The First Christmas I Can Remember

A grandfather clock chimed, echoing through the cold, empty air. The twelve rings bounced throughout the Gallagher household, marking midnight, Mountain Standard Time. In particular, the noise reached the sleeping consciousness of three boys, curled up underneath their quilts. Patrick, the youngest of the three, turned, gripping his teddy bear tighter, almost as if it would ward off the pervasive cold of the December night. Only the grandfather clock stood vigilant, announcing the hours for ears that were not there, that is until the hour hand struck five. In the blink of an eye, the three boys, Donald, Francis, and Patrick dashed out of their room and down the stairs. Donald swung around the banister and gained some extra speed, enabling him to reach the radio first. Suddenly, the chime of jingle bells and Burl Ives’ soothing voice flooded through the Gallagher household, rushing through the hallways and bursting into rooms. The radio, tuned in to a local station, belted out “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, one of the few songs the boys knew word for word. The three began to sing boisterously and clasped their hands together, turning circles in the center of the open kitchen. Dr. Gallagher, the father of the three boys, groggily entered the kitchen, a look of complete confusion of his face. Equally unrested, Mrs. Gallagher advanced down the hallway and stopped next to her husband, giving him a humorous glare. 

Dr. Gallagher had the strict belief that Christmas songs and Christmas tradition of all forms were to begin on December 1st and not a second earlier. Ever since Thanksgiving, the boys had been counting down, almost minute by minute, to the time when they would be allowed to fully embrace the holiday spirit. Throughout the night, the boys had tossed and turned and their early waking time reflected their immense excitement. The boys’ jubilant mood was infectious and Mrs. Gallagher began to sing along, working her way around the boys to fetch an egg carton from the refrigerator. 

Patrick broke off from the dancing troupe and ran to his mother as she set the egg carton down on the countertop, eager to help. Mrs. Gallagher began cracking eggs into a bowl, handing Patrick a whisk and motioning for him to stir. As he was stirring, Patrick inquired, “Mom, can I open the first present?”

“Maybe,” she responded, “I’ll decide tonight.” 

Patrick groaned, “But Mom, that’s hours away!”

“And the time will pass quickly at school,” she said firmly, ending the conversation. 

Patrick slowed his stirring and bowed his head, visibly downtrodden. Mrs. Gallagher glanced to the side, smiled, and shook her head. She was quite familiar with the volatile nature of her children’s emotions and knew that Patrick would find it quite difficult to remain dispirited. True to her suspicions, Patrick’s smile returned after he rejoined his siblings’ Christmas chorus. After the boys had eaten, Patrick, Donald, and Francis proceeded upstairs to brush their teeth and prepare for school. Twenty minutes later, the three bounded through the doorway, backpacks swinging wildly as they ran for the car. Donald reached the door first and stopped, taking in a deep breath and releasing it slowly through his mouth. Each set of eyes locked upon the cloud of condensation and there was a brief stunned silence. Never had the boys failed to be amazed by the effect that their warm breath had upon the freezing air. All of the boys took turns inhaling and exhaling until their mother allowed them entrance into the car. On the ride to school, Donald, Francis, and Patrick giddily discussed the numerous Christmas traditions that would begin that day or were soon to come. 

One of which involved 24 Christmas books, each encased in wrapping paper. Mr. and Mrs. Gallagher had collected many Christmas books over the past few years and each night, allowed one of the boys to uncover a book. For the majority of the year, these books were placed into a translucent, green bin that was stored in the basement with the other green Christmas bins proudly color-coded by Mrs. Gallagher. On the first day of December, She would bring each box upstairs and stack them against a wall near the master bedroom. A busy schedule prevented her from unpacking and decorating on the first day of December. Usually, she would wait until the first weekend of December and stacking the boxes near her room was a helpful reminder to devote the next weekend to decorating. 

The boys returned home from school late, held back by their basketball practice. They quickly slipped out of the car, cheeks flushed with both cold and excitement. The sky was dark and the boys knew that their bedtime was steadily nearing. Patrick counted the hours, calculating how much time until the first present would be opened. Donald’s thoughts flitted to and fro, between the small amount of homework that he had and the Christmas bins leaning against the wall. Francis eagerly planned his route, attempting to find the best way to complete his tasks in the smallest amount of time. The keys jangled in the lock and the children were off, shooting down the hallway and dropping their backpacks near the dedicated homework table located to the left of the kitchen peninsula. Each boy quickly went about his tasks. When the time for dinner came, they scarfed down everything, even their vegetables! A short time later, the boys’ mother walked into the family room. She announced, “If you go put on your pajamas and brush your teeth, we can open the first present.”

Donald, Francis, and Patrick lept up from their card game and rushed upstairs. Mrs. Gallagher walked softly behind them, fetching the bin containing the Christmas books. She brought the bin into the family room and set it down on the couch. Inside, 24 rectangles of wrapping paper sat, each leaning upon the other. After a minute of relative silence, Patrick came skidding around the stairway corner and bounded into the family room. He aimed his bright eyes up at his mother and rapidly asked, “Can I open the first one?” 

