One of the reasons — I say one of the reasons because I could think of several others if I put my mind to it — that I kept on having babies for years after all my classmates were taking turns being president of the Planned Parenthood Association was that I always thought a big family would be such fun at Christmas. Which who doesn’t, including people like me, who know? I know why Ben Heath, who is tied to me by the bonds of marriage, has the spirit of Christmas around Thanksgiving and the spirit of Ash Wednesday around Christmas. I keep telling him I know. “I know,” I say. “I know. I know. I know.”
I know we always get more glitter and glue on the floor than on the candles, and that I never remember to wipe it up until the dining-room carpet (new last January) is permanently (though not uninterestingly, I always think) spangled. I know I look absolutely insane crawling around in the snow for weeks before Christmas, putting candy canes on window sills and then galloping madly off in the dark, jingling sleighbells and shouting, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” I know the newsboy would rather have two dollar bills than a $1.95 flashlight wrapped in green paper and silver ribbon with “mervyn” spelled out in red Scotch tape. I know no one can eat those Cut ’n’ Bake cookies after the children have decorated them with green sugar and cinnamon hearts (Christmas trees), and then with more cinnamon hearts and melted marshmallow (Santa Clauses), and then with more melted marshmallow and pink crayon (angels). I know it’s un-Gesell and not even altogether Spock to match candid blue eye to candid blue eye with a ten-year-old and say: “But, sweetie, how should I know why Polly’s Santa Claus is really her father? Maybe her father has to be her Santa Claus, poor little thing! Maybe Santa Claus just doesn’t like Polly. Ever think of that?”
I also know ten children who aren’t going to see this issue of National Review.
I know all that. What I didn’t know till this year was what Ben meant, every Christmastide, when he tossed out, not at all at random, the words “materialistic” and “spiritual.” What I always thought he meant was that it would be materialistic for Alison and Betsey and Jennifer and Timothy to get a Chatty Cathy apiece, but spiritual for them to share one. I mean, that’s what I thought until one afternoon last week.
That afternoon they were all in the coat closet (well, they were, that’s all; they like the coat closet) making out their Christmas lists. Pam, who can spell, was helping the ones who can’t write; and Alison, who is magic, was helping the ones who can’t talk. I had my ear at the crack in the door, listening, because I’m still trying to hear one of those childhood conversations whose innocent candor tears at your heartstrings. You’ve read about them, I’m sure.
What I heard was my dear little ones calculating how much more each of them would get for Christmas if they didn’t have so many brothers and sisters to share the loot. They itemized, giving reasons for their choice, the siblings they would gladly exchange for a hockey stick or an army bugle or a Barbie doll with a different dress for every single day of the week. From what I could hear through the crack, nobody kept Buckley and Timothy, which is understandable — let’s face it — but not nice.
Then and there I decided (yes, again) that there is more to old Ben than meets the eye, and that this Christmas the Heaths would be spiritual. Spiritual also, I mean. At my age you can’t just cut those old materialistic ways right out of your life. And by coincidence I happened to be reading, at the time, a book called Around the Year with the Trapp Family. Actually, I was reading it to find out why the Trapps play the recorder better than we do, a fact that is widely bruited by those who have heard us though not necessarily the Trapps. It turned out, though, that the Trapp family spends its year not practicing the recorder, as I had hoped, but “Keeping the Feasts and Seasons of the Christian Year,” which is, in fact, the subtitle of the book. We plunged into keeping the Christmas Season of the Christian Year like the Trapps. Some of us (me) plunged more enthusiastically than others (Jim, Pam, John, Priscilla, Buckley, Alison, Betsey, Jennifer, Timothy, Janet, and their father).
