Christmas at Our House

Much work and sacrifice goes into the Red Kettle campaign, and for at least this Salvation Army family, the gifts that come out are priceless. by Pauline Hylton

“If you put some money in the kettle, we’ll stop singing!” my father shouted as we manned the Red Kettle outside the mall entrance. Then he burst out laughing.

That illustrated the essence of my childhood. My father bigger than life, exploding with life.

My parents served as officers for The Salvation Army in Decatur, Illinois. During the Christmas season, we stayed busy from sun-up to well past sunrise serving meals, running the Red Kettle Campaign and presenting programs.

Since we had no other time to shop, we’d hit the mall around 3 PM on Christmas Eve to do our shopping. We sifted through the gifts no one chose and found something semi-suitable. Mostly, we just enjoyed being together. 

And we sang a questionable three-part harmony at all the kettle stands we passed.

We made a lot of money for the Army when we sang—or stopped singing.

So ours was not the typical Christmas household.

And I’m glad.

When we gathered with my sisters and their families on Christmas morning, our presents weren’t wrapped in green and red paper. Most of them sat in brown grocery bags with our name handwritten in magic marker. Sometimes the merchandise lay shrouded in old pillowcases. The presents that were wrapped were wrapped by me—even my own.

I always likened the Christmas season for my family to be on a fast merry-go-round and Christmas Day, someone just stopped it. The stillness made us dizzy.

So on Christmas Day, we’d have a leisurely breakfast together and then gather around the tree. Dad would take out his well-worn King James Version Bible and turn to Luke 2. Sometimes he read, sometimes he asked someone else to read. 

The words told a story both simple and profound. Cradled with the poetic language of the King James era, the God of the universe lay cradled in a young girl’s arms. Listening to the story never got old. It sounded like a sweet song—the sweet song of redemption.

After the reading, my father would retrieve a single white candle stored for safekeeping in our mahogany china cabinet.

“Pauline, since you are the youngest girl, you may light the candle.” He’d hand me the matches and smile. Lighting the candle always made me feel special.

“Happy birthday, to You. Happy birthday to You. Happy birthday to You,” we’d sing in reverent awe. And then we’d pray.

I don’t remember any gifts I received during that time. I do remember the faces of my family through soft candlelight, Dad’s well-worn Bible, and our humble worship.

Those are priceless gifts I carry with me in my mind and heart today. 

The Hylton family has a candle of its own packed away in our china cabinet for safekeeping.

And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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