margarine. But don’t expect the color to become a true butter-yellow. We children could always see and taste the difference.

The milkman brought his wares along Ada Boulevard in a horse-drawn wagon. Especially in winter Mother said, “Tune your ears to hear his coming.” In the cold Canadian air we could hear the kindly congregational clinkings even before the wagon turned onto our street. It was our job to rush outside and bring the bottles in before the cream froze and lifted its hat on an ice-cream column.

“Well, children, how do you do?”

“Just fine, Mr. Cream, and how are you?”

So it was on Christmas Eve Day 1955 that we gathered at our front windows to watch for the mare and her wagon, and for the milkman to come bustling up the front walk. Mother wanted to be shed of us and our wild joy so that she could bake cookies in peace.

The mare moved in a slow walk, treading the hardened street-snow on either side of which banks of snow had been thrown up six feet high, snow banks we would be kings of tomorrow. She came nodding, never stopping while her master rushed up sidewalks, made his delivery, and rushed back again. Her back was blanketed. She blew plumes of steam from her nostrils. Her chin had grown a beard of hoarfrost. We burst from the house. The air was a crystal bowl of cold. The day was perfectly right, and we laughed with happiness.

To tell the truth, it was my siblings who laughed. I didn’t. Last year, while we were opening our presents, my brother Paul started sobbing, and then cried outright, though I don’t know why. This year and this night, then, I feared that something might un-gladden our celebrations. A high-pitched, tightened excitement is a dangerous thing, for it could be stretched like a rubber band to its breaking point. I was silent and solemn, watchful, and infinitely cautious—an adult at eleven. For what if you hoped and hope failed you? The harder your hope, the more vulnerable you.

By supper, Christmas Eve had become midnight black. We’d bathed. We ate tomato soup in our bathrobes. Then my six brothers and sisters raced bubbling to their bedrooms and dressed. I combed my hair with faucet water. We shrugged into our parkas and went outside to the car.

Immediately my hair froze and crackled when I touched it. We sat three and three and three in the three seats of our Volkswagen minivan. Since its engine gave forth little heat, our breath steamed the windows. Dad said, “Breathe through your ears.” This was his regular winter’s joke. Finally we crowded into the blazing light of the church.

With a wonderful hilarity, people greeted us with, “Merry Christmas!”

Children were shooed into the fellowship hall to put on their costumes. Oh, how they laughed with excitement. Not me. To laugh is to lose one’s self-control.

Then, from the youngest to the oldest, the children tromped into the chancel. The little ones waved to their parents by finger-scratching the air. They positively shined, while their parents smiled and craned left and right in order to see better.

I was God. I told Joseph to travel with his pregnant wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem. A quartet of boys sang “Wonderful Counselor.” A teenage fellow in the back of the church blew on his trumpet the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah. So elegant was the music, and so clear, reminding me of a running stream of water, that I was almost moved to tears. Almost. I contained the tears as in an iron box.

Every kid was given a brown paper bag filled with tangerines and walnuts and hard candy. The adults, humping into their overcoats, called, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”

Dad delayed our trip home by driving past those Edmonton houses whose lawns were decorated with lights, and the three kings from the east, and stables, and beasts—and effigies of the Holy Family—intensifying the excitement! Our breath frosted the windows. With my gloved knuckles I rubbed a peephole through the muzzy ice. I saw a tableau of Dickensian carolers cut of plywood, top hats, scarves, muffs on their hands, their mouths open, their eyes screwed up to heaven in a transport of song. But they produced, of course, not a note of music. This was worse than silliness. It was dangerous, for I found my soul suddenly suffering pity for these wooden fictions and their plaintive gladness.

At home Dad delayed even longer. He had hung the tree with silver tinsel and had strung its boughs with colored lights in the room of our final celebrations.

We put on pajamas. It was Dad’s tradition to line us up facing him in the kitchen. The line started with Dena, the youngest sister, and ended with the eldest brother. Me. Dena clasped her hands and raised her shining, saintly face to Dad. Her hair hung down her back to her waist. Blithe child! Her blue eyes sparkled with trust.

Dad prayed the prayer he always prayed.

Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child,
Make thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for thee.

Then he led us to the door of the room of celebrations. I chewed my cheek and frowned like thunder. No! It won’t be what it ought to be. It never is.

Dad grasped the knob and opened the door upon a string of muted, colored lights. I knew that there were in the room seven piles of presents, one for each of the children. Dena went in ahead of the rest. Squeals of joy. And there sat our mother on the floor in front of the tree, her skirt encircling her, her face radiant and verging on laughter.

I hesitated. So did my father. He was gazing at me. And here was the wonder that was to be fixed in my memory forever—that his gaze was filled with a yearning expectation. He had, just as I had, been withholding whatever joy or excitement he might have been feeling.

“Wally?” he said, and I realized that his solemnity had been on account of me. That he too had passed this Christmas Eve day in the hope that risks a hurt. And that, among the promises to which my father had committed his hope and his soul, this was the most important one: that his eldest son should soften and be glad.

If I had grown adult in 1955, then how like a child had my father become.

“Come,” he said. I obeyed. We entered the room. The colored lights painted his face with reds and greens and blues. And still he gazed at me, waiting for me to receive Christmas so that his own Christmas might begin.

I began to cry silently. And now I was gazing at my father. Defenseless was I, because there was no more need for defenses. Glad and unashamed was I, because what was this room so long locked? It was my heart. And why had I been afraid? Because I thought my heart would be found an empty thing, hard and unfeeling.

But in my father I saw the love that had furnished this Christmas room no differently than he had in past years, except that this year he’d furnished it with a yearning desire.

And what else was that love but my Jesus drawing near?

Look, then, at what I found this room and found my heart to be: a quiet chamber kept for thee. A new Nativity of the Lord.

My dad moved toward me, his arms not at all emptied, for he filled them with myself. He embraced me, and I filled my arms with him.

And so we, the both of us, were filled with joy.


Wounds Are Where the Light EntersTaken from Wounds Are Where the Light Enters: Stories of God’s Intrusive Grace by Walter Wangerin Jr. Click here to learn more about this title.

Many know the acclaimed author Walter Wangerin Jr., the storyteller who gave us the national bestseller The Book of the Dun Cow.

In Wounds Are Where Light Enters, you’ll see how God’s love breaks into our lonely moments in unexplainable ways. Wangerin tells the stories of memorable characters facing the same struggles we all face as we try to trust in God’s faithfulness.

Wounds Are Where Light Enters is a collection of stories that are warm, sometimes funny, sometimes not, but always taking unexpected turns to find the care of God in all the pathways of life. In them we find the grace that enables us to live with the answers we see and the answers we don’t see. In this collection we meet Arthur Bias, the retired black police officer who loves those who hate; Agnes Brill, the shrill piano teacher of patience; Junie Piper, precious of the homeless; Melvin, who honors his aging mother by honoring the little girl she has become; Lucian, the lover of thieves; and Blue Jack, the hammer of God.

Readers will discover in these stories a powerful display of God’s working in the lives of all of us. They’ll find a place where he works even in the dark, even in the struggles, even in the wounds. This is the place where God’s light enters.

Walter Wangerin Jr. is widely recognized as one of the most gifted writers writing today on the issues of faith and spirituality. Known for his bestselling Book of the Dun Cow, Wangerin’s writing voice is immediately recognizable, and his fans number in the millions. The author of over forty books including The Book of God, Wangerin has won the National Book Award and The New York Times Best Children’s Book of the Year Award. He lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, where he is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University.

Filed under Books, Christmas, Guest Post, Holiday, Jesus