Certainly some of the things the Trapp family does at Christmas are not entirely suited to the Heath family. I know. I know. And some — give me that much — I didn’t even try. Like baking the traditional Spekulatius on December 6 (St. Nicholas’s Day), for instance; or the traditional Kletzenbrot on December 21 (St. Thomas’s Day); or even the traditional Lebzelten, Lebkuchen, Spanish Wind, Marzipan, Rum Balls, Nut Busserln, Coconut Busserln, Stangerln, Pfeffernüsse, and Plain Cookies on December 23. Especially since the freezer was bulging with all those still Uncut ’n’ Unbaked rolls of cookie dough. Nor did I consider for more than one mad moment suggesting that all the children take a nap before Midnight Mass and that their father awaken them by initiating a procession from room to room with a lighted candle, singing “Shepherds Up!” (each verse pitched a half-tone higher than the last), though I think it would be lovely, myself. Maybe when Ben is older . . . mellower . . .
We did make an Advent Wreath with four red candles, and it was beautiful; but John and Priscilla are Junior Fire Marshals, and though they said it was all right to hang the wreath from the ceiling on four red ribbons, they wouldn’t even discuss letting us light the candles after the wreath was hung. Anyway, I know perfectly well that Ben Heath would light off for the South Seas before he would light the candles, stand under the wreath, read the Gospel for the day, and listen to the children sing: “Ye heavens, dew drop from above and rain ye clouds the Just One . . .” Even if I could get the children to sing it. Are your children giggly?
The Trapps say that “Silent Night” should be sung for the first time on Christmas Eve, and I agree with them, and the children agreed with me, which would have been enough to make me abandon the whole idea if I hadn’t been so bemused with good will and all. It wasn’t till I got the notes from Mr. Jones, Mrs. Miano, Mr. Segar, Mrs. Arnold, Miss Billingham, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Larratt, and Miss Bates that I remembered that the Fourth Form Glee Club Concert, the Grade VII Carol Sing, the Grade VI Christmas Vespers, the Grade III Christmas Play, the Grade II Christmas Chapel, the Grade I Christmas Assembly, the Kindergarten Christmas Program, and the Nursery School Christmas Party (to all of which I have been kindly invited) have three things in common: rehearsals, Heaths, and “Silent Night.” I quite understand, I wrote Mr. Jones, Mrs. Miano, Mr. Segar, Mrs. Arnold, Miss Billingham, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Larratt, and Miss Bates.
I really didn’t see how the Christkindl custom could go wrong, though. I still don’t. In the Trapp family, at the beginning of Advent, everyone writes his name on a piece of paper and the papers are put in a basket, which is passed around as soon as the children have finished singing “Ye heavens, dew drop from above.” Everybody picks a name from the basket, and the pickee, if you follow me, becomes the picker’s secret Christkindl, and the idea is, you do your Christkindl a good turn every day until Christmas without letting him know who you are. It sounds simple, spiritual, and also fun, doesn’t it? And it works out beautifully in the Trapp family. In fact, through Advent until Christmas, the Trapp household resounds with the glad cries of Christkindlen who have found their shoes shined, their dollhouses tidied up, or the table already set the day it was their turn. But there are a few technical problems that I feel you should know about, just in case you plan to be spiritual next Christmas.
In our house, the first technical problem was Jim. Jim said he was too old for this kind of thing, and I said, what did he mean, too old?: Most of the Trapps are older than he is; and he said, not those dumb kids that sang that dumb “Do-Re-Mi” song weren’t older than he is; and I said, well, if he thought he was too old at 15, what did he think I was?; and he said too old at 42 (never tell your children your age), but anyhow, I won, because after all, I’m the one who has to sign his driver-education permission slip — and also, if I didn’t drive all over New England every Saturday to see the Kingswood JV wrestle, who would? Then the others said, what about Timothy and Janet? Timothy and Janet were too little to do good turns to their Christkindlen, so why should they be anybody else’s Christkindlen? I said, I must say, this didn’t sound very much like the spirit of Christmas to me, and I would take care of the babies’ Christkindlen if everyone was so worried, and let’s draw, for Heaven’s sake!
