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Kid Christmas 1: The Children’s Choir Slugfest

November 25, 2016


Ralphie and Randy had nothing on the Zockolls when it came to the Christmas season. The 1983 comedy film A Christmas Story, based on the childhood of Jean Shepherd, was indeed hilarious and bizarre – but it couldn’t keep up with the madcap Yuletide atmosphere of the Zockoll home.

My memory comes from the mid-1960s era.  I clearly recall trudging home in my clip-up rubber snowboots, happily escaping the academic confines of the Dallastown Elementary School, heading home to an evening of backyard snow warfare.  No school for a week and a half!  We had recently moved to a small two-story house on Charles Street in a town that looked amazingly like the scenes from the aforementioned A Christmas Story movie – an oldish brick school building, thin and rough unpainted back alleyways, and 1940s-era bungalows squeezed next to one another.  It had a great sandlot out back that was now covered in snow.  I came through the back door, wrenched off my boots, pulled off my hooded hand-me-down jacket and spied my sixth grader older brother Bruce lining up some paints and brushes in the front living room.

“Whatcha doing?” I half yelled, liked all second graders do at that age.  I hadn’t found life’s volume control yet.

“Doing art work. Go away,” he said.  “I’m in a contest.  You wouldn’t understand.”  He always used that maddening term when I was around. I brushed it off and pursued.

“A painting contest?” I asked, ignoring the obvious fact that he had nothing but paints around him.  Stupid question, yes, but then again, I was on a post-school blood sugar low.  Cut me some slack.

He answered in singsong sarcasm. “Yes, a painting contest.  Dallastown is having a Christmas window painting contest and I’m going to win.  Let me alone, I need to concentrate.”  Artistic arrogance had already placed its seed at so early an age.  I trudged away, unoffended.  I was already planning action.  Christmas vacation had started and the household would soon be buzzing with Mom trying to control six elementary-age kids with all restraints broken – we were geared for the season.

The previous Sunday night church program had set the tone.  The glorious traditional Children’s Christmas Pageant had gone off in splendid disastrous glory, with Jeffy Gladfelter completely forgetting his lines, Bethie Timmons mysteriously breaking down in tears (runny nose and all – awesome!), and the notorious and ever-entertaining kindergarten Ripkin twins concluding the songfest by  – I am not making this up – getting into a slugfest and knocking each other off the stage.  Ah, the season was shaping up to be a classic.

The days leading up to Christmas were filled with oddball activity.  For some reason I cannot remember, I had decided that the joy of Christmas presents was simply in the action of unwrapping, not the gift itself .  With this insane reasoning,  I went about the house, making presents by using Sunday color comics and any unused household remnant I could find.  I wrapped a set of used pencils for Bruce.  I found a stuffed bear for Brock hidden under his bed among the dust bunnies – it was getting wrapped in Steve Canyon comics.  I stole a doll pillow from Gwen’s room and wrapped it in Lil Abner.  Brian was getting an old baseball. I found some pennies and a nickel and wrapped it for Brent.  I was on a tear.

Brent was occupied with a wood burning kit he had bought, designing small signs and pictures out of wooden planks he had scrounged up from the back alleys.  He was actively burning his hands more than the wood pieces he was using.  The cellar had a smell of burnt wood and flesh as he bravely fought through the tears.  Brian was padding around in his sleepers, trying to crawl under the Christmas tree and gaze closely at the bubble lights strung around the thin snow-sprayed tree.  He fell back and sat hard on a present.  There was a crack.

Gwen came running in the room.  “Has anyone seen my Barbie car?  And I can’t find Barbie’s shoes either.”

Mom called from the kitchen.  She rarely left the kitchen whenever she answered one of us;  I believe she felt the linoleum gave better acoustics.  “As small as those doll’s shoes are, it’s a wonder you’ll ever find them.  Can’t you keep track of your things?”

