Silent Nights

Christmas memories glowing in the dark

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Shannon Sorenson

We sang “Silent Night,” standing up on the shiny marble steps, up in front of the church. For our parents, brothers, and sisters. For our teachers and the priest. And I guess we  sang for the big Jesus hanging high up behind us. An outsider may have cast awkward, disbelieving glances between the savior and the youngsters lined up below, singing their sweet, holy hymns. Jesus looked ghastly. Stretched out. He was all boney ribs and skinny arms. 

But we school kids saw him every day, so the statue’s dreadfulness had long since faded away. He was just there. Like the huge light fixtures suspended upon the walls. Like the kneelers and the doorknobs. 

Never once did I associate that infant so tender and mild with the pale, gaunt man up on the wall, with his sharp edges and knobby knees. I had other things on my mind. I remember the singing and the candlelight. I remember the polished hardwood pews and the silence between each song. I remember my teacher’s approving nod. We’d done well.

After the concert we scuffled across the dark, icy parking lot to my family’s boxy blue Thunderbird with its cold, hard seats. We only had to drive a few blocks. Home was warm and our carpet was soft. We had shiny red garland wrapped around the banisters. Jingle bells hanging on the front door. Soon we’d leave town to visit our relatives for Christmas. 

My grandparents and all my aunts and uncles lived in a tiny little town up north. Each December, the town would stick a huge Christmas tree right at the end of Main Street, right in the middle of the road, just past the old brick-walled bank and the tavern with the little bowling alley. We’d pull into town late in the evening and take a special trip down and around the tree. That was our tradition. I remember how, on the long drive up, our breath had frosted over the little backseat windows. My sister and I, we’d press our warm hands against the glass, melting a hole just big enough to see through. 

Dad would circle the car around the tree, maybe twice if we begged, and then we’d head back through town. They’d hung big decorations on the lampposts. Tinsel-covered wire bent into holiday shapes. A bell. A stocking. A bunch of holly berries. We’d cruise by each lamppost and I’d try to make out the pattern they made, the order. 

I really liked that tree and those decorations. 

We’d keep driving to a cabin outside of town, out in the trees and under the stars. Grandpa would have gone out earlier in the day to turn on the heat. Even so, the beds were freezing cold. I’d climb inside my sleeping bag and huddle into a ball, waiting for my body heat to claim one small part of the stiff, plasticy mattress. Falling asleep, I could smell the dust as it singed off the baseboard heaters. The smell was sharp, but warm and familiar. 

On Christmas Eve, we’d hang our stockings from a set of deer antlers mounted to the cabin’s chipboard walls. Deep in the quiet night, I’d creep out of our bedroom and across the living room, feeling my way past the wood stove and the old chairs. I’d reach up and squeeze my stocking, only to find it flat and empty. Over and over I’d do this, until the sun rose up over the snowy woods. I’d wake up to find the stockings filled. Mom and Dad would be there, having coffee in their pajamas. 

And our Christmas Day would begin. Not with hymns and prayers. Not with churches and candlelight. Just us. Waking up at the kitchen table. Together.