CHRISTMAS AMONG STRANGERS
Nancy Patrick at new home in Illinois, far from home, on Christmas 1974. Nancy and her husband, Mike, had just moved to Illinois for Mike’s first pastorate and they were among strangers for the first time.
By NANCY PATRICK
Every year by Thanksgiving, our society transforms into a charitable, adoring, nostalgic, and sentimental group of people who seem to review their pasts through the rosy lenses of Norman Rockwell’s winter scenes. Although I try not to overdose on Hallmark Christmas movies, I confess that I sometimes succumb to the popular theory that the simpler life of the past afforded some pleasures absent from our current technological age.
Most of my childhood memories of Christmas occurred in Arkansas, where both my paternal and maternal extended families lived. With nine aunts and uncles and all their progeny, my sister and I had a parcel of cousins with whom to play. Happily, several of us were nearly the same age so we had a blast reacquainting ourselves (my family visited only twice a year) and getting into mischief. These family gatherings gave our parents a chance to visit with their siblings while they left us alone.
Both my grandmothers had Christmas trees from the nearby woods. The ornaments were varied and old with no themes or fancy decorations. In those days, silver icicles draped over the branches to make a shiny caul from the tree’s top to the floor. The children slept (very little) in the bedroom adjacent to the living room. We watched out the window for Santa’s sleigh and swore we saw it and heard the jingle of bells.
Christmas morning delightfully confirmed our belief in Santa. My sister and I, if not our cousins, knew our parents could not afford gifts beyond our frugal budget. Therefore, dolls and new clothes from Santa under the tree thrilled us.
Because I had always spent Christmas with my family, I selfishly treasured that holiday time. I intended to keep my traditions, but something happened in 1974 that caused me to change. I learned a lot about the spirit of Christmas that year as I sank to a low point in my spiritual and emotional life.
My husband Mike had received his master of divinity degree from Southwestern Theological Seminary in May of that year and began seeking his first full-time church position. Though I had taught school during the three years of his seminary program, we had decided that after seven of years of marriage we wanted to start our family. We assumed we would move to a new location, so I resigned my job and became pregnant (in that order).
Mike’s job did not materialize until September during my third month of pregnancy. The church, located in Princeton, Illinois, and over a thousand miles from my parents in Abilene, would take me farther away than I wanted to go. I found myself sinking into an emotional abyss.
I found myself unemployed and pregnant—about to move far away from all I knew. To make matters worse, my maternal grandmother died in Arkansas as we loaded our U-Haul truck and began the three-day journey to northern Illinois. I encountered fear and resentment about becoming a dependent wife rather than my former independent professional self.
A rather large group of men and women from the church greeted us upon our arrival in Princeton on October 17, 1974. Their happiness and excitement welcomed us. Mike had gone alone for the interviews and trial sermon, so everyone was curious about the new pastor’s wife. Unbelievably, those people unloaded the van, put the furniture in place, and even unpacked most of the boxes. On top of that feat, they gave us a “pounding”—no, they didn’t hit us; they filled our cupboards and refrigerator with groceries.
Thus began the melting of my heart and the opening of my eyes to the universal spirit of Christmas and the joy of its simplicity. These folks had several customs that expanded my appreciation of family and generosity. One of the most enjoyable activities happened in the kitchens when the women transformed their home kitchens into bakeries. Women gathered at each other’s houses and shared recipes as they baked together. After all the baking, we would visit homes during the evenings, everyone taking various cookies (along with the recipe cards) to share as they sipped spiced tea.
We also frequently caroled in the community, taking cookies along for those we visited and receiving hot chocolate for our efforts. Most of our church members had originated in other parts of the country and had migrated to Illinois for employment, so we were all strangers in a new land. We found nothing more conducive to fellowship and making new friends than the Christmas season, the time that has given new meaning to life and family.
This congregation adopted us as family, gladly sharing their lives with us. Although I went with a bad attitude, I soon adjusted to my new home as we and our new church family welcomed our only child into his family.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.