Number 29: White Christmas by Bing Crosby

34 street lights

For this classic, I share with you a story I wrote in 2000 that was published in Baltimore’s Child. Enjoy!

Electric Christmas, by Rus VanWestervelt

Copyright 2000

It is the last Friday in November, just after our dinner of leftovers and well after sunset. We leave the house with food still on our plates, lights left on. We have little time left.

“Hurry,” I say to them. “Into the car! We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Did I remember the tapes? Oh no! Don’t tell me I forgot the tapes!” My wife double-checks our daughter’s booster seat belts, then double-pats her coat pocket with confidence.

“I have both of them, right here. Let’s go.”

Always a step ahead of me; thank goodness!

She slides into the seat next to Holland Grace’s booster, shuts the door tightly, and straps herself in. I turn over the motor and adjust the rearview mirror. My wife and I lock eyes.

“Ready?”

She nods, and Holland confirms our status. “Let’s Go, Daddy!”

I ease out of the driveway, synchronously getting a tape in handoff from my wife and inserting it into the player. The leader tape seems interminable.

“Daddy? Time yet?”

Just then, the leader ends, and Bing Crosby’s silky voice stills the air. “I’m dreaming, of a White Christ-mas….”

A chorus of sighs fills the car, and we are on our way.

No, we’re not the Von Trapp Family Singers fleeing our homeland; we’re just a Baltimore family continuing our own holiday tradition, taking to the streets and looking for beautiful displays of lights and seasonal celebrations while our daughter “oohs” and “aahs” as we pass by your creations.

When I was just a bit older than Holland, who is now four, I would come downstairs from my bedroom long before daybreak replaced the streetlights in Towson, and I would wake my sister–six years my elder–with a gentle nudge and a flashlight pointed in her eyes.

“Cindy, are you awake?”

“No,” she’d grumble. “I’m sound asleep. Now leave me alone before I kill you in my dream.”

“But it’s time for Christmas,” I’d whisper, nudging her again, then peeling up an exposed eyelid and shining in a beam of light in a desperate attempt to wake her.

“No,” she’d say. “It’s time to turn off the flashlight.”

“Then you’ll get up?”

“If it means you’ll stop blinding me.”

“Cindy, it’s Christmas!”

With that said, I’d run down the hall, plug in the tree lights, and kneel before the miracle.

Wow,” I’d whisper. This was the most magical of moments, sitting alone with that illuminated tree and the multicolored wrappings, enveloped in a darkness that sealed the spirit of Christmas all around me. I could not have felt warmer, fuller of that magic.

My memory was not strengthened by what was in those boxes wrapped in the multicolored paper. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name you more than three or four toys I received in all of those childhood Christmas mornings. What I do remember is that first smell of brewed coffee mingling with the scent of the pine cones on the tree; the rustling of wrapping paper  as Dad finished wrapping a few last gifts; Cindy and I touching each package, shaking them gently and deciding which  we’d open first and which seemed mysterious enough to open last; our dog Toby sniffing out his own stocking filled with puppy crackers. These memories of Christmas mornings  never seemed to change because this was our tradition.

Years may pass, but traditions stand the test of time. One Christmas, my sister gave me a game called “Operation,” and we thought we were on the cutting edge of space-age technology. This year, I’d like to finally return the favor and give her a virtual surgery game that puts the scalpel in your hand and lets you know if you’ve removed the wrong organ and have sent the patient into V fib. Not that there’s anything wrong with this change in what’s under the tree. We were in as much awe with an electronic board game as we are now with a virtual computer game.  But let’s face it. Gifts break, small parts disappear, and the novelty loses its luster after the lights have been taken down and the tree has been tossed on the corner for recycling.

Traditions don’t break down or lose their parts or dull over time. That’s what makes them traditions, and they end up being the greatest gifts we can pass along to our children.

When I knelt down before that great, plastic, flame-retardant tree as a child on Christmas morning, I wasn’t thinking too consciously about what it all meant. I was too overwhelmed. Rather, I thought nothing but felt everything. It was in me, radiating as much inside as outside, an electric glow which would remain forever that, someday, I would share with my own family.

As adults, we all share these memories with the ones we love. We sit over a cup of coffee or we lie in bed a few minutes longer in the morning and ask what Christmas was like as a kid. He might say it was the memory of feeling a bit older with his dad when they would go to cut down a tree, always on the second Sunday in December. She might say it was trying to stay up all night with her older brother every Christmas Eve to hear Santa rustling through his sack downstairs and drinking the soured milk that had been sitting out for hours.

