Track 15: Jingle Bells – Smokey Robinson
Jingle All the Way By Kathi Oram Peterson
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would find myself driving the ice-slick road of Highway 89 down Snake River Canyon with the mountains on one side and the gorge falling to the river on the other on Christmas night. But there I was, driving white-knuckled in my worst nightmare while watching for wandering elk and worrying about my sister, Jo, who lay on the backseat with a huge bandage over her eye from our visit to the ER. Jo’s daughter, Julie, sat in the passenger seat, trying to take my mind off our dangerous situation. But all I could think about was my injured sister. How had the perfect Christmas we had planned for our families turned out so horribly? The night had been a culmination of many things gone awry.
Several months before, Jo and I had reminisced over the phone about the Christmas we spent at our parents’ cabin some fourteen years prior.
“Do you remember caroling in the snowy forest, holding candles, and looking up at the beautiful star-filled sky?” I’d asked. Though I sat at my kitchen counter in Salt Lake City, I could almost see the scene right in front of me.
“Oh, yeah.” Jo lived in Idaho Falls. By her tone, she was reliving it as well. “And remember how the guys cut down a tree, and we decorated it with popcorn-cranberry garlands? The fresh pine scent filled the cabin. It really gave the holidays a touch of the Christmas spirit. Our kids were so young and excited. I miss those days.”
“So do I.” I thought of my three kids—Kris was seventeen, Tricia fifteen, and Ben thirteen. Pretty soon they would be gone with families of their own. Jo’s two oldest were already gone, Julie to college and Travis to the Navy. But she still had Jason and Wesley, who were the same ages as Tricia and Ben.
“Why don’t we do it again?” she asked.
“Are you serious?” I thought of how my kids would protest.
“Why not? Julie will be home for Christmas break. And Wesley loves tinkering on that old Arctic Cat snowmobile. It has a broken windshield, but he’d love to drive it up and down the canyon. Jason would be in his glory snowboarding. Come on; what do you say?”
If my kids knew Jo’s would be there, they’d go. “Okay,” I said. “But it’s going to be tight quarters, and you know how kids are. There are going to be disagreements.”
“Yeah . . .” Jo was quiet for a moment. “How about whenever we start to have trouble, we’ll push through by singing ‘Jingle Bells.’ Everybody knows the words.”
“Sounds like a good idea.”
And so we started planning. We asked Mom and Dad if we could use their treasured cabin. They loved the idea, and although they were getting up in years, they wanted to go too. We invited our brothers and their families, but only Steve and his wife, Tonya, could make it. Steve had been a teenager the last time we’d had Christmas at the cabin, and he wanted his three little ones, all under the age of five, to enjoy a similar experience. He even offered to help Wesley work on the snowmobile. Thinking we would probably need two machines, Jo planned to rent another one.
We decided to draw names and bring only those gifts to the cabin. We also talked about lighting. I thought it might be safer to use luminaries instead of candles when we sang Christmas carols. That way no one would get hurt, and the luminaries would light our path around the cabin. I gathered brown-paper lunch sacks and tea-light candles but also packed regular candles just in case. Jo popped grocery bags full of popcorn and purchased packages of cranberries for the garlands.
Everyone would help in the kitchen. We would make Mom’s delicious eggnog, have french fries and sandwiches, and take cookies we’d already baked: German shortbread, almond crescents, and, everyone’s favourite, iced sugar cookies.
Despite our preplanning, we started singing “Jingle Bells” earlier than anticipated.
The day before Christmas Eve, my family drove to Jo’s. We were going to leave together for the cabin the next morning.
Jo met me at the door. “Jason and Wes left earlier today. They wanted to get a fire going to warm up the cabin and shovel off the deck. And this is really going to make your day, but the plumbing’s been winterized, so the boys are setting up an outside latrine.”
“You’re kidding.” I thought about Steve’s little ones and how inconvenient that would be.
“Nope.” Jo tilted her head and with a twinkle in her eye, said, “How about a round of ‘Jingle Bells’?”
We’re dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh . . .
We kept singing off and on that night as we finished packing and tying up loose ends. I also said a prayer that somehow things would work out all right.
And o’er the field we go, a-laughing all the way . . .
On Christmas Eve morning, the rest of the family headed to the cabin. We had to leave our cars parked in the turnout a mile down the mountain because the road to the cabin had three feet of snow piled on it. We expected this, but when we arrived, we learned the Arctic Cat wasn’t working very well. The rental machine was good to go though, but it would take a long time to ferry our supplies up the hill with only one snowmobile.
Bells on bobtail ring, they’re making spirits bright . . .
Undaunted, the kids decided to sled while we waited our turns going up. We were dressed in winter gear—new ski bibs, subzero boots, and mittens up to our elbows—so they were prepared for the feat, but when Craig, Steve’s five-year-old, made his first run down the hill, the sled bucked him off, and he rose from the snow crying and terrified. A couple of my teenagers were excited to try snowboarding, but when Ben did a face-plant and Kris nearly broke her ankle, everyone decided they were cold and just wanted to go inside.
What fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight . . .
Meanwhile, my other teenage daughter, Tricia, who wasn’t interested in snowboarding, ventured down from the highway to the lake without telling anyone and met a momma moose and her calf. Scared motionless, Tricia watched as the moose passed her, then she scurried up the hill only to find she was in serious trouble with her father, who had nervously watched from above, too far away to help her if the moose had attacked.
Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.
Once we had all safely arrived at the cabin, the guys took off to look for the perfect tree while the gals helped the little ones string popcorn-cranberry garlands. This seemed to take forever because what popcorn they didn’t eat broke apart as they threaded the needle through the kernels and the berries bled all over their little fingers.
A day or two ago, I thought I’d take a ride . . .
The guys found a Charlie Brown tree and dragged it to the cabin. Once they lugged it inside and hammered a stand to the trunk, we proceeded to decorate. Through all the fuss, someone asked, “Who used the bathroom? You’re supposed to use the latrine outside.”
And soon Miss Fannie Bright was seated by my side.
With the tree decorated, it was time to make dinner. All hands on deck. The guys peeled potatoes and stirred the eggnog while the gals did all the rest. After dinner, we gathered round the tree and shared remembrances of our favourite Christmases. Many told of the year Santa came to the cabin, which had the little ones very excited. Then we went outside to sing carols and light the luminaries, but they weren’t very luminary. In fact, they hardly glowed at all. By the time I pulled out the backup candles, everyone was freezing cold so we sang one quick song and fled inside.
The horse was lean and lank . . .
Grandpa read the Bible story of Christ’s birth, someone read ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, the kids fixed a plate of cookies for Santa, and we all snuggled into our sleeping bags for a long winter’s nap. Then someone said, “Who used the bathroom again?”
Misfortune seem’d his lot . . .
Around 3:00 a.m., something started grinding across the rooftop, and with a big whoosh and thud, the three feet of snow that had covered the roof crashed down on the deck, nearly breaking the living room’s picture window and landing dangerously close to the outside privy.
He got into a drifted bank . . .
Awake now, the kids didn’t want to go to bed, so we told them Santa was on the roof and he wouldn’t bring their gifts unless they were asleep.
And then we got upset.
Near 6:00 a.m., everyone was up and waiting to unwrap presents. We served eggnog and breakfast casserole, then opened gifts. Shortly after, Mom and Dad and Steve and Tonya decided they needed to leave. Mom and Dad were too cold and yearned for more sleep. Steve’s little ones wanted to go home where Santa must have delivered their other presents.
Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.
Determined to save Christmas, my sister’s family and mine remained committed to having a good time.
Jo looked at our teenagers. “Wesley has the Arctic Cat running now. Why don’t we take the machines down to Alpine and ride on the flats?”
They immediately jumped up, grabbed their gear, and were heading out the door.
Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.
Cold and tired, I tagged along, happy to watch from the side lines. Jo got on the Arctic Cat, and Wesley beamed over the fact that his mother had picked his machine. Jo revved the engine and took off across what looked like a smooth place, but as I watched, she suddenly dropped out of sight. A white cloud of snow blew up, and when it settled, the Arctic Cat lay on its side, and my sister was sprawled in the snow. She hadn’t seen a gulley. Panicked, Wesley rushed to help her back to the car.
As I approached her, she said, “I can’t see out of my right eye.”
“Hold it closed,” I said as I helped her into the vehicle.
She moaned in pain. She’d cut her eye on the snowmobile’s broken windshield and needed urgent medical care. My husband, Bruce, decided he would stay behind with the kids and help Jo’s boys take care of the snow machines while I took Jo to Jackson Hole’s ER. Julie wanted to go with us.
I drove up Snake River Canyon just before sunset, and as we came to a flat spot where the canyon dipped near the river, we found a magnificent herd of elk bedded down beside the highway. Once past them, we pressed on to Jackson. The ER doctor examined Jo and told us she had a divot in her pupil. Fortunately the divot part of her eye was still attached, so he was able to lay it back. He put a very impressive bandage on Jo and told her not to take it off for four days or she would lose her eyesight.
We left the ER in the dark of night, with snow lightly falling. The doctor had given Jo some strong pain relievers, and she’d fallen asleep in the backseat. Black ice covered the highway. Julie kept talking to me, trying to take my mind off of the deadly condition of the road, but we soon came back to the elk herd, and I just knew one would suddenly appear and I’d crash, killing us all.
“Jingle Bells” no longer chased away my troubles. Not wanting Julie to realize how truly terrified I was, I silently prayed. I prayed harder than I’d ever prayed before. I prayed all the way down the canyon and continued praying until I’d safely parked in the turnout below the cabin. And then I offered a heartfelt prayer of thanks.
The next morning, we loaded up and headed to our separate homes, sad that the perfect Christmas we’d planned had turned into such a disaster.
Several months later, Julie showed me her Christmas pictures. In the photo of our families singing Christmas carols, a ghostly image hovered over us. I told her, “It’s too bad smoke drifted from the chimney and ruined the picture.”
Julie smiled and said, “I like to think it was the Christmas spirit watching over us.”
After thinking about it, I believed she was right. As we talked, we realized we truly had been blessed: Tricia wasn’t attacked by the moose, I didn’t crash the car, and my sister’s eye healed. Yes, thinking back on that holiday, it had been a very merry Christmas after all.
And to this day, we often hear someone in my family singing “Jingle Bells” in the middle of summer. And that’s all right. It means we’re doing our best in a difficult situation, and a prayer is in our hearts.