Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 50

December 12-18, 2002

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Christmas Past and Presents

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the seatown corner now out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was 12, or whether it snowed for 12 days and 12 nights when I was six.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” Dylan Thomas, 1914-1953.

With 75 Christmases to look back on, and a 76th coming up, how can this scribe choose a particular one to remember in prose to satisfy a demanding editor who still believes in St. Nick and Marley’s ghost?

Contrary to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, methinks no two Christmases are alike other than in the joy and celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus. If you’re a man, once you’ve grown up, the gifts might be the same, but at least the color of the socks and the design on the ties are different.

All presents aren’t always under the tree. Last year my best gift ever, granddaughter Mackenzie Noel Boughey, arrived two days after the holiday. As she grows older, she will appreciate that her arrival came long after the Great Depression.

Christmas Past
Her grandfather was born 10 days before the Christmas of ’26, back when birthdays just before and just after the big holiday meant a birthday cake and card at the most. No presents.

There were no credit cards, and all available cash went for presents under the tree in the parlor, as well as for oranges, ribbon candy and nuts to be stuffed in freshly laundered, real honest-to-goodness stockings — and for a fat fowl with all the trimmings on the table.

Over the years, with Christmases observed in Alaska, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland and in the Pacific in World War II, somehow the traditional and unique spirit of the holiday prevailed — even on those occasions back in an era when, like many others in the news business, I spent much of the eve or the holiday at a phone and typewriter.

While others listened to Christmas carols, in the newsrooms there was only the clacking of the typewriters and the teletype machines that carried the national news from the wire services. But there was still that touch of the holiday. Someone so many miles away at the other end of the teletype machine would type, with spaces and Xs, an illustration of a Christmas tree, with greetings of the season added.

No matter where one is, there is always a special reminder of the significance and the spirit of December 25. In the Depression, poor as the Burton dirt-farmers were, the fowl might not have been a turkey, but a few chickens were stuffed and roasted.

By dawn on the big day, Grandpa Joel William Burton had disappeared into the big red barn where Bill the workhorse and a cow or two would get extra handouts of oats and other goodies. The chickens in the coop weren’t forgotten, and a big tin of grains and corn was scattered on the lawn to ensure a merry Christmas for songbirds and squirrels.

Inside the house, there would be a big breakfast — hot biscuits, bacon and eggs for all. Then for sister Ruth and me, Grandma Burton would read Eugene Field’s “Sugar Plum Tree.” The tree in the parlor wouldn’t be visited until early afternoon, but we would be allowed a quick peek to assure us that St. Nick had stopped by, hard times or not. On Christmas Day, no one is too poor to be blessed with a gift.

At our New England farm there was no electricity. On the tree there were real candles, lit twice: once on the eve and then again when the family gathered ’round the next day. No need to worry about fire in a dried-up evergreen. The tree was not cut until a day or two before the holiday. And when the candles were lit, an adult was always in the room.

Christmas at War
Some say that Christmas is for kids, and it is. But it is also for everyone else. The excitement might moderate somewhat over the years as under the tree one’s toys turn to clothes and other practical gifts, and there is more satisfaction in giving than in receiving. But the essence of the holiday endures.

It endures to some degree no matter what, though I have witnessed occasions when the observance was subdued. There was the Christmas of ’41 following by two and a half weeks Pearl Harbor as the Japanese juggernaut was overrunning other islands of the Pacific.

Three years later, as folks gathered around the tree, radios weren’t tuned to carols. Everyone was listening to the latest news bulletins from the budding Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. But it was still Christmas.

It was still Christmas when the holiday cake sent to me by a girlfriend back in New England arrived moldy at my hospital bed in Hawaii. But who cared: She had sent it. It was the cake, the thought, the gift that made that otherwise lonely holiday.

In 1950, several days before Christmas, came a letter from the president. I was to spend the eve of the holiday in Boston undergoing a final physical and induction. The Navy needed me again, I was told, this time in Korea. But I was home for Christmas once it was discovered the mandatory five full years had not passed since my last symptoms of malaria. Yes, there was a Santa Claus that Christmas.

Alaskan Christmas
The day before Christmas of ’55, heavy snow socked me in at Kodiak, Alaska, with little hope of making it back to my home in Anchorage. This was before Alaska became the 49th state, and there were no commercial flights. But there were bush pilots, one of whom wanted to get home as badly as I.

When I learned the plane that was to pick me up was snowed in, I heard about that pilot, whose name was Tal, who had flown toys and other presents to the island in his small twin-engine Grumman Goose. He knew back at his home there were toys and other presents that St. Nick was counted on to put under the tree. Kids know the jolly man in the red suit doesn’t get snowbound.

We loitered at the airstrip waiting for any break in the weather while there was sufficient daylight to start us on a safe course to Anchorage, about 400 miles north. Weather reports were sketchy, but when the snowfall eased in Kodiak, we figured we could skirt to the east of the mountains of the Aleutian chain for a pretty straight shot via Kamishak Bay and Cook Inlet to home.

Again there was Santa Claus, for once in the air there was little snow. I was home on Christmas Eve, and early the next morning I was on the road to Elmendorf Air Force Base to pick up an airman from Ohio for a holiday dinner off the base as part of an Air Force Home for the Holidays program.

Merry Christmas
For this scribe, most other Christmases past — and hopefully the one upcoming — have been more traditional, with more anticipation than concern or worry. Some years, there was work, but always I was home long enough to enjoy the tree.

And over the past 75 years, I’ve learned no matter where one is, whether working or opening gifts under a decorated conifer, rich or poor, Scrooge or Tiny Tim, even a believer or not, there’s something within this special season that makes everyone want to express appropriate greetings. Merry Christmas.

P.S. My List is Short
Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
—St. Jerome (342-420ad) On the Epistle to the Ephesians.

I don’t want a horse, St. J. In these days, people go from here to there in planes, trains, bicycles, buses, boats and personal vehicles. I’ll take a Volvo turbo-charged station wagon, thank you.

Otherwise, no ties; I don’t wear ’em. no fishing tackle; I choose my own. The same with pipes, tobacco, books, shirts and other apparel. Definitely not season tickets to the Ravens, nor a paid-up lifetime membership in the Glendening Fiscal Planning Fan Club.

Nothing short of a Volvo with all the gadgetry — and make sure it’s an SW, not a gas guzzling SUV.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly