Even though more than three-quarters of a century have passed, the memory of that Christmas long ago still brings a lump to my throat and a hurt to my heart.
The year was 1916, and this country boy was visiting his grandparents in town on Christmas Eve. The occasion was the Children’s Christmas service at the Presbyterian Church where my grandparents were longtime members. My city cousin, Randall, who was a little more than a year older than me, had a part in the program and, since my folks would be having Christmas dinner with them anyway, Grandma Piper had invited me to come in early and go to church with them. My Uncle Shelby, Randall’s daddy, brought me into town just before dark.
Sumner was, indeed, an enchanted city at Christmas time. Each gas street lamp post was entwined with evergreen branches with big red bows tied around the tops, and as we drove through town in Grandpa’s new Buick, we could see Mr. Malone, the lamp lighter, using a long tool to open the gas jet and light the mantle. Those gas lights sure seemed mighty white and bright compared to the yellowish coal oil lamps at home.
The sidewalks were crowded with last-minute shoppers, many loaded down with packages. I saw one bundled-up figure coming out of Stouts Hardware with a red wagon. He had whiskers and looked almost like Santa Claus without his red suit. Uncle Shelby said he was one of Santa’s helpers, picking up a last-minute order for some good little boy. One of the windows at the big Westall store was completely filled with Teddy Bears and Uncle Shel said they were named after President Roosevelt.
The crossing watchman had come out of his little house, so we had to wait until a fast freight train rumbled noisily past. The team ahead of us became unruly and took off down east past the lumber yard. The train was a long one; I tried to count the cars, but they were going too fast for me and I had to quit at 54.
When the train had passed, we drove on down past the church where already there were some buggies tied up at the hitch racks. Some of them belonged to the mothers getting ready for the program, but there were others that just liked to be early and get a good parking space.
Grandpa Piper met us at his front door. He grabbed me up in his arms and gave me a big hug. His whiskers always tickled my face, so I liked it better when Grandma hugged me, for she smelled like fresh cookies.
I could hear strange music coming from the parlor, and Grandma sent me to be in with Cousin Randall while she finished getting the early supper. Grandpa had brought one of neighbor Ed Hyneman’s new Hynemola phonographs, and Randall was playing Christmas music on it. I had never seen a phonograph before and wondered at the way all that music came from a flat black record. Randall was older than me, you know, and knew all about the machine. He said he had been up town and watched the men building them. He played several more Christmas songs, including one of Madam Schumann-Heink singing Silent Night in German.
Grandma’s supper was good, but we had to hurry to the church so Randall could get into his shepherd suit. In the first scene, he would be one of the shepherds that were watching the sheep on the hillside. Later on, he was to say a piece.
Uncle Shelby couldn’t attend the program, as he said he had to go to Bridgeport to see a man, but he would drive us to the church first.
The church was packed with people. A makeshift stage had been built in one corner, and a huge Christmas tree was in another. There were hundreds of colorfully wrapped packages on and under the tree, and real live candles were burning in holders on many of the branches, and when the lamps were turned down and the curtain pulled back, the choir and the people sang the opening hymn, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.
The program was a good one. Randall did a good job as shepherd, and a better job saying his piece, and pretty soon the program was over and all the kids came out to a round of applause, and Randall took the seat I had been saving for him. Then, suddenly, it was time for Santa Claus. Yup, Santa.
We knew it was time, for we could hear him calling to his reindeer outside and even heard some kind of noise on the roof, and then, there he was. Dressed in his red suit, he had two strings of sleigh bells hanging over his shoulder. They jingled with every step he took, and as he jogged down the aisle, he patted some kids on the heads, but just missed me, because I was sitting away from the aisle.
He went right up to that tree, put on his glasses, and read the name on the first package. With a shriek of joy, a little girl ran forward to get her gift and give Santa a big hug. As he readjusted his glasses, I noticed they were just like Uncle Shelby’s half-frames. Time after time he called out kids’ names with Randall’s name being called out four times, but my name never was. Here I am, 6 years old, and every child in that church was getting a present except me. My name was never called. I had even written a letter to Santa that was published in the Sumner Press, and I was sure that the 15-inch tricycle under the tree was for me, but when Santa picked it up, he read the name “Don Breadwell” and there were no more presents.
MaMa had always taught us kids to be brave and not show our disappointments, but try as I would, the tears seeped out of my tightly closed eyes. I have remembered that moment all these years, and never but never do I have a gift exchange but what I have a couple of extra presents laid back, just in case. It is no fun being left out.
When we got back to Grandpa’s and opened the front door, Grandma let me go in first, and there by the fireplace sat a beautiful red 15-inch tricycle. Santa hadn’t forgot at all. He had just made a mistake in the address.
Merry Christmas! FC
The late Perry Piper was a columnist for newspapers in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his personal memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.