“No! I want to open it!” exclaimed Francis as he stumbled around the corner, his slippers failing to gain traction on the tile floor.

“Wait!” Donald cried as he joined the fray, “I’m the oldest. We should start with me and go, me, Francis, and Patrick.”

“Hey, hey calm down,” Mrs. Gallagher ushered, “Patrick asked me this morning if he could open the first book. Donald, you can have the one tomorrow night.”

Donald and Francis looked down dejectedly while Patrick triumphantly sprang into action. He examined the many sizes, colors, and patterns of the books, trying to deduce which book was which. Dr. Gallagher rounded the corner and walked into the room just as Patrick abandoned his search, unable to discern any significant difference, and selected at random. The three lamps in the room shined down upon the ripped paper as it drifted to the ground, casting unnatural shadows across the carpet. At long last, the first book of the month was revealed. The three boys were disappointed to find that it was not one of their favorites, but they still began to buzz with excitement as Dr. Gallagher sat down on the carpet, his back leaning against the couch. Patrick huddled up to his left and Francis huddled up to his right while Donald climbed onto the couch and lay down, looking over his father’s left shoulder. Dr. Gallagher began, “‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” 

Midway through the story, Patrick was struck by unexpected thought. It was most certainly related to his viewing of The Santa Clause during the last Christmas season, wherein Patrick got a detailed glimpse into the life of Santa. The thought was Santa spends his entire life making presents for other people. But he doesn’t ever get any presents for himself! Does he even know that we appreciate his presents? For some inexplicable reason, this concept shocked Patrick’s entire being. He was stunned, unable to comprehend such a sudden and drastic shift in perspective. Before he could recover, Dr. Gallagher had closed the book and stood up, motioning the boys up toward their bedroom. Patrick followed the other two in a daze, not knowing how he found himself lying in his bed, teeth brushed and pajamas on. It would be a long time before he finally fell into an uncomfortable, restless sleep. 

For almost a week, Patrick seemed to forget his small revelation. The next morning, bleary-eyed, Patrick shuffled downstairs, struggling to remember what he had forgotten. Already eating breakfast, Donald and Francis sang and hummed along to Christmas carols, overjoyed to find that the previous day had not been a mere dream. The Christmas spirit flooded over Patrick’s weary body and, newly energized, he sat down to eat. As he went through his week, Patrick’s subconscious mulled upon his thought, turning it over and examining it relentlessly. It wasn’t until the first Sunday of December had come to a close that an idea struck him that, in hindsight, should have been immediately obvious. Excitedly, he spoke aloud to his brothers, sleeping beside and above him. 

“We should make Santa a present,” Patrick remarked.

“What?” Francis responded, turning in the bed opposite to face him.

“You know… just something… ‘cause he gives us presents,” Patrick finished quickly, unexpectedly flustered. 

“That could be cool!” Donald spoke up from the top bunk and Patrick heard a shifting above him as Donald stuck his head over the edge. 

“What would we even do?” reproached Francis.

The other two fell silent, obviously taken aback by Francis’ harsh tone. “I mean, we don’t have any money, and Mom doesn’t like spending money, so she won’t buy anything for us,” Francis deliberated. A short period of silence ensued as each boy contemplated their options. After an awkward minute, Patrick sparked to life. 

“We could make a pop-up book!” he exclaimed passionately. Stunned at first by Patrick’s volume, Donald and Francis took a moment to think. Eventually, Donald responded.

“Well, we have some project-thingie books,”  he started, growing steadily more confident as he continued, “And we have a bunch of other pop-up books to look at! Also, we’ve got the light table to trace things!”

“Yeah, Yeah!” Patrick agreed fervently. A small sigh to Patrick’s left told him that Francis had conceded defeat and, in the light cast by the night light on the nightstand between the two beds, Patrick glimpsed a small smile on his face. Afterward, nobody spoke, granting the idea a certain sense of finality, and, during the rest of the project, the boys would not be swayed from their decision. 

The following morning, they began to scheme and shoot ideas off each other. In between bites of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Donald gave his suggestion. 

“Why don’t we have Santa in it? We could make him the pop-up,” he offered with a slight shrug. 

“How are we going to make it?” Francis interrupted, clearly having regained his composure overnight. He brought up a valid point, but one that Patrick had already considered.

“A Schwan’s box. Look.” He stood up, setting his spoon down in his bowl, and, with a flourish, pointed at a cardboard box lying in a bin next to the refrigerator. Schwan’s frozen food was a staple in Gallagher breakfasts, and the most recently emptied box of french toast sticks was tucked away in Mrs. Gallagher’s makeshift recycling bin.

Donald quickly caught onto Patrick’s train of thought and he swiveled in his chair to face his mother. “Mom, when is the next delivery truck gonna come?” The other two pairs of eyes and ears shifted toward their mother’s voice, hungrily hanging upon her next words.

