Looking for some meaning behind Christmas? Take a gander at these folks’ cherished holiday traditions:
CHAIN OF FRIENDSHIP
Julie Petersen was 13 when she met her best friend, Wendy. It was 1962 in Spencer, Iowa, and the girls quickly bonded over shared misfortunes: their long, boring bus ride and having to wear braces.
Gum was forbidden, because of their orthodontia, but they chewed it anyway, folding and weaving the wrappers into a chain.
“It was our little rebellion,” Petersen recalled. “Every time we found a new kind of gum, we added it to the chain.”
Their fingers flew through gum wrappers, week after week, for four years. “We’d do it at the back of the bus and whenever we stayed overnight at each other’s house and when we should have been listening at school. Once we even got in trouble, for doing it in the back of Mr. Lee’s science class.”
The chain wasn’t their only shared interest. Wendy had a vivid imagination and was full of energy and “fun ideas,” Petersen said. The girls were in 4-H together and went to the county fair. “We’d sit in the horse barn and giggle.”
By the end of their junior year, the gum-wrapper chain was very long – and the friendship had started to drift a bit. Wendy had a new friend, a girl who was a little too boy-crazy for Petersen. But she and Wendy still shared rides to and from school, now in the Ford Fairlane convertible that Wendy’s parents had given her for her 16th birthday.
“It had an eight-track tape player – it was so cool!” Petersen recalled. In August 1966, Wendy drove them to school to register for classes. “I was going to ride home with her,” Petersen said. But Wendy and the new friend had plans to follow some boys. “I didn’t want to,” Petersen said, so she came home on the bus.
Later, she heard on her transistor radio that Wendy’s car had crashed into a bridge and plunged into the river. Wendy was dead.
The loss cut so deep that Petersen still chokes up when she talks about it. But life went on. She graduated, got married, had a daughter. For years, the gum-wrapper chain sat in a box. But after her husband died and her daughter grew up and left home, Petersen downsized to a smaller Christmas tree and wanted to decorate it with personal mementoes. She remembered the chain, took it out and carefully unrolled it. It was intact, its colors still bright, packed with a hand-lettered inventory of all the brands and flavors she and Wendy had chewed to make it. It was a history of friendship.
Petersen decided to hang it on her tree as a garland.
“Life is fleeting. You get older, and your friends become very important to you, especially at this time of year,” she said. “As I decorate my tree, I treasure what friendship means.”
GIFT FROM A STRANGER
It was well below zero, with gusts of freezing wind, on Christmas Eve in 1992 when Ellen Bernardson, a single mom, took her boys, ages 7 and 11, to a nearby Arby’s in Columbia Heights, Minn., for a bite to eat after a day spent wrapping gifts.
They ordered roast-beef sandwiches and potato wedges, and as they waited, she noticed a boy about 13 in a light jacket, holding a half-filled pillowcase. “He was shivering,” she recalled. She asked whether someone was picking him up, and he said, no, that he’d accidentally gotten off the bus too soon and was warming up before he walked the rest of the way.
“I told him it was too far for him, dressed as he was, to walk – that he’d freeze,” she said.
So she offered him a ride. He hesitated, then said OK. Their food arrived. The boy looked hungry, so Bernardson offered to buy him a meal. He said no, but with coaxing, ate some of their potatoes.
As they talked, the boy told them he’d been sent away from home because he’d been causing trouble. Bernardson started having second thoughts about offering him a ride, wondering whether she was endangering her own boys.
When they walked to her car, though, the bitter wind convinced her she was doing the right thing. As she drove, they asked the boy what kind of trouble he’d been in. He’d stolen a car, among other things, he said. Bernardsons’ sons in the back seat exchanged wary glances. Then, as they came to a stop, the boy reached into the pillowcase. The family froze in fear.
“We’re going to die,” John Watercott, Bernardson’s youngest, remembers thinking.
Instead, the boy pulled out a small wrapped gift and handed it to Bernardson. She told him it wasn’t necessary, but he said, “Lady, don’t worry, it’s not much.”
Bernardson wanted to walk him to his door, but the boy said no, and insisted on being dropped off at a church.
Back at home, Bernardson and her sons unwrapped the gift to find a small, inexpensive Christmas ornament: a bell in the shape of a penguin, with red pompom earmuffs.
She hung it on their tree – something she’s done ever since.
The encounter reminds her of the original Christmas story. “They were cold; they had no place to stay.” She wonders about the boy she helped and why their paths crossed. “It was so odd, and it was out of character for me (to pick up a stranger),” she said. “Every year, when I place the ornament on my tree, my thoughts go to that cold little boy, and I hope and pray he is happy and safe.”
BENEFACTOR IN BROOKLYN
Jerry Bullard was a third-grader with a fistful of coins when he set out to buy a Christmas gift for his mother. It was 1959, and he’d been saving money, going without milk at lunch until he accumulated the small fortune of 75 cents. That would be enough to get something special, he figured.
The snow crunched under his feet as he walked to a florist shop, the nicest one in New York’s Brooklyn borough. “It had a fountain, with goldfish,” he recalled.
There he spotted a shiny Santa figurine, his bag a planter filled with artificial holly. It seemed perfect – until the florist told him it cost several dollars. Bullard was crestfallen. Suddenly, an older man in an overcoat, chomping on a cigar, spoke. “Give it to him,” he told the florist. “I’d only spend the money in a bar.”
Bullard thanked the man and rushed home with the wrapped figurine. Christmas was still two weeks away, but he couldn’t wait to present it to his mother, who knew it was worth more than he could have afforded. She didn’t accuse him of stealing, but “being the good New Yorker that she was,” she asked a lot of probing questions. “She could outdo Kojak,” he said. After he told his improbable tale, she put on her coat and boots and went to the florist.
“When she returned, she was beaming like a pumpkin,” Bullard recalled. “She said, ‘I believe you now. Thank you so much.’”
From then on, the figurine was special to both of them. “Mom always put it out with real pride, in a special showy place,” Bullard said. When she died two years ago, Bullard inherited the Santa, which he displays at his home.
“To me, it’s a priceless heirloom,” he said. “This will be my second Christmas without her, but she’s still around in spirit.”
He never saw the cigar-chomping man again. “But I never forgot him, and I never will,” he said. “He was a Damon Runyon-esque character, and it was like an O. Henry story. Ever since, “I try to help kids if they’re short a buck at McDonald’s or the toy counter,” Bullard said. “That’s a tradition the guy passed on to me. What he did meant so much to a little kid.”