I found Advent Sunday so magical when I was a little girl. Mom always took me shopping for a Christmas dress for that service. We usually settled on something involving red velvet or green taffeta with puffed sleeves. Mom rolled my wet hair in pink sponge rollers Saturday night so I’d look like Shirley Temple in the morning.
At the beginning of the service a child would light the advent candles. After what seemed like years of waiting and watching all my friends get their spotlight, my turn finally came. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get the wicks to light. I shuddered imagining I’d drop my candle and burn down the church. So I spent the weekend practicing marching in rhythm while cupping my hand to guard the flame of a little white candle poked through a cardboard halo.During the service I admired the grand Chrismon tree and the gold and white decorations. In my little girl mind the sanctuary décor was exquisite -- from the potted poinsettias wrapped in red and gold foil to the cardboard angels by the organ. I belted out the words to “Joy to the World” and “Angels We have Heard on High” from the heavy navy hymnal. I sat enraptured while the choir sang their Christmas repertoire, feeling the holiday spirit wash over me. When we bowed our heads to pray I begged God for snow. Sometimes I’d also ask for lots of presents or a boyfriend who’d kiss me under the mistletoe. The sanctuary was fuller than ever that Sunday. I loved staring at all the new faces. During the long sermons and choir numbers I’d make up stories to go with them. After the closing prayer, my little girlfriends and I posed for pictures by the giant tree in our curls and ruffles.
The night of Christmas Eve we’d go back to church for communion. The sanctuary was quiet and dark, and the white lights twinkled in the garland. My family would take off our long wool coats and wait our turn in a back pew while a soloist softly sang a carol in between servings.
After communion we went to my Mom-maw and Pop-paw’s house in Winfield. On the way there we passed a field-of-a-backyard by the river haphazardly strung with hundreds of thousands of colored lights. At Mom-maw and Pop-paw’s we drank fizzy and frothy fruit punch with floating orange slices and ate shrimp cocktail and cheese balls with crackers and olives. Mom-maw served a Southern Living-style red velvet cake for dessert.
After dinner I couldn’t wait to open our gifts. Mom-maw gave us some our nicest (and most elegantly wrapped) presents. Afterward while the adults talked I’d check out the Christmas village lit up on a bed of coconut snow on the end table. I also made sure to peek out the window and look into the night sky, desperate to spot Santa and his reindeer. I’d met Santa a few days earlier at the tall bank downtown Charleston. I'd even sat on his lap and given him my handwritten Christmas list. I knew he was the real Santa because he had a real beard.
On the way home we’d listen to Pachebel’s Canon or to the Vienna Boys Choir sing “Little Drummer Boy” while we detoured around nearby subdivisions to admire the lights. “The ox and lamb kept time, pa-rump-a-pum-pum,” I’d sing along. The Nutcracker Suite was another favorite. Sometimes my brother and I would dance around the living room, doing our best sugarplum fairy impressions to my pink Nutcracker cassette tape. I wore my old ballet recital costume, and he wore his long underwear.
I wished we could listen to carols all year. I also wondered why we couldn’t eat the microwaved summer sausage with cheddar cheese on crackers that we snacked on while decorating the tree more often too. The Christmas tree ritual also included carols played on the boom box. We especially liked our Cowboy Christmas CD. “Here comes Santy Claus,” we’d sing. My brother and I spread out the branches, and Mom and Dad told us to hang the teeny ornaments on top and the heavy ones down low. My favorite ornament was mine – a little elf working on a real Christmas light that looked like he was hanging from a scaffold. Sometimes we’d string popcorn or cranberries to wrap around the tree. After the tree was set up I liked to lie under it and look up at the lights. I also liked to sneak goodies from the piles of Tupperware stuffed with Mom’s homemade pecan tarts and chocolate covered cherry cookies.
When we came home on Christmas Eve night we changed into pajamas and gathered around the tree to read “The Night Before Christmas” with illustrations of a rosy and jolly Santa Claus reminiscent of old-fashioned Coca-Cola ads. Then we read the Christmas story from the Book of Luke before opening the last little window on the Advent calendar to hang the final ornament on the tree. Finally we set out a glass of milk and some of Mom’s cookies for Santa. Sometimes I insisted we leave out a carrot for Rudolph.
I planned to check for reindeer tracks in the morning. And I'd even convince myself I spotted a few in the snow. I never let on that I halfway suspected they were footprints the neighbors' dog left.