Thursday, December 1, 2011

Box of memories

Author with Santa at a local mall in the 60's
            The big day was always marked by one event.  Dad would go into the basement and lug the giant box upstairs.  Within that single box lay all the magic of our Christmas season.  The contents never changed, but each year the excitement remained unabated.  Reaching into the box, Mom would pull out our stockings, which were nothing more than the traditional red and white socks that all school children have drawn at one time.  Next would come box after box of old, glass ornaments.  Several had originated with my mother’s parents and bore witness to many, many Christmases.  Below this layer we would reach the household decorations.  There were the plastic Santa faces baring a striking resemblance to that rosy-cheeked, smiling elf from the classic Coca Cola advertisements that would hang on the walls of our basement.  Tucked in among these was the aluminum tree which also would take up its holiday residence in the basement.  Various candles could also be found hidden among the decorations.  There were carolers holding hymnals, a Santa Claus candle and also a small reindeer candle which I always regarded as Rudolph.  And finally there were the homemade decorations consisting of small elves sitting daintily in glass jars.
The surviving candles

            The fresh cut Christmas tree, which had been sitting out against the clothesline pole for a few days would be brought in and set in the old metal stand.  Instantly, the house filled with the smell of pine, a signal the Yuletide season had truly begun.  I would have already inspected the trees for small pine cones which I set on the register in my bedroom to watch open under the heat of the furnace.  Similarly, my sister would have looked for a bird’s nest, always considered a sign of good luck.   Dad would move and adjust the tree until Mom agreed it was straight and in the proper position.
My grandparents decorate their tree in the 50's.

            After placing the topper on the tree’s tip, Dad would then retrieve the several loops of colored Christmas lights.  These were the old fashioned, large bulbs in shades of red, yellow, green and blue.  Here and there some paint would have chipped off the glass revealing a small spot of pure white light.  Their unique clicking and clanking sound, as the bulbs gently bumped together, is one of those sounds that has faded into history much like the manual typewriter, but it remains a highly evocative sound to me.  Dad would plug them in and check each set knowing that if even one light were burned out, the entire strand would remain dark.  Whenever this would happen, he began the ritual of tightening and thumping each individual light to see if it were loose.  That failing, he would get a fresh bulb and one by one unscrew each bulb to test it with the fresh one.  Once the defective bulb was located and replaced, Dad would thread the strands through the branches bringing the tree to life.
My sister, Dianna, and brother, Jerry,  in front of the tree
The snowflake sitting in front of a light

            Meanwhile, Mom had opened each of the boxes of ornaments and had them laid out on the kitchen table for us.   It was always my goal to hang the first ornament and the one I usually reached for was a clear, green, plastic snowflake.  Honestly, I don’t know what attracted me to that one as it is not particularly attractive, but I do know I felt an obligation to hang it where it sat directly in front of a light in order to be illuminated properly.  Another popular “ornament” was a small set of red flannel pajamas.  I’m not sure of their original purpose, although I believe they came as part of an advertisement; however, to me they were the cast-off long johns of some tiny elf.  In fact, part of me wondered each Christmas if the little guy would return to reclaim his underwear, but there they sat each Christmas morning just where I had hung them.  Just as she would seek out birds’ nests in the trees on the lot, my sister also tended to be the one who sought out the bird’s nest which we used as an ornament, tucking it deep within the tree.  Above this she would hang a glass bird ornament.  Next we would divvy up the remaining glass bulbs.  There were the elongated, teardrop-shaped icicle ornaments, which were always a favorite.  Laid out alongside these were small, onion shaped ornaments in shades of pink with magenta poinsettias flecked with glitter, and round burgundy ornaments with deep dimpled sides of silver terminating in a green star.  Another box contained white ones with delicate green leaves vining across their surface.  I preferred the ornaments with scenes painted on them such as the one with a cabin covered in snow, smoke rising from the chimney or the one with Frosty the Snowman.  Silver plastic reindeer stood in proud, alert poses.  But I think my favorite ornament of all was probably the ugliest of the entire collection.  The oldest of all the decorations, it was simply a clear, spherical ornament with a shaggy foil column in the center and specks of old, artificial snow still clinging to the sides.  Like the plastic snowflake, it only came to life if hung strategically in front of a light, but I was drawn to it not for its looks, but for its age and history.  
One of the more elaborate of the old ornaments
Cabin ornament
Frosty ornament

