My children were six and eight years old the Christmas that stands out from all others. Having moved from Florida to Virginia just one year previously, we were still in the infancy stage of making new friends and creating a new life for our family. In an attempt to combine the old with the new, we had invited my mother and stepfather from Maryland and two of my brothers from Florida to spend Christmas Day with us, and had been invited to some friends' house for food and festivities Christmas afternoon.
Christmas Day had been planned to begin with our traditional attendance at the Midnight Mass at the local
Catholic church, after which we would rush home, tuck the children into bed and say good night to Mom and John. Then would begin the process of unearthing, wrapping, and decorating the living room under the Christmas tree. Our pictures snapped and our house secure, we wearily tucked ourselves into our warm cozy bed. The clock on the night stand displayed 2:15 a.m.
I quickly fell into a light sleep, preparing myself for the inevitable pre-dawn exclamations from my little ones. I was not awakened by little feet or little voices or loud voices of fighting or any of the things I would have expected to awaken me. Instead, at just a little past three, I was awakened by ... silence - the deafening silence of power failure. Not able to sleep, I lay there wondering when the power would return. Before the sun came up, my children obliged me with their enthusiastic realization of the long awaited day. Stumbling in the pitch black toward the room where the lighted Christmas tree was supposed to greet them, they stopped cold. There was nothing -nothing but darkness.
"Mommy! Daddy!" they cried as they ran and jumped on our bed. Taking them by the hands, I led them back down the hall to the kitchen. There I lit several candles and placed one in each room. Their light cast a beautiful, quiet, almost solemn glow over the many treasures beneath the Christmas tree.
"Before the adults get up, let's make some breakfast," I said. Together we gathered pots, pans and other supplies and descended into the basement. By the time the others began to come to life, we had coffee, hot tea, hot chocolate, blueberry pancakes (made from blueberry muffin mix), eggs and bacon, all prepared on the woodstove. Before going upstairs to eat, I started a huge pot of chicken stew and left it simmering next to the coffee on the woodstove. The adults were thankful for the food and drink and the children were caught up in the spirit of our "Little House on the Prairie" type Christmas.
Where we live in Gloucester we are on well water. This means that when there is no electricity, the pump does not work. My husband decided to go out to fill a couple of coolers with fresh water from a local natural spring. The spring is about 10 miles from our house and since our friends live on the way, my husband stopped to see whether they might like to go get water as well.
At their house he was greeted with a miserable sight. Since nearly all of Gloucester had lost power, they, like many others, were dealing with a freezing house on Christmas morning. The children wanted to have Christmas - their excitement kept them warm. Their mother wanted hot coffee - she tried fruitlessly to heat a cup of instant coffee with a candle. Their father wanted to stay in bed and wait until the house was warm before dealing with Christmas. The children had tried to start a fire in the fireplace. Since nobody had opened the flue, the house began to fill with smoke. Their less-than-thrilled father flew out of bed and opened all the doors. He tried to retrieve the logs from the fireplace and in so doing burned the carpet. Everyone was in a lousy mood.
"Come over to our house," James invited. "It's warm and Judy has plenty of food and coffee." Not yet dressed, they accepted the invitation but said they would have to take their time getting there. My husband noticed that their youngest, then nine, was not looking well. "What's wrong with Adam?" he asked. It turned out that Adam was running a high fever. My husband scooped him up and brought him back to our house. I tucked him into bed and gave him Tylenol and a glass of water. He quickly fell asleep in the warm bed.
An hour later, when my husband returned with the water and the rest of our friends' family arrived, we all settled down to enjoy the Christmas Day - so different from the one planned and yet the best Christmas ever. Gifts under the tree are wonderful, fun and exciting, but the gift of warmth, hot food and drink on a freezing day, and the gifts of compassion and caring for those less fortunate are the gifts we all too often take for granted. Our power was restored around 8 p.m. that Christmas. Our wonderful day ended with a chorus of flushing toilets, running showers and humming electricity. Their Christmas carol is the one I will always recall each Christmas Eve during Midnight Mass. Our wood stove is always prepared to carry us through the occasional lapse in electrical service and our friends know that there is always a warm welcome awaiting them.