As Christmas draws near, my mind travels back more often than usual to when I was a child and all our Aunts and Uncles were still here. They were the family icons, the main stain, and life seemed simpler.

  We lived in a family neighborhood. Literally. My Dad has six siblings, and all but 2 lived in the same country block. Every Christmas Eve, my parents, my three brothers, and I, my dad’s brothers, sisters, their spouses, and their children would gather at Aunt Mary Helens & Uncle Dales. Everyone would bring their favorite dish to pass, and there were so many different cakes, candies, pies, cookies, and a wide variety of fudge. Talk about “Visions of sugarplums”.

The men would gather around the kitchen table, and play cards while the women visited with one another, set out all the food, and tended to the children.

A real Christmas stood in the bay window of their living room glistening with tinsel and brightly colored ornaments and shimmering lights of various colors adorned the balsam branches. Real candy canes hung on the tree on that night and were handed out to all the children before the night was over.   

My Dad and Uncle Merle would bring their guitars and amps and set up a small stage in the farmhouse dining room between the large table and a buffet. They invited a couple of their nephews to grab their guitars and play along as they were just beginning to learn how to play also, and they were excited to be included.

Familiar Christmas carols would fill the air, and everyone would sing along, and holler out their requests for the next tune. This would last for a couple of hours, and soon Grandma would ask Dad to play a couple old classics like “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” or “There’s an old Spinning Wheel in the parlor,” and Dad would happily sing them for her

All us children would grab a cookie from the table, line up on the stairway that overlooked the dining room, and wait for the “old people” to get back to singing real Christmas songs. Near midnight, an adult would point to a tiny red flashing light far off in the eastern sky and announce to the children that it was Rudolph, and time for everyone to get home and tucked in their beds so Santa could make his stop. These Holiday Gatherings still live on in our hearts and minds. That kind of magic never melts away.

 Christmas at our house wasn’t about the gifts that we received or the earthly possessions that we had. Dad often reminded us, it was more important how we treated people every day, that we were all together and healthy, and how that was far more valuable than anything we would find beneath the tree on Christmas morning.

As a young girl, I used to watch my dad intently. Every move he made; the words he spoke seemed so worldly-wise. I would record a lot of them in my journals at night. Even back then, many decades ago. He was the kind of person that all four of us kids wanted to be just like when we grew up.

Dad worked during the days at a factory, worked the farm from early evening till midnight, and would repeat this practice season after season, year after year. Back then, all farmers did. We kids would lay in our beds in the evening, and listen to the sound of that popping Johnny crawling up and down the hills of our farm. There is nothing like the sound of a  2-cylinder engine in an old John Deere B. When the popping sound grew louder, we kids would sneak out of our beds in the dark, sit below my north bedroom window, and watch Dad drive in the farmyard, park the tractor, shut off the barn lights, and walk to the house. All seemed right with the world now; we would all go back to bed and sleep soundly.

 I loved my dad’s hands. I still do. I still snap photos of them with my cell phone across his kitchen table while he sits drinking coffee, completely unaware of my strange fetish.

Those hard-working hands gave us a good swat now and then when we needed it and deserved it. They pulled out our splinters and tended to our colds and earaches in the middle of the night. I recall one evening, he was standing over me at the kitchen table. I was in the 6th grade, and he was trying to help explain some new math to me. I realize today he probably thought I was a bit dense. I wasn’t, but I was lost in the essence of him. Mesmerized by the large veins that protruded out of the top of his hands, and he smelled of coffee mixed with dirt and diesel. I loved it that smell. I still do. 

Those working hands wrestled angry sows a hundred times, delivered newborn calves, soothed a spooked horse, sewed up a couple of pigs on the kitchen floor with needle and thread, and still took time to pet the family dog while doing evening chores.

Those working hands could drive a tenpenny nail all the way in with just three whacks and then waited patiently while we children tried to do the same thing. Unsuccessfully, of course, but he waited.

Those working hands farmed and played a Gretsch guitar in a band every weekend since he was sixteen. That duo jet Gretsch sat in the corner of our living room all the years we grew up. We kids would pick it up as teens and try to play it, strum on it, and try to be like him. He never scolded us for touching it, never told us not to touch his stuff, but whenever he needed to practice or play it, he would patiently put it back in tune.

He encouraged us to play. He said when the world gets crazy and things start to pile up on a person, your guitar will always be there, waiting like a long-lost friend for you to pick it up.  It will soothe away most of life’s problems. He was right about that. Then again, what hasn’t he been right about?

As Christmas draws near, I still BELIEVE IN SANTA CLAUS, and I believe in the spirit of warmth, love, and kindness toward one another.

Our Santa had hard-working hands. He has never been arrogant or rude to others and treated anyone like a second-class citizen. Because He so unselfishly gave of himself to us and others, and LED BY EXAMPLE,