            Once the ornaments were hung, Dad would wrap the tree with the tinsel-style garland.  The completion of that task signaled a favorite phase of the decorating for my sister and me – the addition of the icicles.  We first used the saved remnants of the previous year’s supply which we had dutifully removed the prior January, and which Mom had laid out in paper towels before carefully wrapping and securing them.  The rule was to only add them a few strands at a time, but it was hard to resist the temptation to gather a small handful and toss them towards the tree to let them settle as they may on the needles below.  Mom kept a close eye on us and would call a halt to the fun whenever she saw the icicles flying.  When we were done, the tree literally sparkled from top to bottom.  On a few Christmases, Mom would buy a can of spray-on snow, and the tree was given a final dusting; however, the moist snow tended to stick to the ornaments and make them difficult to clean, so this was not a common practice for us.
The old clear ornament in the light
The ornament comes to life in the dark

            However, the artificial snow did find a use each year, and while I was too young to participate, I always looked forward to the finished product.  Each December Mom would buy stencils, a can of artificial snow and a set of Tempura paints and allow my older siblings to decorate the windows, including the glass window of the door to the China closet.  Our mother was quite the neat freak, and the rest of the year we were sternly scolded if we did anything to smudge the glass.  (This didn’t stop us from writing or making small “footprints” with our fists whenever there was adequate condensation on the windows in winter.)  Yet at Christmastime she turned the windows over to her children for decoration.  As the years passed and window cleaners changed, she found the paint and snow no longer adequately clung to the glass, leaving the designs smudged or full of voids, so this much loved ritual slowly went by the wayside.
I always liked the onion shape of this ornament
A pretty classic ornament of its time

           Another surprising tradition was the hanging of the Christmas cards.  My parents received a goodly number of cards each December, and these were always displayed by taping them to the back of the front door.  We were never allowed to place tape on walls or doors, but like the windows, Christmas was the one glaring exception.  By the end of the holiday, the back of the door would be nearly hidden by these holiday greetings.
Enjoying my new drum on Christmas morning.  The card-covered door in the background.

            Once the upstairs decorating was complete, my sister and I would rush to the basement to assemble the aluminum Christmas tree.  It stood about three feet tall and consisted of a silver wooden trunk that looked like a broom handle with holes drilled in it.  The shape of the tree came not from various sized branches, they were all equal in size, but by the angle at which they were set into the trunk.  The branches themselves consisted of a heavy wire covered in aluminum foil needles.  They had been neatly stored away in their paper sleeves, so constructing the tree was an easy matter.  The trunk was placed in the stand then, one by one, we would grab a wire end protruding from the sleeve and slide the branch out, placing it in one of the holes on the trunk.  The result was anything but realistic, but because we were allowed to do it all by ourselves, the tree was something in which Sheila and I took great pride.  Once assembled, we would add the ornaments which were simply various sized, glass balls in red, green, blue and gold.  Just as the lights bumping together on the big tree stirs warm memories, the sound of glass ornaments gently knocking together is forever burned into my memory.   I do not believe we ever made it through decorating without dropping and breaking at least one ornament, but there was an ample supply so the tree remained well adorned.  The plastic Santa faces were then hung on the paneled walls to complete the Christmas theme.  A special treat was when Dad would turn on the lights around the homemade bar in the basement.  The lights were very old and some were in the shape of stars or small birds.  Because there were no replacement bulbs available, it was the only time the bar was ever lighted.   On the wall behind the bar was a box with a series of images that scrolled across a lighted screen when plugged in.  The images represented the four seasons, so after decorating the tree, we plugged in the box and watched the fall scene of hunters in the field roll by and the subsequent winter scene of skiers with their red plaid jackets standing knee deep in snow, skis standing upright beside them replace it.   With that act, the basement was complete and ready for the holidays.

