For this small-town, rural farm girl, Christmas conjures the kinds of memories one might imagine fitting under the title of “An Arkansas Christmas.” And I am certainly not knocking them. On the contrary, the more I learn about the world the more I appreciate the beauty, simplicity, and safety of my childhood. I’ve tried to recreate it as much as possible with my own children.
I remember going out and looking for a Christmas tree with my parents and brother. We’d load up in the farm truck and drive around our land. Sometimes we’d walk or go hiking in the woods. My brother and I got to pick the “perfect” one and my dad would chop it down with an axe or cut it off at the bottom of the trunk with a handsaw. Then he would haul it to the truck and hoist it into the back, or if we were on foot he’d just drag it all the way home. It was always a cedar. My mother would marvel at how beautiful it was—what a great job we did choosing—as my dad would do more chopping and sawing to get it to fit into our living room, and then turn it at all angles in an effort to hide the gaps. Soon the whole house smelled fresh, earthy. More than cinnamon and cider this is still the aroma of Christmas to me.
After my parents strung those big Charlie Brown lights that look like colored eggs, and my favorite bubble lamps, Jim and I would go to work putting on all of the ornaments. I can still feel the prickle of the cedar as we hung them. In addition to our laminated artwork (which she still puts on her tree), my mom handed us new, matching ornaments every year. Most years she made them or we made them with her. She gave us the collection in boxes when we each got married. So now I tell my kids the stories when we decorate our tree: Here’s Raggedy Ann, and Jim has Raggedy Andy. We both have this little soldier and sequined circus lion. He has the gingerbread boy, I’ll say as someone hangs my felt gingerbread girl. Jim has the brown bear just like this white one. And of course, my children each have matching ornaments I’ve given them that year. Four little drummer boys, four Santas, four Golden Gate Bridges and Statues of Liberty from family RV trips. Four identical Big Bens from the time we went to London, four keychains with sunflowers from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Few homemade. Many iterations of the baby Jesus. All of which will go into a box to be presented when each of them gets married and/or has their own house and tree.
We have certain candies we make. Granny comes over and bakes the same sugar cookies she made with Jim and me, after carving them out with the same cookie cutters. PaPa reads the Nativity story from Luke and all of the cousins dress up and act it out like a play. We go caroling. Watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Eat sausage balls. We drink special hot chocolate with whipped cream out of special Christmas cups.
The more I write about this the more I feel like Laura Ingalls. Or perhaps a country songwriter. But it is all true; I promise. And I’ve not even told you the half of it. I’ve left out the scavenger hunts and matching Christmas pajamas and letters to and from Santa. The going around the room and talking about our favorite parts of the Christmas story, what detail or character we relate to the most this year. And so much more.
Much of the more when I was a child revolved around toys. I loved to go through the giant Sears catalog and circle the stuff of dreams. When those dreams materialized under the tree—a Barbie Townhouse, fancy baby carriage for my doll, art set, doctor’s kit—I felt a little girl’s wonder. Magic. Joy.
My kids’ version of this experience, I suppose, is Amazon. Like me, the biggest problem they have with toys is where to put them all. I am constantly processing clutter and smuggling unused toys out of the house before the children can catch me, like some kind of drug lord. We are ridiculous examples of American excess in this regard. It is discomfiting if one stops to think about it. So I try not to very much.
A week or so ago a friend texted me with a request. She was doing some volunteer work with a local organization that seeks to provide toys for Christmas to disadvantaged children. She asked me if I had any names, and so I sent out a group text to some of my students who are refugees. Their families work hard and never let on that they need anything, but I know I would if I recently fled my home with only the clothes on my back. The answers added up to an astonishing 47 names of children. When I relayed this my friend sent me a form from her organization. They’d have to pick the toys up at a certain time, in a certain place, only one child per family, etc., etc. I won’t pass judgment on a group trying their best to help others in the community, but these requirements didn’t work for me. I knew they’d never work for the children on my list. So I called a wealthy friend of mine who once told me to let her know if I ever had a student she could help. I told her the whole situation. She said, “Let’s go shopping.”
I met her the next week in Little Rock, where she had amassed over a thousand dollars by adding her own money to donations from friends and people in her church. Using the list I compiled from my students’ texts, we filled our baskets to overflowing with Care Bears, soccer balls, coloring books, Nerf guns, games, Legos, Barbies, stickers, Play Doh, and fishing poles. She didn’t want the families receiving gifts to know about her part in this. She just wanted to know it herself. And be giddy.
I dropped off the load of toys at a place my students and I agreed to meet. I felt like Santa Claus with my full Honda Odyssey sleigh. Some of the students brought little sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews with them. Sweetest, shyest, cutest kids you can imagine. I got to watch them pick things out. Tentative at first, un-entitled, they were able to muster quite adorable gusto when encouraged to fill their bags.
After hugs and Merry Christmases, when the last one had left and I was alone in my empty van, I paused for a little cry. The sheer goodness and beauty of the world descended on me like a butterfly. I am often so critical of the greed and meanness I see in the world, the country, the state, and so set on solving our problems, that I lose sight of how much love is out there, holding us all together. Playing Santa was a good reminder.
An Arkansas Christmas can range from home on the farm and simple family pleasures, to the city with its wealth, glamour, and generosity, to a parking lot full of refugees brave and resourceful enough to start over in a new country. A country where they have hope; a state that even now is still a land of opportunity. It can bring together a small-town teacher, a cheerful millionaire giver, and the children of parents who imagined, and every day forge, a new life. Here. May we remember this season that this—all of this—is us. We belong to each other. We rise together. Love, above all other ideas, agendas, hopes, and dreams for our fellow Arkansans, is what makes Arkansas Strong.