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Reflections in the Silver Cup

TEEC NOS POS CHRISTMASES

The memories I’m about to share are most likely from two or three Christmases—from when I was about six through eight. Sixty years later, they seem to have rolled themselves into one very full Christmas.

When I was six, I attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school on the hill above the mission at Teec Nos Pos. That was where I learned the Christmas song “Up on the Rooftop” with my Navajo classmates. I learned it in Dummitawry English, and that’s still how I sing it to myself around the house these days. “Gib en a dolly dat laffin’ an’ cryin’, One dat openin’ and closin’ his eye.” And so on. My mother tried to correct me when I came home singing it, but her corrections, as with so many attempts to correct my Nava-glish, just sounded wrong. And I was stubborn. After all, I’d learned it in school.

Leading up to Christmas, my father and the many missionaries over all of Navajo Country visited the schools where they taught Christianity every week to children who probably often didn’t understand a word of what was being said. But they sang the Gospel choruses lustily. One year I got into the cab of the mission pickup with my dad and we drove on a dirt track out to the little stone BIA school in Cove, Arizona, through red rock passes and juniper and piñon bushes. Dad had a box full of small brown paper sacks filled with hard candies of all colors and shapes, roasted peanuts in their shells and an orange in each. He let me help him hand them out to the children after he told the story of the baby born in the stable. Today when I peel an orange, the scent always brings back Christmastime.

A few weeks earlier, two small women had pulled up in a car that looked like a gray turtle and sounded like a sewing machine. “It’s called a Volkswagen,” they told us. They were Wycliffe Bible Translators from Farmington, translating the Bible into Navajo. I got on my bike and pedaled furiously around and around the funny looking car, spending my excited energy (those were the days when the Shiprock missionary’s nickname for me was High Voltage).

I was always excited when we had visitors, but this time I was thrilled because the women had brought a big box with them from the Post Office in Shiprock—our order from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Most of our clothes came from what we called the Mission Box—used clothing that church people from all over the US and Canada sent for the poor, which was most everyone we knew. When we got truly new clothes, they had been made by my mother from color-print flour sacks. A box of store-bought clothing was practically unheard of. Just getting the box was like having Christmas spill out of that gray turtle, but its contents would become part of our Christmas Eve.

On the day of Christmas Eve, we drove to Beclaibito. The teacher there was Diné—probably one of two or three Native teachers in the entire Nation. Her daughter Irma was my friend, and we would eventually graduate from high school together. Mrs. Henderson was known for putting on spectacular programs and pageants, and we sat spellbound as a Native version, complete with detailed costumes and real animals, of the Christmas story was told once again. Another box of candy sacks came out after the program. This was my third bag of candy and peanuts, because I’d gotten one in my own classroom, too. I got carsick on the winding road back home.

My mother had me lie down on the couch, where I lay and looked at the Christmas lights, which were fat and orange and green and red and blue and white. I didn’t have to set the table for supper, but when it was almost time to eat, my mother called out, “Come here to the utility room.” It was where the gas-powered wringer washer, tubs and washboard were. “Daddy has a special present to show you.” I wrapped myself in my mother’s rose-colored chenille robe and came to the doorway between the kitchen and the washroom. There on the cement floor stood the surprise—a tiny, fuzzy gray donkey. My brothers and sister were already petting him. “What’s his name?” I asked.

Dad said, “We could call him Bahe.” It was the Anglicization of łibahi, meaning gray. So the baby donkey became Bahe.

By suppertime, I had recovered completely. My mother had roasted mutton ribs and made fry bread. There’s a photo of us that Christmas Eve, a big stack of fry bread on the table, us stripping ribs clean, our faces shining with grease and happiness.

After the ribs and fry bread, we put on our pajamas. They were brand new from that box the Wycliffe Bible Translators had brought to us. Mine were soft white flannel, and they had tiny orange and turquoise and pink stars sprinkled over them. We went to the living room to open gifts. Dad told the Christmas story; no doubt it was the fourth or fifth time for us that season. He would not have failed to mention that Christmas is not just about a baby in a stable, but about God’s gift for our salvation.

And then the presents. My favorite came from my Grandma Van Zwol, my mother’s mother in Everett, Washington. It was a box of stationery. Real, grown-up stationery for writing letters. Yes, writing. I stroked the glossy box, opened and closed it, admired the grosgrain ribbon that tied the sheaf of together, fingered the paper. A pen came with it, and right after we finished unwrapping, I started a letter to my grandmother. Well, after we ate the flaky, sweet, Dutch almond pastry that Grandma always sent us at Christmas—banket.

Christmas Day has never held such important traditions in our family. We inherited the Northern European traditions of a special meal and the opening of gifts on Christmas Eve. All those Dutch traditions were part of what, years later, would make it so easy for me in many ways to feel at home in Danish culture.

© Anna Redsand All Rights Reserved
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