“It should be in two weeks,” Mrs. Gallagher replied, then asked, “What do you need it for?” 

Unable to contain his pride, Patrick burst out, “I had the idea that we should make a present for Santa because he makes them all and never gets any for himself!” After his quick statement, Patrick blushed and slumped down in his chair, embarrassed at how silly the idea had seemed when he vocalized it to an adult. 

“Well, you’ll just have to wait until the 22nd to start,” Mrs. Gallagher stated plainly. Patrick seemed to sink even further into his chair. Donald and Francis both had expressions of disappointment on their faces, realizing that with only 2 days to work, they may be unable to complete their project.

“But, we can put up Christmas lights and set up the front table this weekend,” Mrs. Gallagher added. At this, the three boys appeared to be rejuvenated and a buzz of excitement filled the room. The first to finish, Donald snatched his bowl and hurried to place it in the dishwasher, running upstairs before his brothers, who were just seconds behind. 

As Donald ran upstairs to brush his teeth, he gazed at the railing and was reminded of how grand the house would look with the many-colored lights lining the lawn. He was especially excited to hang icicle lights from the lip of the roof, something the family had been unable to do last year. Instead, the family would line their lawn with multi-colored Christmas bulbs on stakes, which, because of their non-elevated nature, the three children could help to set up. The railing itself would be covered with a spiraling, artificial garland that would cast a whimsical illumination into the upstairs hallway during December nights. 

Also reminiscing, Francis finished breakfast, then ran to look at the front hall table. It was a rectangular wooden table that stood next to the left of the stairway and pressed against the short wall perpendicular to the stairs. For each holiday season, Mrs. Gallagher prepared a small display to place upon that table, “It’s mainly for guests and the kids,” she would say. However, Mrs. Gallagher found much more enjoyment in the arrangement than anyone else. In a conversation years later, she would tell Patrick,  “When I walked in the door and saw my beautiful holiday table, so much stress just vanished,” she emphasized with a gesture. This was perhaps true for all seasons but Christmas, which happened to be the boys’ favorite display. The table was to be covered in a bright white tablecloth and filled with many singing snowmen from the Hallmark collection. The boys would spend hours pressing the buttons, watching the snowmen dance, and then singing along with the snowmen. Each year, it was the single thing that the boys were most excited for. 

The arrival of the snowmen and the lengthy process of setting up Christmas lights did wonders to shorten the wait before the next Schwan’s delivery. In fact, the boys had nearly forgotten about their project until the delivery man was struggling to ring the doorbell with the many boxes under his arms. Mrs. Gallagher graciously thanked the man, all while holding back the children, who were itching to see their selection of boxes. She carefully helped the man unload, handing two boxes to each boy, who placed them on the counter and waited in excited silence for their mother to return.

Once she returned, Mrs. Gallagher began to unload one of the boxes, placing the packaged food into the freezer. She handed the emptied box to Donald, who rushed it into the boys’ playroom adjacent to the kitchen. There, he set it down onto a small art table. The table held compartments of colored pencils, crayons, and markers and in the center, a large, back-lit, translucent plastic square rested, used primarily for tracing. The boys scrambled to get started, pulling blank pieces of paper from one drawer and scissors from another. Once they had all of their supplies prepped, they hosted a quick planning session.

“Okay,” Patrick began, “We have to have a pop-up of Santa, and what about his sleigh?”

“I can do that,” Francis piped up, “Also, we could make it full of presents, like in the Polar Express!”

“You know,” Donald jumped in, “We need an elf to help Santa.” After a brief pause to think, he continued, “We should each do one of the three pop-ups.”

“I’ll do Santa,” Patrick said with a prideful edge, “I am the best at drawing people.” While by no means was Patrick a remarkable talent, Donald and Francis both recognized the truth, nodding in agreement. With only two days, the boys set to work, drawing several concept sketches for the design of the characters and the composition of the scene. With a fiery motivation, the boys whipped out pencils, drawing the outlines for their pieces. Patrick sat at the art table, expertly coloring with a red crayon. Donald and Francis sat opposite each other at the homework table, trading colored pencils in a flurry.

After an hour of hard work, Patrick emphatically placed his finished piece next to the others, lying side by side on the homework table. Donald produced the Schwan’s box from the underside of the table and hurriedly placed it behind the Santa, elf, and sleigh drawings. Almost without words, Donald rushed off to write a letter to accompany the present while Patrick and Francis put the finishing touches on the pop-up. With their work completed, the boys placed the present underneath the Christmas tree. The next morning, the boys awoke and engaged in excited discussion until a call from their parents notified them to leave their room. The boys stumbled over each other in frenzied excitement and accidentally barricaded the door. After shifting several items aside, they rushed downstairs to find their parents awaiting them. The children stood stupefied, gawking at the empty space where the present used to be. The grandfather clock chimed once more, the only witness to its mysterious disappearance.