The smallest story never told: A tale for Christmas

The smallest story never told: A tale for Christmas

As a youngster growing up in rural Ohio, the living room shadow box became a magical Christmas display in abode McNickle. It was rivaled only by the large, L-shaped HO train platform that wrapped around a fireplace open on two contiguous sides and the “manger scene” in “the boys’ bedroom.”

Recessed into the western red cedar-paneled wall just down from the front door, the shadow box typically was home to all manner of brass knickknacks and, if time and height permitted, a quick check of the hair in its incorporated mirror before dashing out the door and up the hill to catch the school bus.

For some reason unbeknownst to me, Dad never trimmed it out. But still it was striking, what with the wood’s rich hues and that large mirror reflecting volume after volume of literary classics in the library at the other end of the living room.

At Christmastime, the shadow box was transformed into a world that children with visions of sugarplums in their heads would dream of seeing again after 11 months, and one by which even adults would linger during the few weeks that it was on display.

The shadow box perimeter typically was festooned with white garland accented with red berries and, some years, lights that sometimes worked. There always was a “Merry Christmas” string hanging across the top, the alternating green and red letters cut from construction paper.

At the base, in both corners, were hobby pine trees covered with “snow.” Next in, on opposite ends, were tall matching red candles (in mini Santa Claus mugs) featuring Santa’s face.

In the center of the shadow box’s base sat a fireplace cut from Styrofoam, complete with Styrofoam packages “wrapped” in ribbon and held in place in the firebox with a pin or two. Seated atop, a Santa Claus and an elf (or two). And there might even be a few pinecones and artificial silver and gold foliage surrounding it. One year, a variety of figures held letters spelling “Noel.”

It looked like a fancy department store window display. And that wasn’t by accident; much of the material was discarded from the old Stone & Thomas department store where Grandma Cline, our maternal grandmother, worked in the basement “package department.”

The cutest touch, however — and the most enticing one that should have gotten me into the deepest of trouble but never did — were the Gurley candles.

You might not know the brand name but those born from the 1940s through the mid-1960s should know the candles well. They ranged from 3 inches to more than 7 inches tall. From snowmen to Santas, from elves to angels and from those carolers to even reindeer and Christmas trees, they adorned many Christmas displays of the era.

Mom’s Gurleys were dubbed “carolers” but, more precisely, they were kids in their choir robes; each was 5 inches tall. They sat on the left side of the shadow box, never were to be lit and became a fixation for a 10-year-old in 1968.

What happened to one of them became the smallest story never told. Until now.

Candles were to be burned, I reasoned, thinking of the much larger candles that paternal grandfather Pop made and painstakingly molded into works of curled-wax art.

But burning these candles would destroy the carolers, Mom countered with a slightly stern look to silence my pestering. Little could be said, however, to deter my mischievous designs.

Thus, one night, on Christmas break, older brothers either out or otherwise occupied and parents asleep, I lit one of the carolers as I ran the trains. And promptly forgot about it. Until, that is, hours later when I smelled the smoke of the flame extinguishing itself.

The caroler was gone, a waxy mess had to be remedied and I rearranged the two remaining carolers to hide my offense. For as some smart aleck once wrote, “Confession may be good for the soul but it doesn’t get one much reputation for sense.”

Most surprisingly, a typically observant Mom never said a word; whether she knew or not, I cannot say.

Nearly a half-century later, six years ago, I made my Christmas amends.

As I perused a Vermont Country Store catalog that December, near the top of page 28, a reasonable facsimile of the carolers (“inspired by the Gurley candles”) jumped out at me. In short order, I was on the phone, buying a set of three. They arrived, two boys and a girl — each 3 inches tall, each ensconced in a bubble-wrap blanket, neatly boxed and dead ringers for the originals.

The trio found a place of repentant honor on my fireplace mantel, right next to the “manger scene” from the old “boys’ bedroom.”

And in honor of my late mother, five decades after ignoring her admonition and covering my tracks, their wicks will not be lit this Christmas or any Christmas. These carolers will live forever.

Until, of course, some future grandchild takes after his grandfather.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).