While attending a social gathering shortly after moving to New York City, a new acquaintance asked where I was from. “Tucson, Arizona”, I replied. She surprised me by stating, “Oh, then you’ve never had a real Christmas.” When asked what she meant, she responded, “You’ve never had a Christmas with snow.” I gently responded, “The first Christmas happened in a desert and did not have snow.” She turned and quickly walked away.
Had she stayed, we might have had a conversation about her Christmas experiences and mine and we may have become good friends. During the conversation, she would have learned that the Christmas experiences of my youth were enhanced by the desert environment since it made me feel connected with Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born. The desert of my youth inspired me to think differently from those who were raised in more temperate climates. The dry, dusty desert terrain can range from silent when the there is no air movement to a gentle whisper; or, it can roar loudly as it blows loose sand, small pebbles and tumbleweeds into a form known as a dust devil that swirls around like a funnel while rapidly racing across the desert floor. One never wants to get caught in a dust devil! Prior to the Christmas season, some people will find tumbleweeds, spray paint them white, pile two or three of them on top of one another; and secure each pile to form “snow people” decorations for their front lawns.
Then there are the vast, amazing heavens that span the horizons in all directions, which made me feel small and insignificant in comparison to the infinite number of stars that seem to hide the planets. The milky way always makes me think of an illuminated highway across the nighttime sky. Based on the earth’s rotation, the stars can seem so close that it’s almost possible to reach up and touch or hold them in one’s hand; or, they can seem very far away. For me, each star is a metaphor for the number of possibilities each of us has throughout our lifetimes.
My mother is Czech-American and we usually celebrated Christmas with her uncle (my Grand Uncle), and other members of her extended family who also resided in Tucson. Uncle Elmer always made my sister and me feel welcome and to this day I treasure our visits with him while all the women and my dad finished last minute preparations to the Norman Rockwell-esque feast we were about to enjoy: roast turkey, sweet and white roasted potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce, various vegetables (including green bean casserole), various yeast breads (including kolaches) and an assortment of delicious homemade pies for dessert including pecan and pumpkin. Kolaches are a rounded Czech yeast roll that has risen; a filling is placed into an indentation at the center of each one, which is not covered. A few fillings are poppyseed, apricot and prune.
Uncle Elmer’s dark features and laugh lines framed his deep blue eyes and his warm, open, friendly smile; his tall, broad frame shrank to our size when he sat in his rocking chair. He was a railroad engineer and always wore overalls. On Christmas Day, he wore new ones with a new shirt and heavy, well-worn brown work boots. During our conversations about what we were learning in school, he rocked back and forth, and held up his end of the conversation by telling us about the latest antics of his favorite comic strip character, Little LuLu. When reaching the end of his story, Uncle Elmer would raise his right hand, throw back his head, slap his right thigh and laugh loudly at how funny the story was. My sister and I joined in and two shy little girls were a little less well-behaved and more relaxed. Everyone in the kitchen would come out to find out what they were missing. When we smelled the kolaches warming in the oven, we knew dinner was ready. One year, after Uncle Elmer finished carving the turkey he picked up a drumstick and presented it to me; asking in a hushed voice, “Would you like to eat the drumstick?” I felt like an honored guest.
A very special treat was served with the dessert course, Grandma’s delicious homemade candy sent from Nebraska in a Russell Stover candy box someone had given her. The box cover was slowly opened, and the protective wax paper turned back to reveal a single layer sampler of Grandma’s candies: rice crispy balls, meringues that melted in our mouths, white fudge, and dark fudge with black walnuts. The latter were my personal favorite and the nuts were harvested from a tree that grew in her pasture.
After dinner, we would walk around the Winter Haven neighborhood where Uncle Elmer and his family lived, which was decked out in high-end Christmas decorations to compete for prizes the local newspaper offered in different categories. My favorite lawn decoration was the Three Kings riding on the backs of camels. It reminded me of the Christmas carol, “Star of Wonder”, and made me wonder where they came from, how they knew which one of the infinite stars in the sky was the right one to follow to the Christ Child and his parents. It also made me wonder why their gifts to Baby Jesus were so different from the dolls, toys, games and books my sister and I were usually given.
One year, after leaving Uncle Elmer’s home, my family set out to visit one of Mother’s friends from high school, who was in town for a few days with her family. On our way to their temporary dwelling, we briefly discussed that the family was going through a financially difficult time and their two daughters would probably not have any gifts this year. Mother had packed extra food for them and had prepared a card that probably included a monetary gift. When we arrived, we learned their daughters had already gone to bed; my sister and I sat in the living room while the four adults visited. At one point the father proudly picked up one of the two batons laying near him and twirled it before stating it was the only gift each girl had received from Santa Claus. I felt sad and was sorry my parents didn’t tell us earlier. We had so much that we could have shared. It was the first time I knew that everyone was not as well-off as my family.
When in college, a friend suggested that four of us attend midnight mass at San Xavier Mission in the desert. We arrived after the service started and four men in the back pew welcomed us by giving us their seats. It was an amazing service and more celebratory than the one held at the small church my family usually attended on Christmas morning. At the mission, the service was in Latin, the music was grander than what was played in our church, and it smelled of incense, which was also a new experience. My friends and I had a lot to discuss on our way back home through the dark desert lit only by the stars and the headlights of our car. The familiar giant Saguaros, growing up from the desert floor, looked mysterious at night.
When I was twenty-one, I became engaged to a New Yorker who was working on his master’s degree at my university. I was flying to New York City to celebrate Christmas with my intended’s family; and, we planned to announce our engagement. Heavy snow fell during the early morning of the day my flight was scheduled to leave Tucson, which made traveling to the airport difficult; it was a blizzard by Tucson standards! Since snow is a rare event, Tucson does not have snowplows and the family car, like the cars of most Tucsonians, did not have snow tires, which made driving difficult on snow-filled streets and roads. The desert floor shimmered from the snow and the snow-dusted cacti made me smile. Although the snow did not fall on Christmas Day, it was close enough for me to count as a White Christmas; any snow in the desert is a miracle.
Some lessons learned from living in the desert during the Christmas Season:
- Every locality has its own beauty.
- Everyone’s Christmas experiences are special and have nothing to do with snow.
- Don’t pre-judge or you will miss the real gift of seeing something new and unexpected that will stay with you the rest of your life as a treasured memory.
- One of the greatest gifts of the Christmas season is when families and communities come together to celebrate the miracle of the birth of Jesus under humble circumstances.
- It’s a miracle that those who needed to welcome Baby Jesus managed to find and honor him.
Merry Christmas! And, Happy New Year!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year
veselé Vánoce a šťastný nový rok
Karen J. Reynolds