Friday, December 25, 2009

Images of Christmas

A blue-green glow, cast from outside by what we now might call vintage C-9 bulbs, circled my bedroom window in the red-brick house on Kibler Street and comforted the three-year old version of me inside.

A year or two later, in the farmhouse on Zurflugh Road, I sneaked downstairs in the middle of the night. Too big to wrap, not yet named Dobbin, a green-plaid hand-stuffed horse had my name pinned to his neck. In the morning I felt like a liar when I pretended to be surprised. Dobbin remained my bed-time buddy for years until Mother finally asked me if I were too old to re-stuff him a third or fourth time.

After moving to 430 West Elm, our family agreed to become a living manger scene. I thought my sister was going to change sex for Jesus. Instead, a plastic doll rested in the manger and she was a child like the rest of us. Back when photographers said, "Stay still; don't move," we posed as still as possible for what seemed like hours. I remember at this time Mother didn't like animalizing humans, "Don't call them kids; they're not baby goats" and "They're 'aunts,' not 'ants.'"

The house on Elm Street brought us a set of plastic dishes, gray for Dad, pink for Phil, blue for John, orange for me, and yellow for Tom. Mary and Mother might have to remind me what their colors were. These dishes were important for Christmas only because each of us left his or her bowl and maybe milk and cookies under the tree for Santa Claus. In return, he left us nuts, oranges and maybe Pfeffernusse. In our house, Pfeffernusse cookies were hard cookies an inch or less in diameter, so small it was almost impossible to stop crunching them.

Our Chinese heritage, adopted by missionary grandparents who raised their children in China, brought us another tradition -- making chiao tzu (or jao tse and various other spellings) around Christmastime or New Year's. These are traditional Chinese dumplings some of you might call "pot stickers" except they're boiled, not fried one bit. Everyone gathered to help construct them from flour/salt/water dough rolled into very thin, almost see-through 4-inch circles and a filling prepared with ground pork, bok choy or spinach, ginger, soy sauce and maybe a few other ingredients. We dipped a fingertip into a water bowl to wet the perimeter of each circle, placed a tablespoon of filling in the center, then folded the circle in half and sealed the edge. Mother or Aunt Alice Ruth dropped them into boiling water, let the water return to a boil, repeated this (I think), then the chiao tzu were ready to be served in bowls with a half-and-half mixture of vinegar and soy sauce and subjected to our eating contest. Who could eat the most? I recall that sixty-some was the record.

In our home we opened presents Christmas morning. Sometimes we had to suffer through breakfast first. Always, we had to endure the familiar and interminable Christmas story, worsened the year some of us stumbled upon the brilliant idea of acting it out, having forgotten how long minutes last when a pile of presents waits unopened. Later, when I joined another family, opening gifts on Christmas Eve seemed like a cop-out. Maybe that's why I didn't hang around.

"That's all water under the bridge," says Virginia, "but I agree, a bit of fun to remember. Look out the window. More water is falling on our white Christmas."


  1. Mary Pannabecker SteinerDecember 25, 2009 at 3:44 PM

    Amazing what you remember that I don't, but then you're older. :) I do not remember the living manger scene. You did NOT think I was going to have a sex change. You made that up. I know you.
    My dishes were (are) greenish yellow. I still use the bowl at work.
    I hated waiting through Grandpa's prayer. It always lasted at least 20 minutes.

  2. Yes, I'm much, much older. Well, if I didn't think you were going to have a sex change, then how were you going to play baby Jesus? I remember going there expecting us to slobber over you in the manger, but then someone substituted a doll for you.

    You mean our Grandpa P, right, praying long underneath the twelve pen and ink drawings of the apostles, in Elkhart?

  3. Mary Pannabecker SteinerDecember 26, 2009 at 3:13 PM

    Yeah, I always thought it was funny that Philip, John, James and Thomas watched over us. Where was the Virgin Mary? Humpf.