I have described Yule on campus, and it is true that Yule, not Christmas, was the major winter holiday for the school as a whole. Many of us did celebrate Christmas, but most of us did so off campus with our families. Most of the people on campus over Christmas itself were there precisely because they did not celebrate the holiday. Yet, there were some exceptions, and that first year I was one of them. I celebrated Christmas at school.
I was curious, mostly, plus my brother, recently married, had decided to take his wife on a cruise, so it wasn't as though Christmas at home would be exactly as I remembered it, either. And I suppose that, at twenty, I was eager to prove I was really out on my own now. In later years I went home for the holiday, but at least I got my curiosity satisfied.
My parents had sent me a Christmas care package, though we planned to exchange gifts in person later. There were five or six of us who planned to celebrate together and they had care packages, too. Our plan was to have breakfast together and open our packages and exchange Christmas cards with each other. We'd also decided to give presents among ourselves, but limited to gifts that we'd made, already had, or that cost less than five dollars. We knew of nothing official scheduled, and I think we expected that by the end of the day we'd feel pretty lonely and sad. It didn't end up that way.
On Christmas Eve I went to the midnight service in town. I was a little late--almost late for the service--because biking in the dark down the narrow road proved a little sketchy and I walked part of the way. I'd picked the UU church, and was not surprised to see Allen and his family there. He seemed a bit surprised to see me, but then I was not a regular attendee and I knew he was. He invited me to sit with them and was friendly with me, but it was the slightly distracted friendliness teachers often have when they see students out of context. I took my place on the pew next to Alexis, the littlest of Allen's kids. I don't know if she recognized me, but she obviously knew I was friends with her father and therefor an ok adult.
"I'm staying up till MIDNIGHT!" she told me, with no preamble.
"You're staying up later than that," her father corrected her, gently, "it's almost midnight now. The service goes until at least one. See my watch?" He was still explaining the mysteries of clock time when the service started. Over his bent head I made eye contact with Lo, Allen's wife, and she smiled her fondness of him.
The service was a bit different than the Methodist Christmas service I grew up with, but familiar enough, and the sermon was interesting. I forget now what it was about, but I remember that I thought about it for a few days. I felt a bit strange attending a ceremony in street clothes, like I should have been wearing my school uniform. And I felt a second strangeness after noticing the first. Increasingly I was feeling as though things on campus were normal and everything else was unreal. I glanced over at Allen; he wore a jacket and tie and seemed comfortable in them, but then he never looked right in school uniforms anyway. We were standing to sing while I thought these things and Alexis stood on the pew and sang along. She knew all the words, I noticed, except some words she clearly did not understand and mangled cutely. Oh, come all lee faithful, joyful and tri-umpant. Here father held her hand.
It must have been almost three in the morning before I got to bed, but I was up again at eight, ready to open presents...and to my surprise, there were some. I went down stares to the Great Hall and found that someone--I never found out who--had hung candy-canes and red and green Hershey's kisses on the tree; the kisses were speared through with loops of wire so they could hang. Someone had set out trays of doughnuts and bowls of oranges. The oranges were as rare a treat as the doughnuts, since usually all our fruit was local. There was coffee and hot cocoa waiting. And there were presents. Besides the ones we got for each other, I mean. Each of us who celebrated Christmas had a little bag with our name on it and inside was some small but perfect thing, all of them either inexpensive or probably used. I got a nice pair of binoculars. They were a little beat-up looking, but worked perfectly. Andy got a booklet on local scenic bicycling routes. Ollie got a deck of playing cards and an odd little set of magnetized marbles. And so on. It was more than just getting stuff; it was knowing that someone obviously really knew each of us, knew and cared, that warmed the heart. But who? None of us had done it, and a few of us got presents that were perfect in ways none of the other students could have known. Had Santa been here? Had one or another of the Masters--or, perhaps all of them--organized this? It is true that they often seemed to know more about us than we had ever told them.
Either way, it was fun--and accurate--to consider the presents the result of magic.