Long line of Christmases past and present

Eugene Patterson was editor of The Atlanta Constitution.

This column appeared in The Atlanta Constitution Dec. 24, 1965

A man’s Christmas Eves make the truest calendar of his life. All of them are good. But the ones that lodge in the mind make a line of markers. They begin with a pocket watch. It was hung so high on the great tree that a boy not much more than knee high had to turn his head far back to see it — and then to know, wonderstruck, that Santa Claus was real.

In later boyhood there were scribbled notes thrust up the farmhouse chimney, carefully pared to Depression standards and reflected in the Sears Roebuck catalog because it was assumed hard times extended to the North Pole. The pine top the boy and his brother had chopped and dragged from the forest stood glistening in tinsel atop the grand piano.

And before first light they were in the dimly firelit room, in flannel pajamas, looking with joyous incredulity upon gleaming toys and packages that had magically appeared.

Then a rush for the incredibly bulging stockings, limp only the evening before. And in among the brazil nuts and tangerines and ten-cent-store automobiles were package after package of fireworks. It was 4 a.m. and all through the house not a creature was stirring but two tiptoeing boys, armed with a four-inch cannon cracker and headed for the front lawn.

A low moon was still hanging when the thing went off. As the magnificent pre-dawn blast began its first echoing roll back from Old Thornhill swamp, where it set the bobcats shrilling and the alligators grunting, an ominous step sounded on the front porch. Dad, in his old bathrobe, suggested firmly that the boys had better get back in bed — pronto— and wait till morning to fire two.

Now he is gone, but there was that one last Christmas, and the picture of him and Mother sitting by the tree, full of years and peace among his children and grandchildren.

Christmas Eve in the war was a lonesome walk along an icy sidewalk in Louisville, Kentucky. Then a hole in the Ardennes, blasted into the frozen earth with a quarter pound block of TNT. Moonlight silvered the snow. Their tanks rumbled and clanked along the far side of the river. The Germans had decorated a Christmas tree in a Luxembourg farmhouse — Ferme Folkendange — before our counterattack knocked them across the river. It was the company command post. Coming in from the holes, we swapped presents under the tree. Dead young men lay beside burn-colored shell holes in the snow of the field outside. Nebelwerfer rockets still sang in and exploded among them intermittently. War is a madman’s nightmare — lying on frozen earth in moonlight, dead with their watches ticking.

The memories make Christmas eve, now, much more. A family of a man’s own by his own fireside helps liberate him from his most hurtful enemy — self. The glowing eyes of the little people are the real reward, and perhaps the only lasting one. The memories make their line of markers through the years and lead to that.