December 21, 2023

What are your Christmas memories?


            Christmas is nigh.

            Celebrations of the birth of Jesus.

            Family. Friends. Food. Gifts. Music. Memories.

            What are some of your Christmas memories?

            I have a story.

But first, there’s the backstory.

            The small farmhouse was perched beside the intersection of two dirt roads, more than a dozen miles from Camilla or Pelham. On Nov. 19, 1925, the family’s third child—a boy—was born in the house, which still stands.

George’s and Katie’s son grew up in hardscrabble times, learning to plow a mule before he was 10. After all, it was in the midst of the Great Depression. When the farmer’s son became a farmer himself—plowing his own dirt—Lamar Shirah told his children Christmas memories were twofold: oranges and fireworks. As a grandfather and great-grandfather, he continued that tradition with our three children and their eight children.

            Alan, Emily and Eric grew up eating Christmastime ambrosia made from oranges peeled by their PaPa, my wife’s father. After the evening meal, everyone congregated in the front yard of the farmhouse that he had built with his own hands. It just wasn’t Christmas for my father-in-law unless he struck a match to at least a 5-gallon bucket of fireworks.

            Do you believe in angels?

            Here’s how this 1999 story about Christmas angels begins.

            In those days, we had a black miniature schnauzer, J.E.B. Emily declared, “J.E.B. brings out the best in us.” Indeed, he did. But J.E.B. was terrified of fireworks. Somehow, in the fireworks excitement, we forgot to put the little guy in a safe place.

            Midway through the popping and bottle-rocket explosions, I asked, “Where’s J.E.B.?”

Panic erupted as we scrambled to look for the dog, who was as black as the night. Waving flashlights, we scrambled—on foot and in trucks—over hundreds of acres of Shirahland. Through the fields, through the pines and live oaks and down by the ponds, we yelled, “J.E.B., J.E.B., J.E.B.!” 

Until midnight, we combed the countryside. No one wanted to give up, but it was obvious that J.E.B. had vanished into the darkness.

Heartbroken, we went to bed.          

The next morning, I stepped outside to retrieve something from the car. And what did I see? There was J.E.B. sitting in the driver’s seat. Cocking his head, J.E.B. looked at me as if he was asking, “Where have you been?”

 Grabbing our “prodigal” pup, I raced into the breakfast room. The eruption of cheers was almost as loud as the fireworks the night before. When the commotion died down, I asked whether anyone had put J.E.B. in the car. One by one, heads shook, followed by a chorus of “No, sir.”

            Pam was flabbergasted.

            But … but,” she stammered, “last night, I looked all through the car, wondering if someone might have put him in there. I searched under the seats … everywhere.” She was emphatic: “J.E.B. was not in the car.”

            After everyone had a chance to hug J.E.B. and tousle his ears, I asked, “Well, then, how did he get into the car?”

Emily spoke up, “It was an angel. Yes, it had to be a Christmas angel.”

            In 2020, Pam’s parents died—two months apart—in the house that her dad built in 1949. I know that Lamar and Willene Shirah are in Heaven. They may not be eating ambrosia, but I believe PaPa is still kid-like, eager to celebrate Christmas with firecrackers.

And I don’t think he rested in his afterlife until he found out which angel came to J.E.B.’s and our rescue that Christmas night so many years ago.

Twenty-four years later, we still don’t have a better answer.

So, I ask, “You do believe in angels … don’t you?”

            Merry Christmas!