Christmas at my grandparents was unbelievable - everything you've ever heard, seen or read about happened at their house.
As children, decorating the yard was our favorite. We'd help Grandpa and Uncle Doug haul all the decorations out, and then all the grandkids would check each string of lights, replacing "blackouts" as Grandpa called them.
As we grew older, our jobs would change. Setting up the nativity scene on the front lawn was always the favorite of the girls. We boys longed to carry light strings into the trees and help Uncle Doug place Santa and all his reindeer on the rooftop.
The most sought-after, one-man job was placing the star atop the 30-foot pine that grew beside the house. The star wasn't a job you got old enough for or earned. It was given. Uncle Doug just handed you the star, and up you went.
Each year, I watched my cousins, even the worthless ones, bear the pride of the star. I hoped my turn would come before I was too old to climb.
"Think it'll snow today?" Doug asked aloud, handing me the star.
"Nope," I said. "It's just a passing flurry."
"Well, good. Then, I'll see you in the house," he said, walking away.
I looked up, and the treetop had disappeared in the flurry.
It didn't take me long to make to the top. I stuck that star right where it belonged.
As I started down, I froze. I couldn't see a thing, and panic overtook me. Arms, legs, everything was wrapped around that tree.
It just kept snowing, and my panic was going well beyond the call of duty.
"You OK, Hal?"
It was Uncle Doug.
"I'm hung-up, Doug, and can't get down."
Tears of happiness and shame were streaming down my face. Suddenly, light poured across me.
"Hey, kid," it was Uncle Doug again. "Stick your left arm straight out, and grab the trellis. I'll bring you in through my bedroom window."
After dragging me through the window, Uncle Doug left me alone on his bed until I regained my 11-year-old senses.
"Ready for some dinner?" Doug asked from the door.
"Sure," I mumbled, following him down the stairs to what certainly was going to be the most painful moment of my life.
My brothers and cousins would never let me forget my failure. Some Christmas - everyone was laughing at me. My brother Scott would be the worst. "Scaredy cat, scaredy cat," he'd chant.
Oh gosh, it was Grandma.
"Yup, everything's fine," Doug said. "I was just showing Hal how his dad and I used to sneak back into the house when we were his age."
"Don't let me catch you climbing that damned old trellis," Grandpa's voice boomed from the front room.
"No, sir," I said.
"Let's plug everything in," Doug called out, trying to change the subject.
Everyone gathered in the yard as Grandpa held the door to the fuse box open.
"Front yard first," Grandpa yelled.
The girls "ooohed" and giggled at the nativity scene, and my brothers and cousins started bragging about who had placed the highest string of lights in the elm trees.
"Here comes Santa Claus," Grandpa tried to sing.
There he was, Santa and all his reindeer. Lights were everywhere - blue, white, green and one red one, stuck on Rudolph's nose.
"May we see the star?" one of the worthless cousins asked.
There it was.
Each of us looking at the star differently.
"It's going to be a good Christmas" Grandma said.
"Sure is," Uncle Doug said, grabbing my shoulder. "Sure is."
Until next time:
There I was, surrounded by family and friends, when I said to myself, "Self," I said ('cuz that's what I call myself when I'm talking to myself), "Ericca's right. People don't realize it's the simple things that bring the greatest joy."
Thank you for your time.