The Christmas Treat
Christmas was the most wonderful time of year to me, maybe even better than the first days of summer vacation. Our preparations for Christmas seemed like something Christians had been doing just like this for hundreds of years. Kitchens were filled with wonderful aromas of cookies for weeks. Closer to Christmas Day, the scent of pine boughs invaded most homes. And on the actual day, our heads spun with delight as a roasted turkey or a large chicken was brought to the table to be served with dressing, cranberries, potatoes, gravy, fresh bread, and enough desserts to clog our arteries well past Easter.
I loved to sing Christmas carols in church, and the congregation was especially good at harmonizing those especially familiar songs. The fact that we sang carols and heard the Christmas story every year actually added to the excitement of the season. We knew that all of our church activities and feasting were really to celebrate Jesus being born in a stable and laid in a manger, and repetition did not wear out that story. In fact, it even added to our excitement about the story.
In those days, Elmore seemed a lot like the biblical Bethlehem in my imaginings. It was a quiet town with about the same number of souls as had lived there soon after the Civil War. The people had changed, but the population was still about thirteen hundred. Seven active churches gave the town a holy feel in spite of the obvious temptations. One year a very bright star appeared over Elmore, and people said it might be the same star that had guided the wise men to the Christ child. It seemed to hover over Northern Ohio the whole Christmas season. It even seemed to be right above the church on Congress Street in Elmore. Whatever that bright star might have been that year, it made Christmas more personal, more directly from God, than ever before.
The front of the church was decorated each year with a huge hanging mural that appeared about two weeks before Christmas and disappeared shortly after New Year’s Day. The mural I remember best was a view of Bethlehem from the crest of a hill, with the town sleeping silently across a small valley. In the mural, the three wise men were on the hill, and the Christmas star was shining brilliantly above the holy stable below. The wise men were seated on their camels in their fine robes, no doubt thinking of the baby they were seeking and also of the evil King Herod whom they had met on their journey. I loved to gaze at this mural and imagine myself running down the path ahead of the wise men. I would go ahead of them to the stable to see Jesus in the manger. I could then help the wise men find the right stable, since there would have been many like it. Each year, that mural was my trip to the Holy Land, and I could imagine it just as I wanted it to be.
In most years, the Sunday morning Christmas program consisted of carols interspersed with simple poems or lines of Scripture that all of the children, except for the very youngest, recited from memory. The children helped bring people in, producing a record crowd each year, and so did the Christmas treat. The treat was one of the most blessed events of my early religious life. It combined the coming of the Christ child with manna from heaven, or possibly something even better than manna.
After all of the children’s memorized program pieces had been said and nearly all of the carols sung, the Sunday school superintendent would make a short speech, thanking everyone for the help in the year’s program. She (the superintendent was nearly always a woman) thanked the Sunday school teachers and those who had helped prepare crafts for the classes and costumes. She also thanked the parents who had faithfully brought their children. Then the chairman of the board of trustees would present a gift to the pastor. It was sometimes a memorable object, but more often it was an undisclosed amount of cash.
During those speeches, six or eight men slipped out into the overflow room at the side of the sanctuary. These men usually were farmers or factory workers who seldom took on ceremonial functions. One was Warren Draper, a sunburned farmer who had served in World War II. Another was Don Otte, a merry farmer who was active in church and always chewed gum. Junior Miller, a painfully shy younger man, performed his only public role in church by helping distribute the Christmas treat.
When all of the speeches were finished, a hush fell over the church. Suddenly the Christmas treat posse marched into the church carrying the long awaited treat. The sanctuary was flooded with the exotic, nearly intoxicating aroma of fresh oranges as the men came down the aisles, handing oranges across the rows until everyone was served. Right behind the oranges came those mouthwatering small bags of candy and nuts that kids considered the real Christmas treat. The women of the church had prepared the bags of candy and nuts in the days prior to the service, and it seemed they used the same recipe every year. Here’s what I remember being in each bag:
2 English walnuts
2 Brazil nuts
3 almonds in their papery shells
3 pieces of colorful ribbon candy
6 pieces of jelly-filled candy
6 pieces of hard peppermint or spearmint
1 chocolate covered marshmallow with peanuts
1 cream-filled chocolate
1 candy cane
I may have forgotten an item or two, but this list seems to me to be at least 80 percent correct. Year after year, I knew what delight awaited me, and that knowledge added to my enjoyment of the treat when it came. I loved the fact that the Christmas treat was completely predictable. To me it was a kind of liturgy. A variation in the Christmas treat would have seemed like a form of heresy or sacrilege.
At the close of service, everyone bundled up to head for home. At our house, we would have a bedtime snack and then go to bed promptly so we could get up early and open presents on Christmas morning, just as baby Jesus surely must have opened his presents on the first Christmas morning. Down the road, my cousins would open their presents on Christmas Eve, right after the Christmas program. I thought it would have been fun to get my toys that night, but I also thought that it was vaguely sacrilegious to open presents on Christmas Eve. I didn’t worry about it though, because I loved my cousins and knew that God would forgive them. After all, they were Christians too and had been to church like me, and they, too, had received the blessing of the Christmas treat.
Adults from other churches have affirmed in recent years that they remember receiving the same or a very similar Christmas treat when they were kids. Few of their churches still have the Christmas treat. The Christmas treat at the church in Elmore has changed in recent decades, and it is sometimes given out more than a week before Christmas. Pieces of candy are usually individually wrapped, and there are no Brazil nuts in their flinty shells. The modern treat is surely more sanitary than the mix of unwrapped candy and nuts that kids received in the 1940s and 1950s, and it’s probably a good treat still. But I, rooted in the past, cherish the memory of the ancient, annual Christmas treat, exactly as it used to be back then.