Written by Meghan Barnes
The saccharine movies that have besieged my Prime Video account remind me of the time my mother-in-law loaned me a Hallmark Christmas book for some light reading over the holidays. I got five pages in before giving up, thinking, I could make a living writing better stories than these! I have some Christmas memories up my sleeve worthy of Hallmark debut. For example, the time my family Christmas’d in a snow-covered, Connecticut hamlet just 30 minutes outside of Manhattan; or the time we drove to a fancy ski hovel in rural Vermont, and I found a hidden door inside the master closet; maybe our second tour of NYC when we wore our fanciest duds to Radio City Music Hall and dined at an expensive French restaurant; or the time I visited Fenway Park and was given a tour by a gorgeous, merry young gentleman who might have been good old Kris Kringle himself!
Poking around campus, I found a few Hillsdale College employees whose Christmas stories, past and present, have the humor and depth to outpace Hallmark specials any day.
Dr. Collin Barnes, associate professor of psychology (aka my husband): Every Christmas, after camping out on the floor of my older brother’s bedroom and opening gifts as a family in our Texas home, we’d load up our Toyota Previa and drive to my grandparents’ house in Arkansas to celebrate with cousins, uncles, and aunts. The meal seemed to cover an endless expanse, while in reality, it was only my grandparents’ modestly sized kitchen counter. Afterwards we’d open gifts and then go play outside in the cold. Later we’d come back for dessert—usually a second helping. Nowadays, my wife and kids and I annually go to a local tree farm to pick out our Christmas conifer. We walk around, trip over stumps and thistle, and eventually, there it is—surrounded by a light from heaven, like in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I saw the tree down, grab it by a bottom branch, and begin dragging it back to the van, where we clumsily tie it down with spare twine from the bailer. There’s always the question of whether it’ll make the trip home without sliding off. Once we get the green, sticky beast in the front door, it’s time for Christmas music, cocktails, and decorating. In our tree, I see my childhood again, and in my childhood traditions, I was without knowing it anticipating my fatherhood.
Brock Lutz, director of Health Services: A tradition that my wife started many years ago has become one of my favorite things about the Christmas season. We wrap up 25 Christmas books, mostly kids’ books, and then we have an advent calendar that is six feet tall, and we fill it with candy. Some of our favorite books are: Christmas Day in the Morning, Mortimer’s Christmas, The Gift of the Magi, The Story of Jonathan Toomey, and The Story of Little Christmas. Each day, we read from an advent devotional by Paul Tripp, unwrap one of the books and read from it, and then everyone gets chocolate—as long as they behave during the story. We have often had college students or other family members over during this time, and it’s just a very wonderful time each evening to come together, reflect on what this season is really about, and pause, not just on Christmas morning, but for the whole month.
Angie Pytel, visiting lecturer in biology: On December 2, 2020, my Grandma Mac would have been one hundred years old if she were still living. What I remember most about my grandma besides her unwavering support and love, is how she made every Christmas special. It was full of magic, fun, and an unbelievable number of presents. Her living room would be layered with beautifully wrapped presents for me and my four cousins. The tiers of presents, in her mind, symbolized her love for all of us. Little did she know that while those presents were supremely important to tiny me, they became less and less so as I grew up. I realized at about age twelve that what made Grandma Mac the best grandma ever was her intellect and passion. Talking to her about family, politics, religion, and my aspirations were impactful on my confidence as a young woman. Above all, she loved with every fiber of her being. And lucky me, I was one of the things she loved.
Dr. Sherri Rose, associate professor and chair of French: One of my favorite Christmas memories from childhood was making gifts for my parents and siblings. The weekend after Thanksgiving all six of us would pile in our van and drive to Michaels craft store to pick out art projects to make for one another. I remember sneaking through the aisles, trying to be sure no one caught a glimpse of what I was planning. Some projects turned out better than others, but the time and love invested into each one made them special. One “ugly ornament” my sister painted inspired a game we played for years of trying to hide it in the tree. She always found it and moved it front and center. Last year, my parents passed back to me a gift I had painted for them when I was fourteen. It was a snowman and snowwoman snuggling together. As I reexamined the glittering piece of pottery, I discovered I had written in pencil on the bottom, “To my parents: my role models for what true love is ~1996.”
Dr. Brita Stoneman, lecturer of rhetoric and public address: Christmas was never an extravagant event in our house, though if a stranger were to peek through the window to see the piles of gifts overflowing from under the tree they might believe otherwise. The collection of (probably practical) gifts was moderately distributed, after all, among ten children. Presents were, of course, wonderful, and I still remember opening my VHS copy of Cinderella in total rapture and watching it on repeat one particular Christmas day. Yet, I remember the traditions that took place each and every year more than any particular present: placing my favorite ornament on the tree (a gold and cream cottage that I was certain housed magical creatures), begging anyone to eat the unpalatable (to me) Norwegian rice pudding that had to be finished before moving on to my beloved torsk (cod), which we dipped in individual votive butter warmers, making endless kinds and quantities of Christmas cookies, attending midnight mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral despite not being Catholic, and waking up on Christmas morning to a crowded house, gifts, the smells of breakfast rolls, and the excitement of a day filled with games and time spent together.
Dr. Jordan Wales, associate professor of theology: The prospect of Christmas gifts stirred in me feelings both prayerful and acquisitive. Thus while at church on Christmas morning at age twelve, I prayed to God for a Nintendo Entertainment System by rolling my eyes repeatedly to shape the letters NINTENDO throughout Mass. At age eleven, I really wanted a Playmobil pirate ship but was disappointed to receive only a pirate, and on a keychain at that. Still, when my mother urged us to gather around the creche to sing hymns of thanksgiving for our gifts, I stirred up my devotion to do just that. When, beneath Jesus’ manger, there was discovered a small piece of paper instructing me to find a pirate ship in the laundry room dryer, I was both overjoyed and relieved.
Meghan Barnes is the managing editor of the Student Stories Blog and has worked in publishing since graduating with her MA in Journalism from University of Oklahoma in 2003. She lives in Hillsdale with her three daughters, three pets, and husband, Dr. Collin Barnes.
Published in December 2020