The Fright Before Christmas



One of my earliest purposes in life was to help my older brothers test things. If they were unsure of the consequences of thrusting bare wires into a light socket, I was called upon to find out. If a football was lodged in the uppermost branches of a spindly tree, and someone lighter was needed to crawl out on the delicate branches and retrieve it, guess who had the honor? Right. Yours truly. Ever eager to test things for them, I licked dry cell batteries and icy doorknobs, put spoons in blenders and—I am ashamed to say—Elmer’s glue in my sister’s hair.

I grew up in a home where practical jokes were as regular as the daily mail, where you found yourself walking through a dark kitchen on any given night, minding your business, thinking about things like peace and good will, only to have your brother Dan leap from beneath the table, yipping like a coyote. I faked a heart attack once, which helped for a few minutes, but the jokes continued. And very few of them were practical.

By December we were down to eight or nine hours of pitiful sunlight a day, so I had to keep my guard up. In our basement was the most frightening spot on earth: The Cellar. Often my mother sent me there to retrieve cans of applesauce from a box which never seemed to run dry. This was thirty-five years ago, before the invention of light switches as we know them. All we had in those primitive years were pull cords hanging from dark basement ceilings, placed in the furthest spots by heartless electricians.

A few nights before Christmas, my older brother Tim held a flashlight to his face and warned me “just so’s I would be careful” of a creature who had found shelter in The Cellar. As I listened wide-eared, he described a white-fanged wolverine the size of an eighth-grader who enjoyed little children and craved applesauce. “Sometimes you can see his yellow eyes just before he grabs you,” cautioned Tim. “But mostly he keeps ‘em shut ‘til it’s too late.”

With a hoarse whisper I asked him why he hadn’t done something about it, him being so big and all. “Oh, I have,” he said. “I bludgeoned the beast myself with a rake and buried it in a grove of fir trees.” But this only served to anger the wolverine community. One by one they came out of hiding to dwell in our cellar and seek vengeance. There were three of them down down there now, he thought. Maybe a whole herd. “Them that are eaten shall have no Christmas,” said he, as the flashlight faded to black.

I slept very little that night. To the child who is afraid, everything squeaks.

“Philip.” It was Christmas Eve and Mother needed applesauce. Tiptoeing obediently down the stairway and into the lengthening shadows, I prayed out loud, making deals with God. I even agreed to ask my sister’s forgiveness for the glue thing if God would just get me to that first 40-watt lightbulb.

With renewed strength, I strode boldly toward it, tripped over a toolbox and whacked my forehead on the ping pong table.

I don’t remember much about the next few seconds.

In fact, certain details from the next few years are still a little sketchy. Dates. Faces. My name. But apparently I located the lightbulb, because I recall standing beneath it, trying to regain my balance and switch off my fears.

The hinges on our cellar door were seldom oiled, and the sound of them turning only added to the suspense. Timidly I entered the room.

The dim light above the ping pong table threw ghostly images against the far wall. Six steps to my right past a box of whiskered potatoes was the pull cord. I walked toward it and reached out my hand.

There are defining moments in all of our lives. Moments good psychiatrists are trained to help us recall. This was mine. As I took hold of the pull cord, I felt instead long strings of something cold, wet, and slimy. And as I screamed, I beheld the one thing I feared the most: a pair of yellow eyes.

Racing around the ping pong table, I hurdled the toolbox. This time the heart attack would be real. And then I heard the laughter. It was coming from behind me. I turned to see Tim standing there. Holding two flashlights. And an empty can of spaghetti.

My brother is a pastor now. And a good man. I am quite sure he regrets his activities that dark Christmas Eve, because his jokes got more practical after that. Perhaps he found his purpose in life that Christmas—to nudge people closer to the Kingdom of God. It worked with me. That night I apologized to my sister, then asked my father to read me the Christmas story over and over. When you’re afraid of the basement or a big brother, there’s nothing quite like it to turn the lights on.

“Immanuel,” said my dad, “you know what it means?” I didn’t. “It means that God is with us. That he will never leave us or forsake us. He’s the one who turned the lights on at Christmas.” With that, I drifted off to sleep.

Those who fear Him have nothing to be afraid of.


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