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On Christmas Eve, I must go home

Editor's note: Marilyn Hagerty wrote this Christmas Eve column more than 40 years ago. Its reprinting has become an annual holiday tradition.

Excuse me, please. But it's Christmas Eve, and I must go home.

If only for five minutes and only in my thoughts, I have to go back on Christmas Eve. I haven't been there in person for many years. Still, I never have been away.

Every Christmas, there's a string of events that take me home. It starts when I hear children speaking pieces at church. Then it's the carols, the Christmas tree, the tinsel, the packages.

And in my mind, I snatch a few minutes to travel down Highway 14 in South Dakota once more. Around the curves and down that last big hill above the Missouri River.

I go in the back door.

I walk through the kitchen. The linoleum floor is cracked along the edges, but it is freshly scrubbed and waxed with Glo-coat for this night. As I put my things on the dining room table, I see the glow of lights from the tree in the front room.

I take my place there — close to the tree.

I see my brothers and sisters as children again. And in the big leather rocking chair, I see my dad. It's the moment I've been waiting for.

. . . It always seemed on Christmas Eve everyone ate too slowly. It took too long to do the dishes. It was forever until they finished milking the cow and came back in the house. Then the boys always had to make one last quick shopping trip downtown to Vilas Drug.

Eventually, we open our presents. Daddy sits there holding some handkerchiefs and neckties in his big, rough hands. He has a shaving brush — made in Japan. With his Danish accent, he says, "We have too much. It is too much."

As I tear white tissue paper from a Shirley Temple doll and greedily scan the bottom of the tree for more presents, I think, "It is not too much for me."

Helen and Shirley fondle new sweaters and sniff their bubble bath. My brother, Harley, sits on the floor where the draft comes in under the front door. Walter sits beside him.

Most of the year, I consider Walter my personal enemy. I give him a pinch every time I have a chance. He slugs me back.

On Christmas Eve, with his hair combed and slicked down with oil, Walter looks almost like an angel. On Christmas Eve, nothing is too expensive for Walter's little sisters. He is generous with money he has earned delivering the Capital Journal.

We put on our coats and buckle up our overshoes before we start out for church. As we walk down the back road and up the hill this night seems different from all others.

Maybe it's because we girls get to go without long underwear on Christmas Eve. Maybe it's because we think we see the same star that guided the Wise Men.

It's cold and clear in on Christmas Eve. Because we are early, we stand over the big heat register at the front of the church. Warm air blows up under our skirts. Later, some boys lucky to be chosen as shepherds have blankets draped around them. They get to come in the back door of the little Lutheran church and parade out the door beside the pulpit.

Five minutes is all I can take.

It's time to come back to reality. This is the here and now. The children at my own house are grown and gone. Sometimes they come back on Christmas Eve. There's supper to fix before candlelight services at church.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

It's only a few minutes that I must tarry. I must go home each Christmas Eve.

Reach Hagerty at or call at (701) 772-1055.