“I hate Christmas in New York.”
My father muttered his message loud enough to be heard. My mother and I looked at each other, neither one of us able to pretend we were shocked by his Scrooge-like attitude. She winked at me.
“No wonder,” she said, sympathetically. Even in the 1950’s, enjoyment of Christmas in the city suffered from too many tourists and too much stress and commercialism. But even though I was a very small child, I knew my father wasn’t referring to the city’s ambience. He wanted to escape the memories of his own childhood in the Parish House of St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. The huge gothic cathedral that so impressed his father, the rector, had somehow robbed my father of a child’s innocent pleasure in the season.
My mother suggested we leave the city and Christmas behind and get outdoors to ski in Vermont. How will Santa Clause find us in Stowe, Vermont? I was distressed to think I might miss out on that very commercialism we were supposedly trying to escape.
“No problem,” my mother assured me. “The further north we go the closer we get to Santa and the easier it is for him to carry things.” She reminded me of the pictures of the ‘jolly old elf’ with a huge bag of toys on his back that no mere mortal could carry very far.
“Who says there are toys in that bag?” My father flashed his mischievous smile. I couldn’t resist rising to his bait just as the panic rose in my throat at the thought of missing out on those gifts.
“What’s in it then, if it’s not filled with toys?” The wobble in my voice gave me away.
“Children!” he exclaimed, clearly relishing my discomfort even in the face of what I knew to be a tease. “He’s delivering little boys and girls to take the places of all the old people. You thought there were toys? Ha! It’s the next generation in there, which is the best gift of all.”
I shook my head, reassured at last that he was just making fun of me. “Oh D-a-a-ddy!” I laughed; “that’s not true. We don’t need any more children anyway.” I was thinking of the competition I already faced in my own family with four older sisters all wanting gifts from Santa at the same time. I wasn’t very competitive by nature and it was a discouraging thought.
A few weeks later found the whole family spending the days leading up to Christmas outdoors in Stowe’s clear, cold air. Actually, the air was more frozen than cold in those days. Many Fahrenheit degrees below Zero were the norm, not the exception. Clothing wasn’t designed specifically for endurance sport, and surviving those Christmases at Stowe in the ‘50’s was a frostbite challenge. ‘My feet are cold’ was the cry most often heard from skiers in short leather boots. The ritual of agonizing warm-ups after the boots came off celebrated the hardiness of the individual in this exclusive club of adventurers. Testing nature was part of the fun, and even though all the difficulties were painful for a child, the heady inclusion in the adult world of skiing made the pain worth suffering. Things could get extreme at forty-below-zero with inadequate protection, but one Christmas in the early ‘50’s proved the most severe test of all.
Late in the afternoon on that frigid Christmas Eve, my father decided to ski over the top of Big Spruce Mountain, around The Lake of the Clouds near the pinnacle and down the other side into Jeffersonville. He convinced my mother to join him, as the ‘buddy system’ was a rule we all adhered to faithfully in those days of isolated crossovers and limited medical emergency help. Naturally I was flattered to be included on the expedition. The weak winter sun disappeared behind Mt. Mansfield by 3:15, and the onset of early darkness pushed 40-below-zero even lower. The lifts closed unexpectedly early due to the temperature and left us stranded with no way to get back home to the other side. It was almost dark, but my father insisted we could ski home safely if we could only get up and over the mountain. A Snow Cat used to transport supplies agreed to take us up. The huge, cumbersome tractor bobbed up and down like a tiny boat climbing fifteen foot swells, almost capsizing over moguls on the narrow trails at the top of the mountain.
Dumped by the Snow Cat at the pinnacle, we were surrounded by the eerie quiet of a mountain after dark, and the birch trees whispered a warning easily heard with no human activity to drown it out. Scared, frozen, and exhausted, I could no longer use my legs to ski. It was the first time in my life I started to doubt my father’s wisdom and omnipotence. Well, we can’t stay here all night, I heard him say from some far-off place. He put me on his back while my mother swung my skis (very heavy in those days) up on her shoulder to follow behind us. This was no small feat as she was not a good skier, so I knew we were now acting in crisis mode.
Inching down the Sterling trail heavily glazed over with ice after dark, I started to lose hope from my vantage point on my father’s back, arms desperately circling his neck. I knew both he and I would probably not survive even one fall. Stopping to rest for a minute and also give my mother a break, he called back to me over his shoulder, how are you doing back there, baby girl? I answered fine; a pathetic lie even to my own ear, so I added, but my feet are cold. He responded in a strong voice, Good; if they’re cold you can feel them. My mother laughed; an odd sound under the circumstances.
“You look like Santa Clause carrying a sack on your back in the dark!” she exclaimed. We all tried to laugh and then started off again.
Finally slipping sideways around a bend in the lower Sterling Trail, I saw lights in the valley below over my father’s left shoulder and took it as a sign we were going to live. We still had a few miles to ski, or more correctly my parents had; but somehow I felt safer just seeing those lights. Suddenly I realized my father’s description of the contents of Santa’s sack had been prophetic; not a fantasy dreamed up to tease. Was he indeed a relative of the ‘jolly old elf’ and that’s why he preferred to be in the North Country at Christmas? He certainly had saved and delivered a child on his back. I thought the events too close to be coincidental.
Now standing in a warmer clime on the same mountain groomed to present day standards of modern impatience and technical incompetence, I hear the same birch trees whispering the same secrets they shared with me when I was a child. When I feel the tingle start in my toes telling me I have cold feet, I’m reminded of that hardy generation of people like the parents I replaced, and I wonder if I’ve lived up to them. ‘We’ are ‘them’ now, and soon ‘others’ will be ‘us’. Is it Christmas that heightens our awareness of the passage? We have no choice but to face it with courage and bring the new recruits in safely on our backs, cold feet or no.
Merry Christmas to you all from Santa Claus and The Unblocked! Writer.
By Sidney S. Stark