It’s that electric glow that we remember, a tradition that our parents and family either continued or created for us in childhood.

Wow….”

I adjust the mirror in the car to look at my daughter, eyes wide open, a finger touching the window as she points out another display to her mom. “Bee-Youtiful!” she says, a duet with Crosby, both of them crooning in the back seat.

So, this is our tradition. Every night following Thanksgiving, we take a drive to look at the lights that all of you string up around your trees, your houses, your lamp posts. We look at the brilliant displays of candy canes and holly bushes and snowmen, and then we’ll head down to Baltimore’s own 34th Street, where miracles and holiday spirits (not to mention electric bills) could never be greater.

And as each night’s route becomes longer and more fulfilling than the previous evening’s drive, we hear from the back seat of our car—over and over again—that unmistakably wondrous whisper of a child experiencing yet another magical discovery, the sound of a child beaming electric inside and out, the sound from which traditions are born.

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4 thoughts on “Number 29: White Christmas by Bing Crosby

  1. What a wonderful story. I love family traditions. We have several of our own that the three of us partake in every year and I can only hope that my daughter takes these when she moves away and makes them her very own.

    White Christmas, as sung by Bing, of course, is such a beautiful song. It has just a slight bit of melancholy to it that appeals to me. Of all the Christmas songs I love, this one is probably the one I find myself singing the most throughout the holiday season.

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  2. With teary eyes, I’ll just say a humble thank you. Thank you for my walk down memory lane…through the sights and sounds that use to fill me with complete bewilderment at Christmas time. Sometimes during all the hustle and bustle and commercialism of what is called the holiday season, one often forgets the simplier things in life that made us smile. My parents were never much into heavily decorating with all the colored lights. Things were kept very simple with white candles in the windows, a wreath on the front door, and fresh pine branches around the mantle. And lets not forget the pine center piece in the middle of our dining room table with 4 candles… each one waiting to be the next one lit during the 4 Sundays of Advent. Sunday nights before Christmas, gathered as a family to light a candle, giving praise and singing a few Christmas carols, followed by getting to eat some of the 15 different kinds of cookies my mom would bake. And then there was the tree. It had to be live and could only have white lights again.. not to mention a few scarey real lit candles (thats another story in itself). As a child we never saw our Christmas tree until it was revealed on Christmas Eve night, after midnight church service, and only after Krist Kringle had come and gone. You see, my parents grew up during the war in Germany. My mother never wanted colored lights because they reminded her of the threat of an incoming bomb from the night sky. They could only use dim light blue lights that couldnt not be seen from the planes flying overhead. Something I could never really grasp since we have never had to live through it. Things were simple; food, money for toys, and decorations were scarce. What little they did have was homemade. But my mom said the house was always filled with love and music. They celebrated not only the birth of Christ but also the thankfulness that they had a roof over their heads and the family was still all together. As I now have a child of my own,we have started new traditions. Putting out reindeer food with glitter on the sidewalk on Christmas Eve night, driving to Carney to see the biggest light displays in the neighborhood (which sadly arent there anymore), followed by grilled cheese and hot cocoa at the Bel Loc Diner and playing carols from the jukebox and always watching the Muppets Family Christmas movie. But I havent forgotten the Old World traditions instilled in me. We still put our shoes in the window on St. Nicholas Day to be filled with fruit and candy, we still celebrate the 4 Sundays of Advent and we still attend midnight church services and come home to the surprise of the Christmas tree with colorful wrapped packages beneath. I know Ive done the right thing when my son now tells me the thing he likes most about Christmas is the smell and the feeling he gets throughtout the month of December. Its the simplest things he remembers the most.

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  3. Isn’t that true, Carl? So many of the christmas songs have that melancholy. Coming up later in the countdown is “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which I believe Sinatra changed the lyrics to make them more upbeat from what Judy Garland and others had sung for so many years…

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  4. Michele–Now who’s the one with the glassy eyes? My goodness, your stories are touching, sincere, and melancholic with a touch of gold. Thank you for sharing all that you have above–and so eloquently as well. You are a wonderful mom to your son….Keep giving him the opportunities to make wonderful memories in these rather superficial, for-the-moment days…..

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