Not since Charles Dickens' very own pre-spook Ebenezer Scrooge had anyone dreaded the Christmas season the way Pinky Finkelfrack was this year.
For one, every time one of the increasingly frequent military training exercises ripped through the skies over Apache Flats, rattling her windows and knick-knacks, she had to stifle the urge to either fall apart or grab her gun and head for the Middle East.
Christmases had been tough on Hooter McCormick's aunt—his cousin Charlie's mom. It was right around Christmas time in 1944 that she lost her kid brother in the skies over Germany. Then in 1967 just a few days before Christmas, in a roundabout way, another war claimed her husband, Charlie's dad, in a pasture just north of the house. It was a freak accident. A jet involved in a training exercise like the most recent ones lost control and crashed. The pilot ejected safely. No one ever knew where Franklin Finkelfrack had ejected to, but they knew he and his trusty bay mare were no more.
On both counts, for decades, Pinky couldn't help but associate Christmas with her losses. This year was the worst, though. The new war America was engaged in, the new military exercises that Apache Flats witnessed every day, constantly reminded Pinky that others would have to experience the same kind of loss that one could only endure but never get past. That's what made her want to fall apart. The fact that anyone was forced to think of such a thing at the beginning of the 21st century, because of cowards no less, is what made her want to pack a war bag for Afghanistan.
In fact, when Hooter and Charlie kidded around with her one night in October that they might go to the Rio Rojo Halloween Fiesta dressed in turbans and sheets—because they couldn't think of anything scarier, they'd said sincerely—Pinky had picked up a rope she kept handy on the coat rack by the door and did her level best to whip them all the way down the drive. “There's just some things that you don't joke about…You get back here you pig-eyed little polecats…I'm gonna tan your hides…”
For that reason, Hooter had been on the down low since then. He knew Pinky could be slower to forgive than a mistreated horse. He knew that from past experience and because he was just like her.
Tragedies Great and Small
As if that wasn't enough, Pinky was feeling guilty. Even with the serious problems at hand, the nation so unsettled, so many worries, she had to admit that she was still disappointed that her unofficial winning streak in the unofficial annual Christmas decorating contest between her and long-time rival, Nelda Isselfrick, was coming to an end.
For better than seven decades now, Pinky and Nelda had gone head-to-head in everything from pie making, to can chasing, to kid raising. Stories of how each would jockey for an edge over the other were legendary. Watching two Christian ladies—Sunday School teachers and retired grade school teachers, no less—battle with such malicious abandon was in fact one of the unofficial sports of Apache Flats.
Rumor had it that Nelda had wrangled a deal to rent an actual snowmaking machine this year.
“She can make all the snow she wants,” Pinky had said at the weekly Tomahawk Quilters Club when she first heard the news last summer. “Even a blizzard can't cover up bad taste.”
To be fair, Nelda's annual yuletide motif was longer on wattage than aesthetics. There were electric candy canes, strobe light snowmen, electrified elves and even a neon igloo, plus twinkling lights of every hue draped around and over the top of anything that stuck out of the ground. In the center of it all was a plastic nativity scene illuminated day and night with spotlights that could have found a black cow in an oil slick from 100 yards out.
“That old sow, she's just jealous,” Nelda had said with a satisfied smiled upon hearing Pinky's insult at her bridge game the next day. “Let's see what she has to say when it's actually snowing right here in Apache Flats. I'd say her chimney will look pretty small then.”
The chimney in question was a stone-looking monstrosity balanced atop Pinky's Adobe house that had captivated the town when she'd first added it to her growing holiday tableau two years ago. It wasn't just any chimney. Besides being fake, Charlie and Hooter had rigged it so that it looked like there was actual smoke merrily percolating gently from the top, as if the temperature outside was sub-zero rather than in the typical nighttime Texas 30's and 40's. On each side of the chimney, the boys had hollowed out three depressions and attached a large and different colored light bulb in each. “Looks like a stop light for a fruitcake,” is what Nelda had said about it.
Of course, the chimney was just one of Pinky's annual and usually original additions. There were the tastefully decorated artificial evergreens stationed about the yard—constructed with welding rods and strips cut from an old tarp, silhouettes of the nativity scene that could only be seen at night, luminaries lined along either side of the long and winding drive, a giant Christmas star on the side of her barn and lots more. Every year there was something new, never anything taken away. Well, there was the Angel that exploded a few years ago, which was only supposed to trumpet periodic fireworks, but that was just the cost of doing business.
This year, Pinky had set her sights on besting Nelda's snow machine with a living display of the dichotomy between the season and the reason for the season. On one side of her yard, with the nativity silhouettes and Christmas star, she was going to have live animals associated with the nativity, including a couple of camels from near Wichita Falls, which she had already secured. On the other side of the yard, near the blinking North Pole sign, plastic snowmen and Santas, she was going to tether some actual reindeer.
That was the rub. She searched high and low. No reindeer. Or, if she could find them they wouldn't pass health inspection into the state. Hooter had suggested how strapping some roping horns to a Shetland pony might not look all that different in the dark.
Then came September 11. Pinky was feeling bad about Christmas and feeling bad that she was feeling bad for petty reasons mixed in with the good. Thus she declared, “Rudolph be Damned!” she was not decorating this year.
