Christmas Day - December 25th - 9 AM service
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford
Christmas Day. It was probably 1955 or '56. All I could think about was Dale Evans.
I had been a die-hard fan of Howdy Doody. And, I still was. Buffalo Bob Smith. Clarabelle the Clown. All the characters on that program entertained my childhood imagination and fed my budding sense of humor as a defense against a growing awareness of the absurdities of life.
But, it was Dale Evans and Roy Rogers who captured something even deeper in me - things I didn't yet have words to express. Independence. Adventure. Freedom. I wasn't in school yet but I was a student of the immigrant experience who had inherited the American Dream. There are still things about that which run deep - too deep for words.
Dale Evans was all that. First of all, Roy Rogers was her husband but she was not Dale Rogers. No! She was Dale Evans. She had her own name.
Not only that, but she had her own horse. Buttermilk. She was a Quarterhorse while Roy Rogers rode a Palimino horse named Trigger. I had never even been in the presence of a horse, much less had a dream that I would ever ride one. I didn't know what it meant to be a Quarterhorse but I knew that about the horse she rode the way I knew my father drove a Studebaker.
But, here's the real thing about Dale Evans: She was a cowboy girl. Not a cowgirl. She was a cowboy girl. I insisted on that. In my mind, there was the category "cowboy". That was the status to be achieved.
So, Dale Evans had a cowboy girl outfit: A cowboy girl hat and cowboy girl boots. She wore a leather fringed vest and a leather skirt with fringe.
She even had her own holster which held her very own gun. And, it wasn't just there for show. Dale Evans could shoot that gun just as sure as she could ride Buttermilk. And, she hit her mark every time.
Oh, I wanted to be just like Dale Evans when I grew up. I wanted to be smart and independent. But mostly, I wanted my own Dale Evans outfit.
My mother knew that but, being a thrifty housewife of the 50s, she had long ago put my Christmas present on layaway and paid a little something on it every week when she paid her bills.
She had bought me a Howdy Doody rocking chair. When you sat in it and started rocking, a little teeny tiny music box on one of the rockers would start to play a a teeny tiny tinny version of the Howdy Doody Theme Song, "It's Howdy Doody Time."
Sensing my growing admiration of Dale Evans and listening week after week to my longing to be just like her, she started to get a bit worried about her Christmas gift. So, she did what any smart mother would do: She started to lobby for the Howdy Doody Chair.
I wasn't clever enough yet to figure out what she was doing. I just knew what I wanted - what I dreamed - what I didn't even dare to hope might be under the Christmas tree for me.
When I came down the stairs that Christmas morning, I can still remember the feeling of my heart sinking into my chest when I spied what had to be a Howdy Doody rocking chair covered with Christmas paper. I'm quite certain my mother saw the smile fall from my face as I tried to put on a brave face for my siblings (My parent's admonishment: "You are the oldest, you set the example" was ringing in my ears.), but I quickly resigned myself to not being Dale Evans this year.
I started to make my way over to my present when I heard my father say, "Oh, wait. This says 'Madeline' on it. This is a present for your sister."
Now, my heart, which had fallen into the pit of my stomach, was crushed. I had really blown it. Now, I was probably going to get something stupid. Something like a new pair of pajamas or maybe - Woo hoo - a new sweater.
My father handed me a box just about the size of some boring new clothes - something I probably needed but most certainly didn't want. I started to tear the Christmas paper off the box, trying to focus on that and not on the incessant sound of the rocking chair playing the cheery theme song.
I'm sure the look on my face when I opened the box was an absolute delight to my parents. I can still feel what happens to your facial muscles when you are feeling surprised and delight.
Somewhere in the dump heaps of time, there is a picture of me in that outfit. I am 'striking a pose' near my imaginary horse, Buttermilk, just as I had seen Dale Evans do hundreds of times on TV.
All these years later, the memory of that gift carries me through times of disappointment, times when I feel that my prayers are not being heard, much less listened to.
And, I learned that the gift itself is not the thing, it's the intention of the gift, the thought of the gift, the sheer, utter extravagance of the impracticability of the gift that makes it so memorable and stirs a deep sense of gratitude all these many years later.
I'm sure my parents could not afford that present. I'm sure my mother had to "cut some corners" as she liked to say in order to get what must have been a last-minute purchase.
I think that's when I began to appreciate the real meaning of Christmas - the the real gift of Christmas - which is not so much about the gifts we exchange with each other, but the gift that was given so many centuries ago so that we could be all of who God created us to be, free to make choices to be on this adventure called life.
I don't know if I ever said the words "Thank you," to my mother that Christmas morning. I probably did but I'm sure I didn't have to. The look of surprise and delight and gratitude on my face probably communicated all that and more.
Merry Christmas, everyone. May you know the joy that was deep in the heart of Mary as she gazed upon the child who had come to change the world with extravagant, self-sacrificing love.
You can catch a glimpse of that kind of love in the face of a child who is surprised by delight and thrilled with the unexpected gift, she couldn't have asked for or imagined.
A gift that will last a lifetime - and beyond.