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Even when we’re young, there is something intrinsically nostalgic about Christmas. It’s in the way the boughs hang from staircases and across mantles, red baubles and plaid bows, and trees lighted like stars glistening by night, and it’s easy, as children, to suspend our worldly beliefs and welcome in a Dickensian realism, if only for a moment. It’s only at Christmas, after all, when we expect the jingle of sleigh bells on rooftops, as we lie anxiously in wait, eyes forced tightly shut and hearts beating apace, in hopes that St Nicholas, like the Wise Men from the East, will bring his own brand of good tidings. As a youngster, rosy cheeked and knee high to a grasshopper, it was my annual Christmas tradition to climb into the Nativity, eye to eye with the Holy Family, at Mrs Jean Sumner’s house, in awe of the Baby Jesus and the hope and wistfulness that only Christmas could bring.
Though our Christmas wish lists inevitably change with time, internally, we still remain the same eager children, with the same joyous hearts and hopes, reliving the same traditions, season after season, until, like magic, they appear in our homes, hearts, and wants during Christmas; a snow on Christmas morning, blanketing the rolling hills in white, that, by its nature, washes away life’s impurities, hearing Bing and Rosemary, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye singing from Pine Tree, Vermont, and attending Midnight Mass with kids and family in tow, knowing that after the carols and the candles, when the doors swing open and your face is kissed by the night’s first chill, it is, at last, Christmas.
Like so many of you, my family have traditions uniquely “Gilreath.” We often find ourselves in the kitchen, making homemade pizza on Christmas Eve, or reminiscing about my sister’s International Santa collection, adding Italy or France or Switzerland to the mix, dreaming of the snow and beauty the Alps might bring. For me, though, there has always been something fundamentally special about being at a familiar church on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning that, no matter what else is going on, sets the holiday right. A hello to church family and a Merry Christmas, all dressed in holiday cues, sure can feel like a Hallmark movie. I seem to have felt that same adoration, even as a child, whether climbing in the nativity, or nudging my great Uncle Foist onward to come see the lighted, plastic miracle of Bethlehem, participating in the church cantata, or, even as an adult, doing the readings at midnight services, with my daughter firmly attached to my leg; a story we still tell, year after year. When they were really young, the girls participated in the cantata themselves, making their acting debuts as two lambs and the donkey, although the donkey was more interested in the Baby Jesus and, then, one suspects, as Mary wouldn’t give way, just leaving all together, nearly taking out the Holy Family and the entire stable set in the process. Now, that’s a memory.
For years of my life, November and December became “Bring the Family” to work months, as the Gilreath clan could be found inside storefront windows in Historic Stearns, or camping out – pallets in the floor – at the McCreary County Museum, as we created Christmas traditions for the community. For us, and we hope others, those are memories long treasured at Store 1, period costumed – hard candy in hand – at the museum, and having the opportunity to visit the North Pole and dance aboard The Polar Express.
In 2016, the year before Polar came to town, I spent my Christmas in 1850, costumed again, and giving tours at Ward Hall Plantation in Georgetown, one of the finest antebellum homes in the South, both before and after the splendor of Christmas. When you’re surrounded by the 19th Century and existing by candles and gaslights, it’s easy to get lost in the moment. Time travel suddenly feels possible and – even if your kids dislike it – you ask, as other people’s children repeatedly take your picture, “what is that strange contraption?”
There’s a song by Rosemary Clooney called “Christmas Mem’ries.” Clooney’s raspy Kentucky voice paints the picture of all the Christmases past, presumably 20th Century, that we miss so dreadfully this time of year. It reminds us of all those Christmas Days as children, packages and bows, Santa Claus and reindeer paws, and when there was no kitchen counter space, as my mother made candies for teachers and mailmen and any assortment of visitors. We did, admittedly, eat our share.
For all of us, throughout the ages, the desire of Christmas will be born of the familiar, time spent in the warmth of home, in the comfortable presence of loved ones, surrounded by memories of yore, and, perhaps, that’s where Christmas will always live best, for the older we get, the lenses of rose-colored glasses fade, revealing a world, as children, we knew not existed, that leaves us to ponder, if it’s not in the innocent hearts and faces of children – be they inside a Nativity in Marshes Siding or anxiously awaiting sleigh bells in Whitley City- that Christmas truly lives.