Yes, Virginia, there is a small-town American Christmas (or, we find newts in the toilet and Santa is exposed.)

The Victorian Choir has been a tradition for a decade.

The Victorian Choir has been a tradition for a decade.

My village, Otter Creek, has an annual Christmas gathering that is part comedy of errors and part a magical suspension of time and personal differences.

It is held in the former church, which has lofty ceilings, beadboard walls with old crackly varnish, long windows with colored glass fanlights, and it feels like Christmas even in June. We brought in a tall tree, one neighbor hung lights, and another placed a few ornaments. The quilted tree skirt, which had been stored in a cupboard for a year, had bits of white cotton poking out little holes the mice had nibbled. We neatly tucked the damage out of sight, and turned on the strings of lights. The hall looked warm and festive already.

I added a bowl of sweet-scented balsam with wine-red rose hips to the bathroom, and glanced in the toilet to be sure it was clean. Instead of the expected water ring, I saw newts. Six of them. Pop-eyed, they looked at me as they swayed in the bottom of the toilet bowl. It took a moment to register that they were dead, simply moving with the motion of the water. But how on earth did they get there? The nearest stream having a newt population was half a mile away. Did they make that incredible trek, overcoming whatever perils the sewer pipes must have tossed at them, only to starve in a toilet bowl? I wanted to spend more time figuring it out, but the newts would have to remain a mystery. I had garlands to hang, tables to set up, and a choir to haul up from the basement.

How did newts get into the toilet?

How did newts get into the toilet?

Almost a decade ago four Victorian singers had been painted on a refigerator-size sheet of corrugated cardboard. Our village is home to fishermen, nurses, a few artists, more than one soul living on assistance, caretakers, a thief, and an actress. But it was the magician who painted that choir. Their faces were cut out so we could poke our heads through and take photos, and it has amazingly withstood year after year of storage in the damp basement.

The cardboard cut-out was made one afternoon just before the first Victorian Christmas Celebration, which featured stereoscope viewing, a guess-what-it-is table, and a table full of Victorian costumes for revelers to wear for the evening. The Victorian theme has passed on, but we are informed well before the gathering that we need to have that choir. It has been patched, nailed to a frame, carried around by boisterous teens, had a dozen plastic bins of hymnals stacked on it, yet it emerges dented, bent, and ready to stand up for another year. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

We also revive the wooden sign, which Bonnie the gardener lettered several years ago. George, who was born here, went away for a career, then retired here (why did he bother leaving?) paints over the old date, paints in the new, and it is good to go. It wouldn’t be Christmas without that sign.

My step-daughter remembered fishing for gifts as a little girl, and brought back Santa’s Chimney. This consists of a red plastic tablecloth with bricks shapes outlined by adhesive tape and pinned to a folding screen. I had no idea what she was doing, and kept grabbing the folding screen for people to hide behind as they tried on Victorian costumes. She kept dragging it back for the chimney. We didn’t know each other well yet, but I finally got it when she tacked on the chimney.

Santas chimnei is a red plastic tablecloth with adhesive tape bricks pinned to a folding screen.

Santa’s chimney is a red plastic tablecloth with adhesive tape bricks pinned to a folding screen.

How is it possible the same red plastic tablecloth can be used year after year? I volunteer at other holiday events, and someone is always running to the store to buy more of something, or to buy a new one, whatever it is. We don’t. We patch and mend and cherish all the bits and pieces that make our Otter Creek Christmas so special.

We shook out the red brick cloth, tacked it up, and added a few odd stockings from Christmases past. The folding screen chimney was ready—now for gifts. The woman who runs the local candy store donated bags of candy, someone else brought stickers and removable tattoos, and in no time we had a big basket of gifts for kids to fish for. The fishing pole is a wooden dowel wrapped with a long string and a plastic chip bag clip on the end. I wrapped the gifts, and put post-its on the ones that might be gender specific. I know any eight-year old boy would be delighted by pink Barbie hair bands, but stuck a note on it anyway, saying “Girl gift.

Elmer brought his homemade, custardy, and addictive eggnog. We look forward to it every year. It is another thing it just wouldn’t be Christmas without. We turned on carols, the tree was lit, the chimney was ready, the choir propped up, and the table cloths spread. The newts had been flushed away. We were ready for the neighborhood to bring their potluck offerings and the gathering to begin. Danny went to start the coffee, I went to put out the guest book. The first neighbors came through the door. Christmas had begun.

As I walked to greet them, half the tree lights flickered and went out. Danny moaned. I said, “It’s okay, I have more lights in the car.” He said, “No, the coffee pot hasn’t been cleaned, it is full of moldy grounds.”

My lights were white, not colored, so the tree became a calico, with colored lights on top and bottom, white in the middle. We pulled out an old percolator and perked coffee. We met new neighbors, swapped recipes, watched girls who had never seen the choir before pose in front of it and smile through it as their friends took pics with their phones. Voices mingled, and we shared. Shared food, stories, concerns about village improvements, and memories of what it was like here a hundred years ago, which none of us actually remember, but like to think we do.

Sharing food is part of the magic.

Sharing food is part of the magic.

Everyone ate, and kids circled the chimney. It was time to fish for gifts. Santa was my friend and fellow Otter Creeker, Linda. She crouched behind the folding screen and totally oblivious of my notes sent gifts up and out of the chimney. The four-year-olds were wide-eyed as bags of candy and gaily wrapped packages were tossed out to them. The teens giggled at the tiny yellow post-it notes that said “Girl, 3 to 6 years,” on their gifts, but opened them anyway, and even kept them. I bent to clear away the accumulating tissue paper that was looking like mounds of snow in front of the chimney when Linda tossed out a hefty little package and hit me on the top of my head.

I staggered into a chair, someone reached to help me, Linda called, “What’s going on?” and the red chimney teetered and slowly fell forward. Children watched as a slim, middle-aged lady with jeans and a white sweater, instead of Santa in a red suit with white trim, stared at them in surprise. I felt as though we were in Oz. We shoved the chimney back up, the little ones blinked, and it was clear they did not see, or wanted to believe they did not see, a thing. “Who is in the chimney?” “Santa,” they shout. And the gifts continued to get pulled from behind the screen.

The last gift is out of the chimney, and we all circle the tree. Someone turns off the recordings and we sing carols. We sing the same carols villagers have been singing here for years. Some are religious, some are not. I do not think any of us care. We are a community. We are an odd assortment of mismatched people with not much in common but a village. The songs go on. We mess up choruses, and are singing at different tempos. Our eyes meet each other’s around the circle, and there are only smiles.

P0007294I know I would do anything to help anyone in that room, and that they would help me if I had a need. We are giving that message to all the young children there. The lights are dimmed. We pass candles, and help each other to get them all lit. When everyone is holding a flame it is quiet, just a rustling as people shift their song sheets or their feet.

Then one voice begins. “Silent night, holy night…” We all join in.

When it is over someone says, “Merry Christmas, everyone.” We hug, shake hands, blow out the candles, turn on the lights, and help clean up.

We are all different. We do different things, have different beliefs. But for this one night, in this little hall, we are a village. It just wouldn’t feel like Christmas without it.

Karen O. Zimmermann

About Karen O. Zimmermann

Karen O. Zimmermann savors chance encounters with people throughout the state of Maine, and is endlessly delighted with the tales they have to share.