8: The Thanksgiving Christmas

8: The Thanksgiving Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

The Thanksgiving Christmas

I don’t care how poor a man is; if he has family, he’s rich.

~Dan Wilcox and Thad Mumford, “Identity Crisis,” M*A*S*H

The best Christmas we ever had was on Thanksgiving, without a store-bought present in sight. We were taking our large family — seven children under ten years old — to visit my parents in upstate Minnesota. It was an eight-hour drive from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a grueling one with that many children in one crowded station wagon.

“She’s on my foot, Mom!” “He’s looking at me!” “Are we there yet, Dad?” You know the story; it’s the same with every family in every car on every long trip. We usually tried to travel during the night when, hopefully, most of the kids would sleep.

With our large family and little expendable cash, making the trip often wasn’t an option. We went once each summer for a short vacation, and again at Thanksgiving, when my husband and father could spend some time in the woods bird hunting. Visiting was always bittersweet, a combination of happy times with my parents and not-so-happy times corralling all those kids into makeshift beds and generally trying to keep the mayhem to a minimum. We always stayed home for Christmas. I wanted my children home in their own beds when Santa came.

This year the Thanksgiving weather was mild, not at all winterlike. The kids spent a lot of time outdoors kicking leaves, throwing each other on the ground, coming in grubby and out of breath. They loved going to the woods, loved looking for deer, fishing, and finding what they called “treasures,” which were odd-looking stones, bird nests, or anything out of the ordinary that they could take home and show off to their city friends who didn’t have rural grandparents to visit.

Thanksgiving dinner was the usual turkey and trimmings. We finished with the dishes at about three in the afternoon, and suddenly it seemed that the holiday was over.

“What can we do now?” asked nine-year-old Julie.

“Just relax,” said my father from his nearly prone position in his recliner. He obviously had already started to do just that. My husband, who agreed wholeheartedly, was stretched out on the couch with a paperback.

Ten-year-old Randy looked out the window. “I wish we could have Christmas here,” he said.

“Really?” asked my mother, surprised.

“Really.” Randy said, “I never get to see you open my present.”

“That’s true,” said Grandma. “I never get to see you open mine, either.” She thought for a moment. “So, let’s have Christmas today.”

That got a reaction from all the kids, who were busy working on a jigsaw puzzle.

“What? We didn’t bring presents.” Six-year-old Bruce frowned. “And we don’t have a tree.”

“That’s easily remedied,” said my mother, a genius at improvisation. She got off her chair and pulled an old butter crock from the corner by the fireplace. “So, let’s go get us a tree.”

With whoops of acquiescence, everyone except my husband and father, who really had meant “relax” when he said it, piled on jackets and trooped outside.

“Follow me,” said Grandma, pulling a small saw down from a hook in the garage. “There’s a perfect little pine right back behind the shed, and it needs to be cut down. See?”

She was right. A fluffy tree not even three feet tall was trying to make its way through a bramble patch of blackberry bushes.

“I’ll cut it,” said Randy, and proceeded to saw its small trunk.

“Let me carry it!” “No, let me!” “I’m bigger!” “I’m older!” Despite all the arguing, in no time we had the tree back in the house and upright in the butter crock, right in the middle of the braided living room rug.

The smell of fresh-cut pine filled the whole house.

“Now we need decorations,” said Grandma. “Who knows how to make paper chains?” Hands went up. “Who knows how to make paper snowflakes?” Hands up again. “Who can draw an angel?” No hands this time. “Well, then, I’ll do that,” she said. An artist, she was never short of project materials. In minutes, construction paper, white typing paper, scissors, glue, glitter, and gold paint were laid out on the kitchen table.

“Better play some Christmas music,” said Grandpa. “Looks like the season has begun!” He came up with some Bing Crosby and Perry Como carols.

In no time the little tree was festooned with colored chains and white snowflakes. A glittering, golden angel, slightly askew, topped it all.

“Needs some snow,” said Grandma, and whipped some Ivory Flakes into fluffy puffs to tip the branches.

Four-year-old Missy sighed, “It’s beautiful!”

Practical Kent, eight, said, “But we need presents.”

“So make some,” said Grandma. “Put on your thinking caps and find or make something for everyone that you think they’ll like. Something that will be so special they’ll always remember this extraordinary Christmas.”

“Like what?” asked Kent, puzzled.

“Oh, you’ll come up with something, I’m sure,” said Grandma confidently. “You can make it or find it or even say it out loud. You have,” she glanced up at the old clock on the mantel, “one hour. There are newspapers and tape for wrapping. Get busy.” She took little Philip’s hand. “Come with me, Philip. I’ll help you. But we’ll have to be quiet.” They disappeared into the bedroom.

The four older boys put their jackets back on and went outside. Julie and Missy asked for more paper and colors. My father and my husband looked at each other, sighed, and headed for the garage.

Carols rang through the house as the sun disappeared in a spectacular sunset on that Thanksgiving Day. One by one, oddly shaped, newspaper-wrapped packages piled up under the tree. We each had a present for everyone else.

There were cards that simply said, “I Love You,” cards that offered things like, “You can play with my train whenever you want,” pictures cut from magazines, paper doll cutouts, bird nests, unusual pieces of wood, sturdy milkweed pods fashioned into tiny boats.

My father made each child a cutout wooden figure that my husband sprayed bright Christmas colors. My mother helped Philip color Santas that she drew. She herself had done a quick ink sketch of each child playing.

And she wrote a poem for me. The words have long been lost, but the feeling of love in them has never been forgotten.

It was nowhere near Christmas. We didn’t have a beautiful tree. The gifts cost nothing except time and love. But from start to finish it was the most memorable Christmas my family ever had.

It was a Christmas to be thankful for — on Thanksgiving.

~Nancy Sweetland

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