There was a time, not so many moons ago, when I actually dreaded the arrival of Christmas - or holidays if you must. Perhaps dreaded is a bit too strong, but at the very least I sure didn't look forward to it.
Why you ask? Is it because I'm such a downer I make Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch seem like the epitome of the true Christmas spirit? Not hardly.
While I admit I've had my share of cranky, non-Christmas-like moments throughout the years, by and large I've been a huge fan of the season and the reason. Celebrating the birth of the Christ child, cookies and candies, twinkling lights, beautifully wrapped presents, ornaments, Christmas Eve church service, singing the traditional carols and spending quality time with loved ones had me more than a little excited each and every December. I couldn't wait. And then ...
I'll explain. It was somewhere in the middle to late 1970s my Christmas spirit went south. Unlike so many folks in various corners of the Midwest, and the rest of America for that matter, I did not have the good fortune of having all my relatives, friends and loved ones live in close proximity to my home. (I know there are those who may not consider that such a "good" thing, but indulge me for a few paragraphs.)
As an adult, my life/living situation was much different ... way different. Rather than everyone I cared about dwelling in the same community or area, my family was rather spread out. As a result, Christmas-time became a real challenge. It not only tested my perseverance, devotion, determination and faith, it placed huge demands on my patience ... something my wife, Sarah, says I lack in significant amount. And not only that, there were times when I actually feared for my life ... and I'm sure my children would agree.
As a working stiff who was trying to make his way in journalism, I'd accepted positions with Decorah Newspapers and then the Oelwein Daily Register from 1973 to 1983. Another way to interpret "working stiff" is the fact you don't get a week off during Christmas. Quite the contrary.
I might have been able to knock off a little early on Christmas Eve, and of course Christmas day was a holiday for everyone, no matter how naughty they had been during the year, but that was it. The day after Christmas I was right back at my desk gathering and writing the news for our readers.
Trying to celebrate the holidays with those I truly cared about became a challenge of immense proportions. Looking back, I still can't fathom exactly how I pulled it off. The travel schedule was brutal to say the least ... and oftentimes dangerous.
The years when Christmas fell on a Friday and Saturday were fortunate indeed. If Dec. 25 was a Saturday, we could actually load up the station wagon Friday afternoon and take off for various locales throughout the Tri-State area.
We'd arrive at our first destination in the early evening, have a few adult beverages, unwrap presents, enjoy a delicious meal, stay up late exchanging lies and then off to bed. On Christmas day, we usually enjoyed a wonderful breakfast (thanks Mom) before piling back into the cruiser and heading for the next stop on our holiday tour. Sunday morning we were off again. With time running short, it was imperative I complete the five-hour drive back home so I could be at work bright and early Monday. Joy to the world.
When Christmas didn't fall on a weekend, pandemonium reigned. If the weather cooperated, we'd leave late on Christmas Eve, hit the road ASAP on Christmas day and then head home that same night. It was brutal ... but I had no choice. After all, it was Christmas.
By the time I turned into my driveway, I was burnt to a crackly crunch. Exhausted both mentally and physically, I slumped over the steering wheel and silently said a Christmas-miracle-type prayer expressing my gratitude that I had managed to pull it off one more time.
As if trying to meet the demands of such a hectic schedule weren't enough, anyone will tell you that driving anywhere in the Midwest during the winter can be an "iffy" proposition. I can't tell you how many times I literally willed that cumbersome old station wagon through snowstorms, sleet, ice and any combination thereof.
Without question, the scariest moment we ever encountered was when we were returning from the Windy City late at night. By the time we reached Prairie du Chien, the road had turned into a skating rink. A trip that normally lasted less than an hour took nearly three hours as I "slipped and slided" along at about 3 miles per hour. With each rotation of the tires, I was convinced the end was near and it was only a matter of time before we hurtled over a cliff to our death - on Christmas no less. Fa, la, la, la, la.
Through the grace of the Christ child (no other explanation is viable), I made it somehow, and I can recall my hands being cramped into claw-like shapes as I peeled them off the steering wheel. Bah humbug indeed.
So here's my advice for this Christmas: Don't put any pressure on your kids or loved ones to "make it home for Christmas." Give them a break. Consider all they have to go through, and the risks they have to take, to make it to Grandma's house. Be flexible, and use some common sense. Perhaps an alternate date would be more suitable - and safer.
To be sure, it's always fun to celebrate Christmas with those you care about most, but it's a lot more enjoyable if you're alive.