I grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, in the Holston Valley, in a two-bedroom house on a dirt road about five miles from the Virginia state line and about fifty miles from the North Carolina state line.
Later, Dad would add another bedroom and a dining room and black oil would be put on the dirt road to keep the dust down. Eventually, the road would be graveled and, ultimately, paved. It was a working-class neighborhood, perhaps, even a lower working class area.
In my early years, Dad, after serving in the Navy in World War II, worked in a paper plant, as a shoe salesman, as a small grocery store owner, as an antique shop owner, and as a life insurance salesman. He hated all but the small businesses but neither of those was particularly successful.
Although I didn’t know it, we struggled to make ends meet. Dad would take on extra jobs at night and on the weekends doing whatever needed to be done. As a child, I was blissfully unaware of our financial condition. My mom was a full-time mother and homemaker, having left the workforce when I was born. My brother would come along about nine years later.
When I think back about it, it’s a wonder we had Christmas at all. To this day, I don’t know how they afforded it. I can never remember a Christmas morning that wasn’t magical.
My Mom and Dad would go into the woods, select a tree that fit into our small house, cut it down, and bring it home. Mom would go to the closet, get down the Christmas box, and pull out the colored lights, the fragile glass balls, the tinsel, and the icicles made of foil that she re-used year after year.
Some years, Mom popped popcorn and, with a needle and threat, strung the popcorn and decorate the tree. After the season was over, the string of popcorn would feed the birds in the small woods next door. When that happened, when the tree was up, I knew that the Magical Morning wasn’t far off.
My parents would ask what I wanted Santa to bring and, like most kids, I had a list. But they would always ask, of all those items, what did I want the most? One year it was an Alamo play-set, complete with the Alamo itself and plastic Mexican soldiers and Alamo defenders. Another year it was a chemistry set.
But one year I wanted a bicycle. It wasn’t practical. The street we lived on, Hill Street (later named “Busbee Street), had that name for a reason. We lived on a hill.
By the time I asked for the bike, Hill Street was a gravel road. And I had never ridden a bike. A kid who doesn’t know how to ride a bike, who lives on a steep hill, with a gravel road, is just asking to get hurt. But it’s what I wanted. And bikes were expensive but I figured that Santa had lots of bikes in his storehouse, or wherever he kept toys.
My folks tried to prepare me not to be too disappointed and asked about the second most thing I wanted. I do not remember what it was.
Every Christmas Eve, we went to my Grandpa and Grandma’s house for dinner. My mom’s two sisters, their husbands, and the other four children were always there. As a kid, it was my second favorite day, second only to the Magical Morning.
Somewhere between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. we would head home where the bed awaited. With the food and the excitement I would be tired but, at the same time, wired with anticipation. I would plot to sneak out of bed to catch Santa but my father warned that, if I did that, Santa would know and the tree would be empty the next morning.
I tried each time to stay awake but sleep soon overcame my excitement and I would drift off into a sound sleep. The rule was that I couldn’t get out of bed until my parents came to get me. That was the worst time.
Finally, the door would open and I would bound out of bed and run into the living room to see the most wonderful sights of a fully lit tree and packages wrapped in bright paper and ribbon. The Magical Morning had arrived.
I think I was about 10, maybe 11, the year I asked for the bike. Having been prepared for disappointment, I still looked forward to seeing what I would find under the tree. To my utter astonishment, beside the tree was a brand-new, bright red, bicycle!
I remember quietly approaching it, running my hand over the smooth red steel, and asking, “Is this mine?” It was. It was the best present ever.
It didn’t take long for me to get it on the gravel road and wreck multiple times. There were no training wheels, so I was dropped into the deep end on a steep gravel hill that took umbrage at my bike and me violating its sanctity by inflicting numerous wounds and scars over the next several weeks.
But, finally, I learned to ride. I would push the bike up the hill and then ride down. Eventually, I was able to pedal up the steep hill all the way and coast down. This opened up a whole new world.
As a kid, I was one of the youngest and weakest in the neighborhood. I was fat, non-athletic, and fearful of being bullied (which I was with regularity). The bike changed all that.
As I continued to ride up the hill, I slimmed down, my legs, especially, became stronger, my wind improved, and my confidence was bolstered.
When I was 13, and still non-athletic, I went out for the football team at Ross N. Robinson Junior High. Barely, I survived the cut, and occupied the bench as an alternate third string tackle.
The next year I was the starting center. At 15, I went out for the football team at Dobyns-Bennett High School, the alma mater of the great Coach Bobby Dodd (as in “Bobby Dodd Football Stadium” at Georgia Tech) and home to the winningest high school football program in Tennessee history.
I made third team varsity and first team J.V. I moved up a string my junior year and started at center my senior year. I joined the high school karate team and, after graduation, enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Later, I played flag football at Fort Lee, VA and, later, tackle football at Quantico Marine Corps Base and made the East All-Star Team (that defeated the West All-Stars 31-30 in1972).
Would all of that had happened without the red bicycle? I really don’t know, but I think not.
I eventually learned that Santa did not, in fact, have a warehouse and that the shiny red bike was purchased at great personal cost and sacrifice by the two people who loved me the most.
Doubtless, my brother has his own stories of Magical Mornings, but, for me, this is the one that stands out. The bike, though I couldn’t have known it at the time, would change my life.
My father would eventually enter an apprenticeship program and become an electrician and the days of want and struggle would come to an end. But those mornings in those more prosperous years were still magical.
It’s not the brightly lit trees, or the beautiful decorations, or even the gifts that make the morning magical. It the love of family and the hope and anticipation on the faces of children that make it so.
For me, there is now another magical day but it not Christmas morning. Now, it’s Christmas Eve where, for over twenty years, our family has gathered with others to celebrate the birth of Christ in song, in scripture, and in gathering around the Table of the Lord to receive the Holy Sacrament.
And that magical time is also about cost, and sacrifice, and changed lives, and hope, and anticipation, and love — love from the One who loves us the most. And about God’s greatest gift to a world that, inexplicably, He loves.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]