A flight of stairs leading straight to the second floor confronts you immediately when you enter the home of my childhood, a narrow brick row house in Baltimore’s Pen Lucy neighborhood. On your right, between front door and stairs, a half-circle wooden table hugs the wall separating our home from our next-door neighbors’. A mirror, 18 inches tall, housed in a cheap wooden frame, hangs, providing a final check of hair before stepping outside.
Every Christmas Eve, a single, slender blue candle appeared on that table. Our father put it there, although I don’t recall ever seeing him do it. My sister, brother and I knew that the blue candle’s appearance that meant Christmas was imminent, the long-awaited morning when we could clamber down the steps to see what gifts awaited us, but only after Daddy had gone down ahead of everyone to light the candle. He always took painfully long to get himself fully dressed first, teasing us impatient children. We gathered anxiously on the landing at the top of the stairs, waiting for the blue candle to be lighted. Only then were we free to descend the stairs, and our Christmas Day could begin.
All of us, I suspect, remember specific Christmas rituals of our childhood. This one burns clearly in my memory and triggers a smile as I recall those happy years. I am hard put, though, when others ask me to recall a specific, favorite childhood Christmas. Maybe it was the year my parents had hidden a shiny new trombone in my bedroom while I slept. After we had opened all our gifts, I noticed that I had received fewer than usual, our mother, her eyes smiling, suggested that I run upstairs and have a look under my bed.
I was one happy teenager that year, but one other Christmas remains more firmly lodged in my memory. It must have been in the early 1970s. I had grown to adulthood, married with children. Our three daughters were young, ages in single digits. Betsy and I had accepted a challenge by our church to visit an extremely poor family on Christmas Eve and bring them gifts of food and toys for their children.
Our girls got into the spirit of our adventure, excitedly helping with the shopping and wrapping. We bundled everyone into the car and searched for the home of the woman we were told had no husband but three small children. I remember the dark of her street and the interior of her tiny home. I remember her tears of gratitude, and I especially remember what she said, over and over, as we hugged and prepared to leave.
“Thank you, Jesus!”
This was my happiest Christmas ever.