One of Mom's creations
            In my early years, my mother enjoyed making Christmas decorations to display.  Their design followed this basic premise - take a large-mouthed glass jar and cut a piece of Styrofoam to fill the opening.  Then take some figurine, most often a small elf or Santa, and various plastic presents or Christmas type plants and stick them in the Styrofoam so that a holiday vignette appears to be taking place in a small aquarium.  The inverted jar is then glued to a glass ashtray which has also been turned upside down.  This base was decorated with rick rack, the zigzag trim used in sewing and crafts, along with glitter and stars.  The outside of the jar was sprayed with hairspray and a thin dusting of glitter added.  The whole thing was topped off with a few more small items such as a plastic poinsettia bloom or a small package glued on top.  The end result was cute, even if it did smack of a simple homemade nature.  These my mother proudly displayed or gave to our teachers as their annual Christmas gift.   As much fun as I had helping Mom make these, I received just as much enjoyment accompanying her to Ben Franklin, the local five and dime store where we would study all the craft supplies as we planned our next “creation.”
The prettiest Christmas angel of them all - my mom
            Decorations were not the only homemade item during the holiday.  My mother had a bow-making kit which she kept tucked away in the bar along with her sewing supplies the rest of the year.  It consisted of a series of pegs with a pointed peg in the center.  One end of the ribbon would be speared onto the center peg then passed around the remaining pegs, each time traversing the middle where it was again fixed to the center.  There were various patterns that could be chosen, and it leant a very personal touch to my mother’s wrappings.  Another quality that marked my mother’s gifts was her ability to tie the ribbon so tightly around the packages as to render it impossible to remove.   I’m sure as a child, I learned a quick way around these ribbons and bows, but it was always fun to watch a novice try to open one of Mom’s packages.  They would tug and pull and maybe even bite at the ribbon, admitting defeat just about the time the ribbon would finally give way enough to slide it off the package.
            Wrapping began early and the presents were kept in the basement until just days before Christmas.  Knowing she had four curious children, Mom would intentionally leave names off some of the packages, just to keep us guessing.  Finally, the word would be given that we could bring them upstairs and place them around the tree.  This was as exciting as Christmas morning itself because it gave us our first chance to check the heft of a particular present or perhaps shake a box to guess at the prize within based upon its rattle or rustle.  We would each jockey to make sure our presents were near the front so we could easily find them come the big day.  I would even go as far as to draw a map of the presents’ layout and plan my approach on how to best attack opening the gifts on Christmas morning.  Knowing this, Mom would playfully rearrange the gifts once I had gone to bed on Christmas Eve.
            This was the season for special food, as well.  The one sure thing for which we anxiously awaited was my mother’s fudge.  It was the highlight of our candy eating year.  Her recipe was nothing exotic; I think it may have been the recipe on the back of the chocolate chip package, yet her skill transformed it into something better than most.  Like the glass decorations, a tub of Mom’s fudge was always well-received by my grade school teachers.  On occasion, she would branch out into divinity or bourbon balls, but fudge was the welcomed constant.  When the old, silver cake pan came out, we knew that her delicious sticky buns were not far behind. It was the only batch she would make all year long, so it was a relished treat.  
My little Santa mug
Something else would also go into the fridge at this time of year.  Mom would make a batter with which my father would mix Tom and Jerries in the evening.  A Tom and Jerry is a hot, Christmas cocktail made with a batter of eggs, sugar and vanilla to which hot water and bourbon are added.  The concoction is dusted with nutmeg and is a great warming drink on a cold winter night.  Mom and Dad each had a tall, steaming mug full, but I had a small Santa mug which probably only held an ounce of liquid.  Dad would pour a little into this, watering it down even further allowing me to feel part of the celebration.   I don’t drink, but I would love to go back in time and sit down and share a hot Tom and Jerry with my parents.
While visions of sugarplums danced in (his) head
  Christmas Eve still remains for me more enjoyable than Christmas itself.  The excitement and expectation do more to get my heart fluttering than actually seeing my opened gifts.  Until you open a present, the sky’s the limit.  That’s why the smile quickly fades on the face of a child when he discovers that box he hoped might contain the most exciting game he had ever seen or a rare toy turns out in fact to be new socks or underwear.  And to me there is nothing quite so sad as a Christmas tree that only a day before had been bulging with the bounty of gifts, now sitting alone and empty.  So when the 24th rolled around, my excitement would grow exponentially.  I would sit and study the packages over and over, always hoping to spot a new one I had not seen before.  There was always an urge to open something, so to appease us Mom would allow us to give the dogs their presents, which were usually wrapped raw hide bones.  We’d make a little tear in the paper then toss the gifts to the dogs and see if they could manage to tear them open.  This is the one time I can remember Flash, our old pug, get truly excited with a toy.  When I was in high school we usually opened a gift from my oldest sister, Dianna, on Christmas Eve.  She was 13 years my senior, so by this time she was out of the house and living on her own.  However, still wanting to be part of the family tradition, she loaded her little, red VW bug with bags and baskets of gifts and came to spend Christmas Eve night with us.  One thing she usually tried to do was to buy a gift to open that night.  Wanting to provide entertainment and family bonding time, the gift would invariably be a board game which the family would play until my bedtime.  
            I always approached Christmas Eve with the idea that the sooner I went to sleep, the quicker the big day would arrive.  So I would wish everyone a good night and head to bed a couple hours earlier than usual.  On paper, this sounds like a very good strategy, but in practice it fell far short of the mark.  First of all, I am a creature of habit, and just because I went to bed two hours early didn’t mean I fell asleep any sooner, and this was proven year after year.  I would find myself watching the numbers slowly turn on my clock.  Occasionally, I would peek out my window and eye the clear December sky for that one bright star that had once led the Wise Men to find the baby Jesus.  Not fully appreciating its biblical relevance, I felt it should appear on every Christmas Eve.  Finally, I would drift off to sleep only to wake hourly to check the clock and listen for Santa.  Again, I would make my way to the window, but now instead of looking for a star, I was looking for a sleigh in the sky, or at the very least, tracks on the neighbor’s snow covered roof.  We were given strict rules that we were never to go into the living room where the tree and gifts were located until the entire family was assembled in the morning.  My bedroom sat on one side of the hall and the bathroom was on the opposite side. So to partially circumnavigate this rule, I always managed to need to go to the bathroom a couple times during the night.  Tiptoeing slowly across the hall, I peered down its length into the darkness of the living room trying to see if I could spy any of the unopened packages that Santa was sure to leave during the night.  I was never successful, but it never stopped me from trying.  Finally, the preappointed hour would arrive and I would hurry into my parents’ room and jump onto their bed wishing them a merry Christmas.  After some snuggling time while my parents tried to fully wake up, they would give me the ok to rouse my siblings, and we would all gather at the head of the hallway in anticipation of the charge to the living room.  
Enjoying my new snake on Christmas morning