Gwen was ready to mumble an unheard retort when a thundering BOOM da BOOM da BOOM da BOOM came from the front staircase.  Baby Brock had broken through the rickety child gate at the top of the stairs.  We all whipped our heads around to see pre-schooler Brock in a head over heels tumble down the wooden steps.  He hit the bottom in a splat and began screaming.  Gwen and Mom reached him first.  By God’s great grace he wasn’t injured severely, but he would continue to cry and scream for oh, about three more days.  Bruce never flinched from his plate-glass painting of the Wise Men.  He was focused like a man possessed.

And so the holiday week went.  And finally Christmas Day came.  Oh, glorious day with the run-down-the-stairs screaming and yelling and forget-breakfast excitement.

Bruce unwrapped my gift.  “What would I do with three Number 2 pencils?”

Mom growled.  “If you can’t say something nice…”

Bruce coughed politely and lied.  “I love them, Brad.  Oh boy.  Thank you.”

Brian and Brock were already in a tumble about sharing a present.  Gwen was whining, feeling the effects of a no-breakfast blood sugar drop.  Brent was groaning because he had just unwrapped socks.  I laughed aloud at him, only to find that my present opening revealed mittens.  Stupid mittens.  We were all yelling.

Mom stood up and snarled through clenched teeth.  “That’s it.  You’ve forgotten the joy of giving.  So we’re going to slow it down.” She raised a finger.  “Pick out one present.  We’re going to open one and only one present every hour.  That way you’ll begin to appreciate each gift.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” chimed Gwen.  We glared at her.  She was trying to position herself for special treatment.  We saw the open maneuver.

“Choose it and play with it,” Mom said, going into the kitchen.  “I will be back in an hour.”

Brent opened a G.I.Joe, the summit of all toys.  He screamed and ran around the living room.  I opened up a scarf.  I went into Immediate Whine.  Gwen joyfully opened up a Barbie jacket but Bruce opened up a box of small box of tiny non-pareils.  “Candy for a Christmas present?”  He joined my attitude.  Brian opened up a blanket while Brock got a toy train.  The wrestling resumed between them.

The ‘Open a Present Every Hour’ lasted for seventeen minutes.


Oh, it all came out great.  I got a G.I. Joe as well, and the world was wonderful to me.  Bruce got an amazing paint set.  Brian got comic books.  The universe was back in balance.  We treated Mom right, too:  box of candy, a new Bible, even a pair of moccasin slippers that Bruce actually made.  The evening settled in wonderfully.

But one of the most outstanding things I remember happened next.  We heard a knock on the door and a young adult man with dark hair and shy smile walked in.  “Look, kids,” Mom said.  “It’s the missionary who has been at our church.  He’s come by to say hello!”  We lay down our toys and ran to meet him.  It was like having a celebrity in the house.

I don’t remember his name nor his mission field but I do remember the quietness that settled over all of us as we gathered around politely and shared cookies and cocoa with him while the snow fell outside.  He engaged in polite conversation with Mom.  He even chatted with us as if we were adults – we loved it.

Then Mom coughed lightly.  “Would you, ah,  be able to share something from the Bible with us tonight?”

The missionary man never hesitated.  “I would love to.”  He sat down in the living room and we all grabbed our individual Bibles,  sitting around him in a scene that would match any Norman Rockwell painting.  We were enthralled.  This important man would take time to read the Bible to us?  He talked – not preached but talked – to us of Jesus and and joy of the Messiah’s ministry.  We drank it up.  He smiled brightly as he finished.

“Would you join our Family Circle?” asked Mom.  The Family Circle was an enjoyable tradition my mom had started some years back.  Each night the six  Zockoll children held hands with Mom and we each prayed in turn after a Bible reading.  We each had a share in saying our prayers to the Lord.

And in a memorable Christmas night we had a missionary be part of our family prayer time.  What better gift could you want?  We delighted in the joy of praying together and being reminded of the wonder of Christ’s birth as told by a man who shared this message with hundreds of others in a foreign land.  We had a real-life missionary in our front room – right next to where Brock fell down the steps!

He left us, leaving a warm glow in our hearts.

And then we got back to yelling because we were sure Mom threw out some of our gifts when she cleared the wrapping paper.

P.S. Bruce won third place in the Christmas Window painting contest.  Fifteen bucks.  He never let us forget it.




Brad Zockoll
Dr. Brad Zockoll


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