So we drew, and five of them drew their own names and Janet ate one, which turned out, after we hit her on the back, to be John’s. So we made another slip for John (a piece of paper our baby has eaten is distinctive) and we drew again and eight of them drew their own names. I said, maybe it would work out better if I drew a name for each of them, and they said, no sir, not and have you know who everybody’s Christkindl is and comparing what everybody did for their Christkindlen, no sir, Mother, none of that stuff. Jim and Pam said that if they could have paper and pencil and peace and quiet they could probably work it out by mathematical probabilities, but it was getting pretty late, so I called them up by ages, and before Jim drew I took out his name, and before Pam drew I took out her name and put back Jim’s, and so on. (Well, unless I tell you, how will you ever know how to do it?)
When we had all drawn (which took far more time to do than to read about, no matter what you’re thinking), everybody opened his little slip of paper “at a given signal.” That’s how the Trapps do it, and that’s how we did it. I said: “Everybody ready? One. Two. Three. Open. Well, pick it up and open it now, Alison! Everybody does not have to fold their paper up again and forget the names they drew. . . . Besides, how could they? . . . Not fold the papers, for Heaven’s sake; forget the names! . . . Well, all right . . . all right, I said; we’re starting over. Everybody ready? One. Ready — Alison, anybody would think you were five and a half. Two. Three. Open. alison!!”
So we opened our little slips of paper at a given signal (the Trapps said “a” given signal, after all, not which) (what irritates me is that Alison can’t even read!) and everybody learned the name of his secret — secret, mind you — Christkindl. This is another uniformly joyful moment in the Trapp family. At this moment in the Heath family, Jim looked up from his slip, glared at John, and groaned. John looked up from his slip, glared at Jim, and made vomiting noises. Priscilla said: “Oh, Mother, do I have to have that pest?”
Buckley said: “Mother, how do you think that makes a poor little boy feel to have everybody in this whole absolute world call him a pest every absolute minute?”
Everybody nudged everybody else. “Jim has John. John has Jim. Priscilla has Buckley,” they told each other.
The non-readers came running up to find out who their Christkindlen were. “Pam,” I whispered into Betsey’s ear.
“Pam,” shrieked Betsey.
“Betsey has Pam,” everybody told everybody else.
“Tim-Tim, but don’t tell,” I whispered into Jennifer’s ear.
She flung her arms around Timothy’s head. “Tim-Tim, I know sumpeen. I know sumpeen, Tim-Tim,” she roared.
“Jennifer has Timothy,” everybody told everybody else. The baby ate her paper again, but it was all right this time: I knew whose name she had eaten. I had arranged for us to draw each other, because we’re in love.
A few minutes later they thundered upstairs to homework or bed, and even over the rattling of the window panes I heard the negotiations starting. “Well, then, will you trade Priscilla for Alison and a nickel? For Alison and a dime? For me not hiding your shell collection? For me not hitting you in the stomach as hard as I can?”
Actually, it didn’t turn out too badly. After a few days of such good turns as reporting that a Christkindl hadn’t done his arithmetic because he was going to copy Georgie’s before school tomorrow (and he just can’t learn anything that way, can he, Mother?), or throwing a Christkindl’s cherished leather jacket into the washing machine (because it was so absolutely filthy he could have got germs from it, Mother), or taking the batteries out of a Christkindl’s flashlight because she reads under the covers after bedtime (and that’s why practically everybody practically constantly goes blind, isn’t it, Mother?), everybody was getting pretty tense, not to mention bloody, until one of them — I haven’t asked which — found a solution: Every Sunday now, they each buy seven penny lollipops, and every night they slip a lollipop under their Christkindl’s pillow. Well, I know that doesn’t sound so terribly spiritual, but it’s better than what they used to do. What they used to do was steal each other’s lollipops.
I wouldn’t want anybody to think that my baby and I have sunk to such a mundane relationship, though. We haven’t had to change our routine at all. Every morning Janet allows her Christkindl to rock her a little; and every evening I rock my Christkindl a little.
– A Christmas piece by Aloïse Buckley Heath (1918–1967) is an NR tradition.