Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
December 17, 2011
It comes around every year, like clockwork, and I’ve been a Grinch about it ever since we quit celebrating it on the old home place. That’s Christmas I’m talking about, and the last time I had much enthusiasm for it was almost 50 years ago.
It was a big deal, Christmas Day on the Woody Creek ranch, a family gathering of large proportions that left most everyone in a festive mood, the climax to a celebration that began weeks before in town.
Christmas was more diverse in Aspen, with a different family (my mother’s), but it also was a much longer holiday. First there was the school play, in which everyone through the sixth grade participated. It never was religious, and instead of wise men there were court jesters, and no one was born in a manger, but there might have been horses or donkeys (or reasonable facsimiles thereof), but never any chickens or goats. Most of the town turned out, even people without kids, because there wasn’t all that much to do in the 1950s and ’60s.
No sooner was that play over than we moved across the street to the Community Church to begin practicing for its Christmas play. That was our one time of the year to have a little relaxed fun in the sanctuary, taking over the minister’s podium for narration and setting up a creche immediately in front of the pews. There were angels in the balcony, trumpets high along the walls and the always-present Mona Frost on the organ. The ever-tireless Mary Eshbaugh Hayes would write the script, different and more interesting each year. Last winter, she sent me a photo of a young Tony V, all decked out in finery of the most exalted sort, the tallest of the wise men, readying to ascend to the upstairs performance.
My maternal grandmother’s house hummed on Christmas Eve. Stapletons, my other family, filled the place with warmth, people I usually didn’t see very often, and it was powerful to mix it up with them for a change. Bill Stapleton (you might remember the Wm. C. Stapleton Agency) would team up with Sam Stapleton (namesake of Sam’s Smokehouse at Snowmass, although we sometimes called him Pete) and make the best eggnog around, called Tom ‘n’ Jerry’s. Uncle Bill wasn’t opposed to a high school kid having fun, and he’d load me up with as much eggnog as he thought I could stand. A couple of times, it was a woozy walk to midnight services at the Community Church.
People started dying, like my grandmother and paternal grandfather, the ranch I grew up on got sold, college beckoned, Dad got sick, and the roots of my life were clipped from my being. Don Stapleton, my hero and best friend, went to Vietnam; Billy Sandersen, a good friend and classmate, got killed over there; and the ugliest of reality began to nose itself into my life with an unsettling persistence.
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I’ve kept my distance from Christmas for a long time, always volunteering to be the one who worked those two days (Eve and Day), even when I owned the company. But I’ve missed something over the years, the understanding that a holiday such as Christmas delivers, the reliance on family that is self-nurturing. My personal life has been a roller coaster, and although I’m not complaining, I wonder which has been the disease and which the symptom, which the event or the reaction?
For the first time in my life, I’ve been practicing Christmas carols on the piano, thinking I might be able to contribute to the overall essence, rather than be a bystander. There are people in my life whom I love and value, individuals from a lifetime in this valley and, of course, my family.
It’s not so much about Christmas, I don’t think, as it is about this spirit of renewal and closeness with friends and family. But what better time to have such a holiday, during winter in the magic of the mountains.