At some point every year, many of us see Charles Schulz’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” make its annual appearance on television. In the midst of letters filled with detailed gift requests to Santa, a play that includes a Christmas queen and pink, metallic trees, Charlie Brown walks to the center of the school auditorium stage, throws up his hands and shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
At Tiger Columns, a senior retirement community in downtown Columbia, a few residents discussed their favorite Christmas memories and the meaning of the season over peanut-butter cookies and coffee. Their stories might not explain everything Christmas is about, but they bring life to its definition.
Ada Hook, 80, said that when her four children were young, they were often restless about writing the obligatory thank-you notes for their gifts. She had a system that never failed to ensure the letters were completed and promptly sent each year.
Every Christmas morning, the children — Ruth, Catherine, Norma and Paul — would wait as patiently for Hook and her husband, Curtis, to get up. Then they were allowed to run to the Christmas tree and explore their presents. There were so many packages to open, Hook said, because the children received gifts from many extended family members in Michigan and Iowa.
But amid the flurry of the four children ripping open box after box, no one could remember which relative gave which toy to which child after the storm of packaging and wrapping paper had subsided. Because the relatives were away, there was no way to confirm each toy’s correct owner or for the child to properly express appreciation.
So Hook started making a detailed list of her children’s gifts and the people who sent them on a pad of paper.
“And the day after Christmas,” she said, “those presents were back under the tree, and the children could not have them until they wrote letters.”
The memory of her four children sitting around the dining-room table, their pencils scratching furiously across stacks of paper so they could play with their new toys, brings a smile to Hook today. It’s clear that although Hook was firm about enforcing this rule, it was done out of love.
“They were just sitting around the table all day writing letters,” she said, chuckling. “Ruth’s letters were always pretty good. Paul’s were usually pretty fast — ‘Thank you for the present, thank you for the present, thank you for the present.’”
Hook remembers a present she received from her cousin, Helen, when she was 11. It came during a Christmas in the 1930s when “nobody had much,” Hook said.
When she, her sister and their two cousins awoke that Christmas morning, they saw four dolls under the tree. They thought the dolls looked similar to their own dolls, but somehow they weren’t the same. Then they learned that cousin Helen had taken their dolls, washed them, mended them and made new outfits for them as a Christmas gift.
“None of us even recognized our own dolls,” Ada recalled.
But Mary Ross, 80, said she would have hated to receive a doll for Christmas.
“I was not a doll girl,” she said indignantly, “so I never got dolls.”
Rather, her favorite gifts were her Mickey Mouse watch and her tricycle. She received a typewriter one year, which she loved because she could pretend to be a secretary like her favorite aunt, Mary.
When Ross and her younger sister were growing up in Tennessee, their parents did not bring the tree into the house until Christmas Eve.
“It was not decorated at all,” Ross said. “We went to bed and we got up the next morning, the tree was decorated by Santa Claus and all the toys were around it.”
After she grew up and married, Mary and her husband had six children: four girls and two boys. Santa Claus visited her children on Christmas — but not for as many years as he visited Mary, a great believer in Santa.
“My children were much wiser than I,” she said.
Part of the magic of Christmas as a child is the belief that you could receive a gift beyond your wildest dreams because Santa might just decide to bring it to you. When John Buelow, 96, was a boy in Minnesota, all he and his brother wanted for Christmas was a Shetland pony. His family already had working horses, but they were strong and husky, used to plow the fields. They were much too big for a small boy to ride.
Buelow’s longing for a small Shetland pony might have come after a kick in the jaw he received from one of the workhorses.
“I still have the scar on my chin,” he said. “Of course, a pony wouldn’t be big enough to do that to anybody.”
Although they never got a pony for Christmas, John and his brother had a wonderful celebration each year. Their stockings were always full of oranges, apples and candy, and at night they enjoyed an old-fashioned German meal with “cranberries and turkey and pumpkin pie and the rest of it.”
“It was a very joyous time,” he said. “We all came together on Christmas.”
Near the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Linus delivers the famous monologue in which, blanket in hand, he recites the biblical Christmas story. After finishing and before sticking his thumb back into his mouth, he matter-of-factly states, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Linus’ message is Christmas for some, but there are many other stories that contribute to definitions of Christmas that last a lifetime.