The brown paper bag was much smaller than the grocery store version, more in line with a small lunch sack. It didn’t have handles; instead, it had a picket-fence-like top folded over once or twice.
The bag was stained with oil from unsalted peanuts and chocolate-covered bonbons heaped high inside; mixed in was unpackaged hard candy melted together by heat from the furnace in the basement.
That’s where a group of self-appointed church members sat with a gunny sack of peanuts and boxes of apples and oranges, stuffing bags for presentation to each Sunday School student after our annual holiday program.
The bag wasn’t an official part of the program. In fact, the treats inside really didn’t suit me – every year, I hopefully tried one of the bonbons, but inside was a gooey, white filling that tasted like wet chalk. And unsalted peanuts still in the shell; well, that’s a taste I’ve never acquired.
But as much as the contents annually disappointed me, the bag was a tradition, something as much a part of the season as presents and family and decorations.
Growing up, there were other holiday traditions: my mom’s baked beans on the table, my dad’s annoying insistence on taking a photo right before we ate our annual holiday meal, my uncle’s equally annoying insistence that he didn’t like and couldn’t eat turkey, my grandfather’s noisy and clanky laugh, the family’s never-ending discussion about the weather or the state of the family farmer, the obligatory and unwanted visits to other relatives’ houses, the presents piled high on Christmas morning.
It’s funny that 30 years later, I can visualize these vague impressions – good or bad, happy or sad, welcome or not – much more easily than any of the presents I received.
People says the holidays aren’t meant to be experienced alone, that everyone needs to be with friends and family when they gather together, sometimes out of love, sometimes out of duty, sometimes out of desperation, and sometimes mixing in a little bit of each.
But regardless of how many party invitations are hanging on the refrigerator, there will be moments this season when, like it or not, we’re in a solitary state of mind. And that’s when something like a brown paper bag can provide a reference point of belonging.
The memory of that sticky mixture of greasy paper, peanut dust, chocolate and hard candy conjures the holiday spirit any time of my choosing, even when I’m alone in my easychair in a nearly dark room lit only by the screen of a laptop computer purring quietly and dependably along.