            Dad always preceded us to the living room where he would get out his movie camera and the huge, very bright light bar.  With four floodlights shining in our still sleepy eyes, we would then emerge from the hall blinking and squinting and spot the new, unwrapped gifts which had magically appeared the previous night.  My map and plan of attack immediately went out the window, because I was always too interested in Santa’s gifts to even think about the wrapped ones. Mom would finally reach under the tree and hand each of us a present and say, “Here, why don’t you open this?”  We were not a rich family, but I was never once disappointed with Christmas.  The gifts were always thoughtful and fun, and Mom just sat back with a smile on her face watching us enjoy them.  The joy of those mornings is a feeling I’ve never been able to duplicate in my adult life, but it was a magical moment I will never forget. 

Mom in the earlier, quieter days of Christmas

            The day concluded with the Christmas meal which for our family was a repeat of the Thanksgiving dinner just a month prior.  Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, noodles and corn were the fare of the day, with plain and coconut cream pies awaiting us for desert.  Mom would slave away in the kitchen while the rest of us enjoyed our new presents.  No wonder Mom always looks tired in the old Christmas photos I see of her, but I doubt she would have had it any other way.
The long johns now hold vigil on my tree
            So now as my wife and I decorate our own home for the holidays, these memories rush back to me.  I have brought with me a few tangible elements from those long ago days.  The elf’s long johns are now hanging on my tree, and the plastic snowflake sits quietly in front of one of the tree’s lights.  But the real joy for my wife and me is listening to our children discuss their own traditions.  They seek out the old familiar ornaments or books that meant so much to them when they were small and still full of the wonderment of Christmas.  And they look forward to the familiar smells and tastes of the holidays, each stirring in them the same emotions that a sniff of fresh cut pine or a taste of fudge excites in me.  For their mother and me that is still the greatest gift of the holidays, and one I hope they are able to pass on to their own children and grandchildren.

Looking back on my own children reflecting the joy of Christmas.

1 comment:

  1. I never had a REAL christmas tree until into my thirties, how sad is that? Christmases as a child were just my mother and I, and a small artificial tree with old glass decorations was the order of the day. We never went in for too much decoration, and it's the same now. I can't abide those houses where there are cheap dangly paper decorations hanging from ceilings, in windows, on doors, mantlepieces and so on. Simple greenery, white candles... that's me.
    Since marrying A 34 years ago, we have often had a real tree, but they are so expensive these days, that though I love the smell, we won't bother with one. I have a small artificial one. Decorated with old glass ornaments from my childhood and ones made by friends over the years, and that is enough. For my fix of gaily lit trees I shall visit a christmas tree festival in the church!
    Lovely memories, and how you loved your mom comes through in so many of these postings of yours. A lucky lady to be so loved.