My mother and her parents live in Mayberry USA. Well, it’s not really Mayberry. But Prairie Ridge, Iowa, is close. The sheriff’s deputy, who resembles a sober Otis, lives down the block from my grandparents. Miss Lucille Appleton, a church secretary, is the town’s version of Aunt Bea. And the school is full of little Opies.
The light poles along the two-block main street in Prairie Ridge are adorned with giant old-fashioned—or just plain old—ornaments. Despite their age all the lights work, so I credit city employees for making sure there are no burned out or broken bulbs. The windows of the stores and businesses are adorned with coordinated displays featuring icicle lights in the windows and overhangs, wreaths on the doors and a Christmas tree with multi-colored lights in the windows. Christmas music is piped over loudspeakers hanging on a few light poles.
Central Park displays the nativity built, rebuilt, re-rebuilt and re-re-rebuilt over the years from plywood and anchored by bales of hay. On Christmas Eve, the life-size plastic Mary and Joseph are replaced with the real thing, a young couple who volunteers to withstand whatever weather Iowa throws at them. They’re surrounded by sheep, a docile dairy cow and a donkey provided by neighboring farmers. Choirs from the school and four churches in town take turns performing from noon to 6 p.m.
My grandma’s routine at Christmas hasn’t changed in 50 years. We bake dozens of sugar cookies for the church’s Christmas caroling party the Saturday before Christmas. How I manage to not nibble on the cookies is a Christmas miracle. The frosting, however, is a different story. Grandma hangs Christmas cards on the refrigerator with tiny ornament magnets that must be 100 years old. The tree—a real one from the Boy Scout tree farm—sits in front of the small picture window in the living room. The ornaments, like the magnets on the fridge, are vintage, right down to the large bulbs. Grandma says the little twinkle lights everyone else uses are too ordinary. No tinsel, no garland—they’re too garish, she says.
After driving by the park’s nativity scene on Christmas Eve, we go to church for the candlelight service. It’s a quiet yet joyful service; about 75 people attend, most over age 50. The half dozen kids sing their off-key rendition of “Silent Night”, but it’s still special and I wouldn’t miss it for anything. At the end of the service everyone gets a small brown paper bag filled with an apple, orange, in-the-shell peanuts, Hershey Kisses, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and red and green spice gumdrops. When we took this tradition to our country church in Morris, Nebraska, when Dad was alive, he’d eat more Kisses than what he would put in the bags.
Grandma lets us open one Christmas present—which she picks out—before going to bed that night. Every year since we moved there after my dad died, the gift to both Mom and me has been matching flannel pajamas that Grandpa insists we wear to bed that night. He says the house is always too cold at night, but Grandma doesn’t want to run up the heating bill.
Christmas Day begins around 7 a.m. when Grandma puts on the coffee pot. I lounge around in bed until I smell the bacon. While Grandma usually serves just one thin strip of bacon, at Christmas she serves two. What indulgence! What bacon bliss! After the simple, sensible, yet thoughtful gifts have been opened, the women gather in the kitchen to work on Christmas dinner while Grandpa naps or reads the Prairie Ridge newspaper—again. Ham, scalloped potatoes, acorn squash soup, homemade yeast rolls, cherry pie and chocolate ice cream have become the standard menu, but that’s fine with me. I just gained 10 pounds thinking about that!
The rest of the day is a mix or chatter, eating and watching holiday-themed TV. That night, with all of us in our pajamas, Grandpa reads the Christmas story from Luke. I know most people think that’s a Christmas Eve tradition. But Grandpa says there’s too much “noise” on Christmas Eve to really hear the story. And he’s right. When all the presents are unwrapped and put away, the dishes are done (no dishwasher in this house!), and quiet has descended on us, the words of Luke 2 seep into our hearts.