November 13, 2019

In Search of a White Christmas

By Lyman Hafen

 

One of the most pressing questions of my boyhood in St. George was how to reconcile the words of the Christmas songs I heard with the place where I lived. As a little boy in the early 1960s, I was growing up in a place where the treetops did not glisten and the children did not listen to sleigh bells in the snow. It never snowed on Christmas, and on that rare winter day when it did, you were out the door before daylight, making the most of the magical white stuff because you knew it would vanish like a dream before noon. My dad would often quote the motto the St. George Chamber of Commerce used in those days. In his booming rodeo-announcer voice, he would call out: ST. GEORGE, UTAH—WHERE THE SUMMER SUN SPENDS THE WINTER.

Christmas days in Utah’s Dixie were bright amber days. The rich rays of the winter-slanted sun glanced gloriously off the bare grass of our front yards. You’d get up as early as your parents would allow and enter a living room covered with magnificently wrapped presents and bright shiny objects. By the time it was light outside, you were ready to transfer all your loot out the door and into the sun-splashed world. None of that Christmas booty included anything to do with snow—no sleds, no ice skates, no snow boots or gloves or ear muffs or hockey sticks. It was just another heavenly, resplendent day in paradise—with some mighty fun stuff to play with as the summer sun made its winter arc across the Christmas sky.

 

The only way we could create a notion of the kind of nostalgic white Christmas we sang about every year was to fake it. In fact, one of my most powerful memories of a childhood Christmas day includes a face-to-face encounter with a snowman.

 

I’m assuming it was the Christmas after I’d turned six. I shuffled into the living room rubbing my eyes, still emerging from a deep sleep, sugar plums still dancing in my head. There before me stood the most amazing fire-truck red Schwinn bike leaning on its kick stand in front of the tree. Could I still be dreaming? No. It was real. When I touched it, the cold metal sent a shot of electric joy through my fingers and straight to my heart. It was real. And it was awesome. And I could not wait to get it out the door and onto my driveway.

 

I realize now that this really was one of the upsides to a St. George Christmas. As soon as it was light enough, you could head out the door. And if you were as lucky as I was, it would be a new bike you took out that door. It wouldn’t be too cold. It wouldn’t be too windy, and it wouldn’t be too icy or snowy or slick to get right on that bike and start riding it.

 

Problem was, my new bike had been selected by Santa to last me a long time. Of course, it was a Schwinn. And I’d still be riding it in junior high school. That meant it was several inches taller than it really should have been for a boy my size. Dad hefted it out the door and held it upright before me. I squinted against the sun glaring over the black ridge to the east. All I could see in that golden splash of morning was the red outline of the bike. All I could feel was the powerful urge to hop on it, my very own bike, and ride it down the driveway into that morning of mornings.

I took hold of the handle bars. They spread like the horns of a bull at the level of my chin. I lifted the high-top Red Ball Jet sneaker on my right foot to swing it over the seat but lacked about six inches to clear it. Dad hurried back into the house and returned with a wrench and dropped the seat to its lowest level. Still, I could not clear it with my foot.

 

Finally Dad lifted me onto the bike and gave me a shove and I headed down the driveway. The push and the slight incline of the driveway allowed me to build enough speed to stay upright. The only problem was that my feet barely reached the pedals. I could catch them at the top of their rotation and give them a quick nudge. But I had little control over either my speed or the wide imposing handlebars my fingers were gripped to. I was pretty much at the mercy of gravity and whatever the spirit of Christmas Day had in store for me.

 

What was in store for me was a wide and wobbly turn in the street and a panicked attempt to swing back into the driveway, which resulted in me veering off-course onto my neighbor’s lawn.

 

Upon that lawn stood several delightful painted plywood figures. They were cut in the shapes of snowmen, and they towered five feet tall before me. Their painted-on button eyes and their carrot noses and their corn-cob pipes drew nearer and nearer as I sank my crouch into the crossbar and reached with the toes of my Red Ball Jets to somehow push back on the breaks. But again, I was at the mercy of gravity and whatever the spirit of Christmas Day had in store for me.

The last thing I remembered as I opened my eyes a few seconds later were the delightful button eyes of a painted snowman—eyes that grew less and less delightful and more and more terrorizing as they drew nearer to my face. Had it been a real snowman, it would have been a joyous, snow-cushioned collision with ice crystals exploding and glittering in the morning sun. But it was not a real snowman and that plywood was as rigid as concrete. I spent the rest of the day nursing the raw strawberry bump on my nose.

 

It was as close as I would come to a white Christmas in my childhood.

 

Note: Lyman Hafen’s new book A Snowball’s Chance is now available. Illustrated by local artist Ester West, it shares the story of how the faith of Lyman’s grandchildren resulted in a rare white Christmas for his family. A children’s book for all ages, A Snowball’s Chance can be purchased at lymanhafen.com and at some local retail locations.     

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