March 26, 2019

Places I’ve Played

A storybook Christmas

Dec. 16, 2010

By Bill Skiff

I lived the storybook Christmas. Our old brick house had three fireplaces — every one big enough for Santa to come down. My bedroom window looked over the roof covering the hired man’s quarters. I knew that roof was big enough to hold Santa, a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.

After the first week in December, Dad would gather up the family and we would head for the sugar bush in search of our tree. We would hike all over until one of us would yell, “There it is!” We would chop it down and drag it home. Our decorations were mostly homemade except for the lights and star, which Mom and Dad purchased during their first year of marriage.

Christmas morning was magical for me. It arrived somewhere between 4:00 and 6:00 depending upon the tolerance of my dad. My brother, sister and I would lie on the floor of the upstairs hallway waiting for dad to yell, “OK, come on down!” We would then tumble down the stairs and burst into the living room. There would be the tree with its lights on, a big fire in the fireplace and, just maybe, that new pair of skis I asked Santa for.

I always left some of Mother’s oatmeal cookies for Santa and loved it when I saw the crumbs he left on his plate. I also left hay and grain in the yard for the reindeer and was amazed they ate it all. One year I’m sure I saw their tracks. Another year, I heard some sleigh bells and a hardy “HO HO HO!” in the yard. I rushed out but Santa was gone. When I came back in Dad was standing in the kitchen wearing his boots all covered with snow. I guess he must have come in from the barn.

After we had opened our presents we jumped into the car and headed over to my Uncle Walt’s house. There, we would exchange presents and have some warm milk and oatmeal. It was always fun to see them and to share the Christmas Spirit. To have two Christmas trees in the same morning was something special.

But that was just the beginning: Soon we would all gather in two cars and head for Burlington to our grandparents’ house on Adams Street. Nana and Pop would have many surprises for us. In the parlor were the Christmas tree and the presents. They had two floor-to-ceiling doors that closed off the living room from the parlor. Pop would not open the parlor doors until after dinner. I always tried to open them when no one was looking, but they were too heavy. I would, however, put my eye to the keyhole and peek in. Dinner seemed to take weeks to finish.

The dinner was good — but I was too excited to enjoy it. Looking back, I do remember three things. First the many pies, at least six or seven different kinds, from apple to banana cream and everything in between. Second, my grandmother’s great pickles — bread and butter, dill, watermelon and even pickled pears. Man, I miss them. And lastly, Nana’s chicken pot pie. The top was covered with baking powder biscuits and in one corner were a half dozen toothpicks sticking up. Under those toothpicks were the choice pieces of white meat. Nana’s favorite. You had better not scoop out any servings from that area until Nana had taken hers. If you did, you would get a lecture on the correct serving of her pie!

Finally, Pop would open the big doors to the parlor and all of us kids would go rushing in. There would be a beautiful tree with presents neatly arranged. What fun to share all this with my siblings, cousins and grandparents.

I can only remember two presents I ever received. One was some railroad stock from my Uncle Will. As a 10-year-old kid, I couldn’t figure out why he gave me a piece of paper rather than something I could use and play with. Twenty years later, I realized what a great present it had been as it was then worth 10 times more. The other gift was a two-gun holster my aunt Ruth gave me. It was a Roy Rogers double pistol set, and man was it beautiful. I slept with it strapped to my hips for at least two weeks.

To know I was cared for by all those people was special. Now that I look back, I was a very fortunate boy to be loved by so many who made Christmas such a memorable time.

Christmas was about more than just getting gifts. My mother was a true believer. She made sure we attended our church events and I knew the Christmas story and the value of giving.

This year I gave my 2-month-old granddaughter in Alaska my Christmas stocking. Mother had bought it for my first Christmas … now, her great-granddaughter will have it for her first Christmas. It has hung in my house for more than seven decades; I smile knowing that when she hangs it up on her 22nd Christmas it will be 100 years old and by then she will have her own Christmas memories to share.

As for my memories of Christmas, at some point in late afternoon Dad would say, “We best be getting home, as chore time is coming up.” When I protested he would say that although the barn had a manger, the cows had not heard the Christmas story and they still needed to be milked on time. I would crawl into the back seat of the old Plymouth and be asleep before we hit Winooski while visions of sugar plums still danced in my head.

I truly was the boy who lived the Story Book Christmas.

Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he will share his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at

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