By TIM BARTO
There are three things my Dad said you can never have too much of: Extension cords, fireworks on the Fourth of July, and lights at Christmas time. The Ol’ Man loved holiday traditions.
Christmas decorating began shortly after Thanksgiving, with hundreds of large, colorful light bulbs lining the rain gutters and house edges, thousands of white twinkle lights adorning trees and shrubs, a life-size Nativity scene on the lawn, and four-foot high letters over each of the four upstairs windows that spelled out NOEL.
Ours was the house people slowed down to look at when driving down Wisteria Way. It was garish and fantastic at the same time.
Mom dedicated at least one full day to baking cookies by the gross and preparing Slovak pastries such as kolache and strudel, the former being dense and rich while the latter was light and flaky.
My parents, in the words of Charles Dickens, knew how to “keep Christmas well,” and Christmas Eve church services – held at midnight – were an integral part of the tradition. Suits and ties for the guys, and fancy dresses and an occasional fur for the gals.
I was 13 years old on Christmas Eve in 1975. My oldest sister, Joni, was 18, and was wearing some type of fur shawl that an overspending boyfriend gifted her in a blatant attempt to impress. We weren’t buying it, as we couldn’t identify the animal from which the garment was fashioned. It was coarse to the touch and difficult on the eyes, but she wore it like it came from Saks Fifth Avenue.
We were walking into church, trying to locate an empty pew to accommodate the seven of us. That wasn’t too difficult, as my parents made sure we were a full half hour early in order to beat those “twice yearly church attenders” that packed the church on Christmas and Easter.
We headed up the aisle, Joni strutting in front for all to admire the as-yet unidentified mammal wrapped around her shoulders, when I heard my name from behind. I looked back and one of my brothers was motioning to stop and backtrack because we had passed a completely empty row that would fit the whole gang.
I whispered “Joni”, but she was oblivious, walking along like she was on a fashion show runway. By instinct, I reached out to grab her and, using my thumb and forefinger, caught hold of the coarse and mysterious fur. Joni kept going full speed ahead and I heard a pop as a chunk of the “fur” pulled out of her shawl.
I was standing there with a chunk of hair in my hand the size of a mouse. Having felt the tug, my sister turned around. “What?” she said, rather annoyed at the interruption to her grand entrance.
I quickly stuffed the splotch of fur into my suitcoat pocket and motioned that we had to go back where our family was sitting. She was oblivious to the naked spot on the back of her shawl, and it appeared no one else noticed either, so it’s been my secret to this day . . . until this article posts.
All was well. The family was situated and ready for carols, candles, and dripping wax. The organist hammered out “What Child Is This?” as we followed along in our hymnals.
Now, truth be told, I was 13 at the time. All I cared about was baseball staying out of trouble. The hours I spent in church were wasted away with daydreams of ninth inning home runs, and sketches of ballparks on the backside of donation cards. I certainly did not memorize hymns. I read the words and mimicked the words silently because no one wanted to hear my cracking voice, least of all me.
Unfortunately, I was paying attention when the following words were sung:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
It hit Joni and me at the same time. Three hundred staid Lutherans just cursed out loud. In church. On Christmas Eve.
My eyes widened and I looked to my left just as my sister realized the same thing. She smiled. I snickered. We both felt the need to laugh aloud, but knew we had to hold it in.
Looking straight ahead now, I held my breath and thought it would be okay, but then turned again to look at Joni. Mouth clenched tight; her cheeks puffed out as her face turned bright red.
And that made me want to laugh even more. In a panicked response, I breathed in, kinda’ like when you fall into cold water. It’s the reaction that leads to drowning when you’re in an icy river, but when you’re in a Lutheran church on Christmas Eve it’s the reaction that get you stern stares from others around you, and a smack upside the head after service. I had to hold it in, or I would ruin Christmas.
In an attempt to suppress a laugh and release breath, lest my lungs explode, the air went through my palate and out my nose. The result was a snort. It wasn’t that loud, but audible enough for Joni to hear. She bit her lip so hard it bled. I looked away, glancing to my right, where I caught my father’s stare.
Again, my eyes bugged, but the need to laugh was gone. I was in for it. I looked back at him, afraid to move, and he motioned with his eyebrows. It was a questioning look, not a “You’re gonna’ get it when we get in the car” look. What could I do? He was four seats away, so I couldn’t very well explain that we just belted out the word “ass” in church.
Then he pulled out his hand from his suitcoat pocket and displayed bunch of walnuts, pecans, and almonds. Then he gave me that questioning look again. He hadn’t heard me snort. He wanted to know if I brought my required share from the nut bowl at home.
You see, it’s this weird tradition that Barto men fill their coat pockets with nuts before leaving the house for Christmas Eve services. It came out of the tales about his brother “Chip” – a burly, blue collar man with a fondness for drink – who would have a few swigs after dinner and be so hungry by the time they left for church that he would take a handful of nuts from the holiday nut bowl and then sit in the back row and crack them with his teeth. He was tough man, my Uncle Chip.
As the legend grew, it became requisite for the Barto boys to follow Uncle Chip’s lead, and Dad now wanted to make sure I was keeping tradition alive.
So, I reached into my coat pocket, grabbed a collection of mixed nuts and a swath of fake fur from my sister’s high fashion, and showed my Dad. He didn’t know what to make of the hair falling from my hands, but he was content to know that I upheld the family tradition.
I wasn’t in trouble after all, and I didn’t ruin Christmas. Joni did. Unable to hold it in any longer, she unbit her lip and exhaled as a high pitched giggle filled the church just as the song ended.
Tim Barto is Vice President of Alaska Policy Forum and President of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks Boosters.