A Visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past

By Charles Davenport, Jr.

The Ghost of Christmas Past scared the Dickens out of Ebenezer Scrooge, but I welcome the apparition with open arms. Every December, that friendly phantom reappears to conjure memories from my Norman Rockwellian youth.

One particular Christmas in the early-70s shines the brightest. I was about 10 years old, susceptible still to the enchantment and wonder of the season. The “wisdom” of my teenage years had not yet diminished the mystique. Having dined like royalty on the bountiful feast Mom prepared for Christmas Eve, my three siblings and I took a walk around the neighborhood, the streets of which were adorned that year with luminaries. I do not mean a bunch of famous people were wandering about; I am referring to the other luminaries, the brown paper bags with tea-light candles burning in the bottom. Every homeowner in the neighborhood pitched in to create a whimsical glow for Christmas Eve. It was bitterly cold, but calm, just as it should be. Snow would have been nice, but we North Carolinians are accustomed to snow-deprivation—one of the very few drawbacks of life in the Triad. Clad in our heavy coats, “toboggans”, and gloves, the four of us strolled, bathed in the glow of luminaries. Our breath created clouds of vapor that hovered around our heads before drifting behind us and vanishing. Regrettably, my older sisters, Janet and Pam, were sporting “bell-bottom” pants, so the sound of their strides–swish-swoosh!, swish-swoosh!–interrupted what otherwise would have been absolute silence. Despite the clamor of the girls’ attire, the atmosphere had something sacred about it. That is why the few motorists who crept through the neighborhood did so with headlights turned off. Transgressors were promptly waved down and verbally accosted by Mrs. Furr, our neighborhood’s self-appointed enforcer of decorum. In her view, speeding, glaring headlights, and loud car stereos bordered on sacrilege.

Cold air has a way of numbing the outdoor enthusiast’s face, hands, and feet, irrespective of how many layers of clothing one wears, and regardless of the thickness of one’s “puffer.”Shivering Southerners must be a ceaseless source of mirth and merriment for Jack Frost. We quickly returned home and settled in with Mom and Dad to watch Frosty, Rudolph, Charlie, or Ebenezer– whichever we could find on one of our three TV channels. Looming over us was a fat, 20-foot-tall cedar we had cut down ourselves. It was festooned with colored lights, ornaments, and tinsel (which we called “icicles” and hurled at the tree in clumps from a distance of six or eight feet). We placed the tree in the only room that could accommodate such a behemoth; our living room, which had a cathedral ceiling. To decorate the top of the tree, we had to do so from the upstairs hallway, which overlooked the living room.

Eventually, Mom and Dad issued the “Bedtime!” order, and up the stairs my siblings and I went. My brother Scott (aka Scooter) and I shared a bedroom; Janet and Pam shared another. By that time—10 or 11 o’clock—we had consumed copious amounts of food, walked the neighborhood, and watched Christmas shows while basking in the warm glow of a hissing, crackling fireplace. Surely, one would think, slumber is inevitable. One would be mistaken! The notion of falling asleep was preposterous! In mere hours, Santa was coming! Scott wanted an electric train set; I longed for an electric racetrack with hand-held car controllers. We had discussed the matter at length. For weeks. Then there were the perennial staples of young boys’ wish lists: bicycles, Hot Wheels, and, lest we forget, BB guns. “Ralphie,” the bespectacled, relentlessly bullied star of “A Christmas Story,” would not immortalize the Daisy rifle until years later. I hate to toot my own horn, but the Davenport boys menaced the neighborhood with BB guns long before doing so was fashionable. That Christmas Eve, Scott and I discovered that we could stealthily keep an eye on events downstairs by slithering on our bellies, serpent-like, along the carpeted upstairs hallway, propelling ourselves with our elbows. (Carpet-burn heals quickly.) In such a fashion, we could peek through the banister to the foot of the stairs, where our stockings were hung. There, on the first floor, Santa would deposit the goods. Alas, that year, like every other, we fell asleep long before Santa arrived. In the morning–very early, rest assured–Scooter and I sprinted downstairs to find a sprawling sheet of plywood, around the perimeter of which ran the rails of an electric train. Better still, inside those rails was a shiny black, gloriously twisty racetrack!

I still have not figured out exactly how Santa squeezed that massive sheet of plywood down our chimney. In my 10-year-old mind, there was only one explanation: magic. Today, half a century later, I am convinced that my 10-year-old self was absolutely right.

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