Christmas joy delivered in a brown paper bag

This simple symbol of giving stands out like a sentinel in the flood of unforgettable memories from bygone Christmases

The school Christmas concert was an unparalleled event at the time — with the last item topping all the rest on the program schedule.

Santa Claus followed by his elves (the chair of the school board and trustees) stomped in from outside, brushing off the snow and cleaning their boots, making us shiver not only because of the blast of the frigid night air that accompanied them but also the anticipation of what was to follow.

The boisterous Santa Claus parade with bells tinkling wended its way through the tiny cloak room, which was also the entrance to the school, carrying a giant red sack with small brown paper bags — one for every child in attendance.

Our benefactors spent one whole evening bagging the treasures.

The room was electric. All eyes focused on the school’s Saint Nick clad in farmer’s overalls and a red cap, followed by his brownies dressed in similar attire.

The group strolled around, squeezing between chairs in the narrow aisles of the over-crowded room, handing out small bags — gently to the little ones but in baseball-like fashion to the boys in the back row, making sure not to miss anyone.

Most parents had already given strict orders to their children not to open the bags until they got home.

Mayhem prevailed — orange peels, apple seeds, peanut shells, candy wrappers and crumpled paper bags were soon littered everywhere. I eagerly clutched the bag passed to me by one of the cherubs and crushed it to my heart.

The Christmas concert was the highlight of the school year. In the one-room school setting, it was obvious the teacher had spent a lot of time planning and preparing for this event.

Viewing it now from my own teaching experience, I perceive that many of the activities achieved the objectives required by the curriculum. Language arts were emphasized — the students memorized recitations and performed character parts in dramas. In the process, they learned about public speaking and participated in choir practice with the final production performed before an appreciative audience.

As well, art was emphasized with the students responsible for decorating the Christmas tree and making wreaths and garlands.

Every Christmas, we pulled names to determine who was buying presents for whom. The gifts were placed underneath the Christmas tree, to be handed out later after the concert. The hardest part was keeping a secret from the person whose name you had. I remember one year when I had my brother’s name. He couldn’t wait to tell me “I knew it.”

When the long-awaited night arrived, the pre-school children nestling against their parents were charmed by the sights, sounds and smells all around us all. The Christmas tree in the corner was decked with ornaments, tinsel and garlands and had a sparkling star at the top. The smell of fresh pine wreaths filled the room. The multi-coloured-papered boxes sat beneath the tree, and the sweet voices of children singing filled the air as the schoolchildren performed the Nativity — strolling back and forth on the stage, changing props as the scenes required. They moved from the angels speaking to Mary, to Joseph, and the shepherds, and ending with the culmination of everyone gathered around at the manger when the wise men appear with their gifts. The performance concluded with the song Silent Night.

A small community, like the one I grew up in, needed get-togethers like this to stay in touch. The warm handshakes, hugs, sharing, chatting and handing out cards and home-made gifts were important to us. Parents and older siblings watched with pride as the youngsters performed. Thunderous clapping followed.

After the gift exchange, all of those at the event waited for the final episode of the program when all the kids would get their brown bags. The uproar with high fives was unforgettable when the last child got his.

After that it was time to go home. We dressed in our winter gear and Mother wrapped us in warm blankets as we made our way by horses and sleigh, waving good-bye and calling out “Merry Christmas” to everybody.

I clutched my special gift, struggling to keep warm in the frosty night air.

To the sound of the harness bells shaking and the clumping of the horses’ hoofs on the snowy road, pleasant thoughts overwhelmed me because soon we would be home and I would open my brown bag. I daydreamed of eating the delightful treats — a sweet and juicy orange, an apple, roasted peanuts, hard candy cane and a chocolate bar. I would munch a few morsels at a time just to make it last and then would hide the remaining confections lest somebody discover them. And they often did.

Christmas reminiscences linger; they are timeless.

The local country schoolhouse is no more and most of the community members have passed on. Special activities from those Christmases so long ago stand out — the exchange of gifts, the drama and musical performances, the decked out classroom and the accompanying electrifying atmosphere. The ending was sweet — the brown paper bag distribution by our own Santa Claus.

This symbol of giving, as the story of Christmas implies, stands out like a sentinel in the flood of unforgettable memories.

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