Whispers in the Dark
By Tim Murphy:
The first Christmas that I can remember I was about five. My brother Jack was a year older, my sister Terri was a year younger, and Peggy was two years younger. Jack and I did everything together. He slept on the bottom bunk, I had the top bunk. On Christmas, one of us would wake up in the middle of the night and wake up the other. No telling what time it was (I hadn’t learned to tell time yet), but probably 2 or 3 in the morning. It was the part of the night that you could kind of make out shapes in the dark but not very clearly. Everything was in shades of shadowy grey, like our fuzzy black-and-white TV that wasn’t tuned in properly.
The speculation of whether Santa had come would start. It was a whispered conversation because we didn’t want Santa to know we were awake, and we didn’t want our dad to know either. So, we whispered in the dark:
“Timmy, are you awake?”
“Yeah, are you?”
“Yeah. Do you think Santa came?”
“I don’t know, did you hear him?”
“I think so.”
“Is he still here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Should we check?”
“What if he’s still here?”
”I think I heard the reindeer, listen!”
”No, that was Aunt Mary.”
”I don’t hear anything now, let’s go see.”
”He might still be here. If he catches us, we won’t get anything.”
”Did you hear that?”
”Let’s go look.”
“But what if he hasn’t come yet? He will take away our presents.”
“No, remember Ron Putkammer, that kid up the street? Last year he got caught by Santa and didn’t get any presents and now he walks with a limp.”
”Mom said he walks with a limp ‘cause he got polio.”
“How do you think he got polio?”
“But if he’s already gone, someone could steal the presents.”
“We have to save the presents.”
“And we have to save Terri and Peggy’s presents too.”
“Let’s get them to look, then if Santa catches them, he will just take their presents but not ours.”
Jack was smart and very learned in the ways of the world; he had completed almost half of First Grade—he knew things.
So, we would sneak into their room—past snoring Aunt Mary sleeping on the trundle bed—to wake them up, tell them it was Christmas and that Santa had come and the presents were in the front room. We would be out of breath by this point, and the whispering was getting louder. We told them that since they were girls, they could go first (God rest ye merry gentlemen...). It worked for a year on Terri, then she met Ron Putkammer. Peggy did it for a couple of years—she was a good sneaker and always up to the challenge (Up on the housetop click, click, click…). Peggy went on to a legendary career of sneaking out at night and pool hopping, but that is another story. They ran ahead, and when we heard squeals of delight, we knew it was clear.
We ran into the front room and it was spectacular—even in the dark it was spectacular (Joy to the world…). There was always one big present for Jack and me. We got a Lionel Electric train one year; another year an electric football game that vibrated the players up and down the field; another year a hockey game. The girls got some girl stuff, a doll or something. But for me and Jack, there was Christmas magic right there in the middle of the front room. There was no whispering now, full on squealing in pre-puberty pitch, all four of us rejoicing and yahooing until our Dad came in. He was yelling, too, but he wasn’t rejoicing as much as we were. He made us go back to bed and told us to go back to sleep (Will find it hard to sleep tonight…).
Sleep . . . that was crazy talk!Santa had come, all our behaving had paid off; we had seen the loot, making us behave now was a violation of the true spirit of Christmas. It was torture. Within a few minutes, the whispering would start again:
“Jackie, are you asleep?”
”No, are you?”
”No, do you think we’ve waited long enough?”
”I don’t know. Dad was mad.”
“Let’s get Terri and Peggy to ask if it’s time yet.”
We told them to ask our mom; don’t ask Dad! But she kept saying no, too. We sent them in about every 15 minutes until our parents would give in and let us out.
Years later, I figured out our mom and dad went to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass was a big deal for the Irish because we believed that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the gates of heaven opened and let in all the souls of the people that had died that year but were in Purgatory. Purgatory is a hard concept to understand or explain. It’s kind of like when your dad tells you to go back to bed on Christmas morning, when you know that heaven awaits you in the front room. It’s a Catholic thing. So, Midnight Mass was a High Mass Celebration full of big-time songs and jubilation . . . kind of like heaven. We weren’t allowed to sing Christmas carols in church until Midnight Mass, so there was a lot of pent-up demand. If someone you loved died that year, you went. Mass didn’t get out until 1 AM, so my parents had probably just gone to bed when Santa came through. Good thing they didn’t run into him (Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus…).
This has been a year where we all would like to see things get back to some kind of normal. We want to go back to the way things were, to a happier time. So, maybe we need to remember those happier times and tell them to our kids and grandkids. We all have a happy Christmas story; otherwise we wouldn’t do all the crazy things we do this time of year. So, one of the blessings of 2020 is that we are stuck with a small social circle, the ones we love the most. Even if we can’t see them physically, we have found ways to see them electronically. So, tell your story, pass it on—the story, not the virus.
So, I wish you a Merry Christmas, like the Christmas’s long, long ago. May your focus be clear and may you be present. May you have someone to whisper with in the dark. May you know things. May there still be gentlemen. May you feel the spectacular. May your delight be epic and may you squeal with rejoicing. May you see the promised land and not be sent away. May you learn patience. May the gates of heaven open for your loved ones, and may you remember to listen for their whispers, too. May you make the top of the good list. May you sing loud and laugh louder. May you grow. And when all seems dark, may you feel the hope and magic of Christmas and remember how and why it all started.
May you have a very Merry Christmas!
Tim Murphy grew up on the south side of Chicago in a home filled with Catholic Irish traditions. He has kissed the Blarney Stone and been given the gift of storytelling. He attended Catholic Grade School, public high school and a Lutheran College—which perhaps has shaped his somewhat irreverent style. In his sixty-four years, he has received many blessings, and despite his misbehavior, they seem to keep coming.