Dean Minnich: Making Christmas magic still a gift | COMMENTARY

Dean Minnich: Making Christmas magic still a gift | COMMENTARY

Manchester was cozy at Christmas.

By comparison with today’s armies of gnomes, inflatables and sleighs with reindeer, we were sedate, which is to say boring, in a nice way. The most festive atmosphere was provided by lights strung on front porches, or carefully positioned and lavishly decorated trees in living room bay windows.

The big deal in our family was the train garden, a secret that grew in the corner of our living room overnight during the two weeks before Christmas.

For years, we bought into the legend. Santa was no longer able to get around to every house in the world on Christmas Eve, so he was starting early and doing a little bit every night in advance for the really good kids.

But the legend held a caution: If anyone peeked, even if they didn’t mean to glance that way as they entered the front door and passed through living room, it would “Poof!” — disappear. No Christmas garden, no tree, no decorations and no presents.

I believed in the magic, so I didn’t peek. But I had suspicions about my little sister, who was always getting away with breaking the rules. One peek from her, and everybody’s Christmas would go poof. So, I made sure I was behind her whenever we entered the front door and marched like soldiers, eyes left, to the interior rooms.

Another rule was that no one could open gifts until mom and dad were up and had their coffee, and they were not to be awakened before first light.

Christmas mornings were darker and longer than most mornings. But to me, “light” was a relative term. If you can see, it must be light. But the wrappings hid the mysteries within, and guessing was as good as it got in the pre-dawn hour.

And another thing; we could not wake mom and dad. But no one said we were responsible for making the world stay quiet. If someone woke to the sounds of creaking floors, a flushing toilet or a refrigerator door squeaking, who could blame me? And if they did, I’d blame my sister.

A later holiday tradition in my teens was helping to decorate the front porch of the house my parents built when we outgrew the apartment. Dad liked colored lights, backed by silvery tin collars of stars, and linked by an unruly strand of electrical wire and laurel roping that would be suspended on cord run through eyelets in the porch ceiling. It was like trying to get a python to stay put without getting wrapped up inside it.

Somewhere in our fates it was written than we would decorate the porch on the coldest day of the winter. Windy, sleet, 28 degrees, cloudy, grim, miserable weather, every year on decorate the porch day.

The last thing to go up was a fat plastic caricature of Santa plugged into the porch light socket. Every year, after it was up and plugged in, at least one bulb would refuse to come to the party. So, it had to be taken down, the back removed, the bulb replaced — if we had one — and then reassembled and put back up on the porch post.

The same determination to share Christmas from the porch was what inspired dad to come home from 10-hour days clerking in the store to spend two or three hours every night assembling tracks, switches and bridges. Then laying out a town of houses and churches and decorating a tree as we slept in the other room, worn out from anticipation.

But there it was on Christmas morning, a sparkling, twinkling village under a tree laden with colored glass trinkets and colored lights, branches heavy with snow. The iron bridge carried the steam locomotive across a mirror river, around tracks circling the town and running switches, with lights, cars, trucks, houses and little people in the streets.

That’s the Christmas gift that has lasted all these years.

Dean Minnich writes from Westminster.

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