A Different Feeling
“It's just as well,” Charlie told Hooter. “You know this whole affair has been getting out of hand between her and Nelda. Plus, between setting up and tearing down you and me just bought ourselves about four days worth of work we won't have to do.”
“I reckon so,” said Hooter, “But I hate to see her break a streak, especially since part of the reason is that she feels like celebrating this year is in bad taste somehow with everything else going on. I mean it's the least of our worries, but it's what we do. Why should we let some crazies change the way we do business?”
So it had gone from Thanksgiving and through the first three weeks of December: All of Apache Flats agog over Nelda's amazing snow machine, which actually worked, sort of. Nelda cranked it up every night at 6:30. The snow would come blasting out, but it melted in a hurry, never sticking to the ground long enough to have a white Christmas. Pinky putting on a stoic face, miserable all the while, not because of Nelda's success, just miserable, everything feeling all out of kilter to her. Everyone else having the good sense to not say anything about her a.w.o.l. Christmas display, which had been documented by newspapers as far away as Amarillo over the years.
That is, except for Slate. All of 5-years-old and a baby version of what Hooter surely must have been, Slate was Charlie's boy, Pinky's grandson. He'd gone on about his business, making his daily visits to Grandma Pinky's to be babysat, never mentioning a word about the festive display that was so obviously missing this year. That is until December 23.
Sitting in an old chair that seemed to swallow him whole and sucking on a candy cane that looked half his own size, Slate looked at his Grandma looking wistfully out the window.
“Grandma Pinky,” said Slate. “Can we go to church?”
The question visibly startled Pinky for an instant. “Honey, we do go to church. Of course we can.”
“I mean now.”
“You mean you want to go to church right now? There's no service.”
Slate was nodding his little head emphatically. “Now.”
Pinky looked at her watch. “I don't see why not, but what on earth for?”
“Just something I want to see,” said Slate, struggling to buck free of the hungry chair.
Pinky wheeled her Lincoln into the gravel lot of the Rio Rojo United Methodist Church and up to the front door. No one was there but she knew the door was open. The door was always open. Never made much sense to open your arms to the world but lock your front door is how they all looked at it.
Before Pinky could ask Slate if he wanted to go inside, he was already through the door. When she caught up to him he was seated in the front pew, looking up at the sizable stained glass window depicting Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. The late-day sun flooding in made it glow.
“Grandma Pinky,” said Slate. “Don't you believe in God anymore?”
Pinky gasped. “Why of course I believe in God. Why would you ever say such a thing?”
“Well, you don't smile like you used to and you always told me God makes us happy. And you aren't putting any decorations out and you always told me we were supposed to sellbrate Jesus' birthday.”
Just like Hooter, thought Pinky. Come at you head-on, right or wrong. “Baby, you're right that I haven't put out any decorations this year. But there's a difference between celebrating Jesus' birthday and celebrating the part of Christmas that is Santa Clause and reindeer.”
“Seems like a sellbration to me,” said Slate.
“Oh it is,” said Pinky, forcing a smile. “But there are different kinds of celebration. With Christmas there is the birth of the Christ child, then there is one that is about, well other things. Does that make sense?” She really hoped that it did.
Slate had folded his arms and was staring intently at the stained glass. “Grandma, when I was born, did you and daddy sellbrate?”
“Oh baby, of course we did,” said Pinky draping an arm around him. “It was a big party, too. There were balloons and presents and everyone coming to get a look at you.”
“And, everbody was happy?”
“Of course, everyone was happy.”
“Well then shouldn't Jesus' birthday be a big sellbration, too?”
Pinky, as most adults do sooner or later, was finding herself sinking in the quicksand of reason with a child's honest questions. She tried again to make him see the difference between commercial Christmas and real Christmas.
“Slate, honey, people celebrate different occasions differently. If I don't put out any decorations this year, it doesn't mean that I don't believe in God or that I'm not celebrating Jesus' birthday. Understand?”
“No.” Then after more thought, “Are we supposed to give Jesus something for his birthday?”
“Of course, baby, we're supposed to give him our love, but we're supposed to do that all year long.”
Slate turned to look at his Grandma. “But how do we do that?”
“There's lots of ways, but loving others the way he loves us is the greatest gift we can give.”
“You mean making other people happy ‘cause of what we do for them?”
Pinky was starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. “Something like that, yes,” she said, “When we love others we are loving Jesus because that's what he taught us.”
“So, why aren't you loving people this year?” asked Slate.
Pinky gasped again, her Irish blood starting to gurgle. “How can you ask something like that, young man? I love people, lots of them. I've got a good mind to wash our your mouth with soap.”
The young philosopher didn't look any more worried than Hooter would have.
“All those people that used to drive by to look at your decorations, did that make them happy?”
“I suppose so.”
“So, you were loving them?” asked Slate.
“I suppose so.”
“Then why'd you quit?”
The sanctuary had grown almost dark but the glass was still glowing. Pinky was glad Slate couldn't see the tear she felt running down her cheek. She just hugged the boy tight to her.
“Grandma Pinky?” asked Slate.
“Let's go sellbrate!”