JACK, CHARMAINE AND CLIFFORD READY FOR CHURCH
This dress was my favorite Christmas present ever. It was store bought, dusty rose chiffon with a matching purse. It was my princess dress even with saddle oxfords.
CHRISTMAS WHEN I WAS A KID
It doesn’t matter if you are poor, if your dad is a crazy drunk, if your house is a basement with studs for walls, if four of you sleep in a small room, Christmas is still enchanted.
I had two Christmas philosophies that I espoused in early parenthood that I am rethinking. First of all I was mad at those Wise Men for bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. It really started something that I believe has gotten out of hand. But even in its excess I can’t deny the wonder and magic of gifts for children—especially in my day when we had so little. My parents didn’t buy toys and dolls except at Christmas and our birthdays. Nothing is more exciting to a child than anticipating Christmas morning. The Wise Men started the magic and for children the excitement is unique in its anticipation. In my world only children 12 years and under would get presents but it is what it is and there is joy in it all.
My second objection to Christmas was based in something I heard once that went like this: “You work all year to save and scrimp so you can buy Christmas for your children and then some red nosed fat man gets the credit.” But maybe he also gets that blame if you don’t have much. For little children the mystery and wonder of Santa is fun and the secrecy of his delivery method adds more than I might have realized especially when I remember what it was like to be a child when I believed. I now see the wisdom of Santa. The circle of life will eventually see believing children grown and giving Santa credit in their family. Maybe it is like the scripture in Matthew 6:3 - But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.
My mother wasn’t a great housekeeper but at Christmas the worn linoleum was mopped and waxed, the tree sparkled, excitement burned, my mother baked and order prevailed. It gave us a sense that this time was more than special. Now days the decorating begins the day after Thanksgiving with many trees, garlands, wreaths and ornaments adorning every room and lights on every roof—not so in my day. My dad chopped a tree a few days before Christmas and we put it up on Christmas Eve or a couple of days before. We had colored electric lights with big bulbs and a few lights that looked like a bubbling candle. We had a box of colored glass balls and a straggly assortment of homemade ornaments and a star for the top. For me the excitement of the tree was the metal icicles. They came in a box and had to be separated into the long heavy strands. We saved them from year to year so they had to be carefully laid across the notched cardboard for safe keeping after each use. My mother was very fussy about how the icicles were put on the tree. If you didn’t want to spend the time to line them up on the branches you were excused from the process. My brothers would get tired and impatient and wanted to throw them on so they were usually given another assignment. My mother liked trees with space between the branches so the icicles would hang in shimmering lines. Oh, I could sit for hours and gaze at the magical shining tree. Before my home life was over they started making the icicles with silver plastic. They were limp and wrinkled. We hated them and worked even harder to save the heavy aluminum ones from year to year.
Our most unique decoration tradition was the clinker mountain. We burned coal in our stove and later in the furnace. Every day my dad would have to clean out the clinkers, a craggy rock like substance that is left when the carbon is burned off coal. Sometime before Christmas he would start looking for an interesting shape. I am not sure who discovered the chemistry of this but by pouring bluing, which was used in the rinse water to make clothes appear whiter, over the clinker it would grow puffy white crystals that looked like snow (It is possible this process had other ingredients. I only remember the bluing). It took several days so the procedure had to be started early. Then we took a trip to the Woolworth store or Coronets in Price to buy some miniature trees, deer and maybe Santa in a sleigh and place them around on the clinker to make a scene. We added things for several years. I remember pieces of mirror to make a pond and caves with tiny forest animals. The scene was enchanting in its homely simplicity.
We collected pinecones in the summer to make a pine cone wreath. The base was made with a doughnut shaped cardboard cutout covered with a thick layer of brown linoleum paste. By massing the pinecones together in the paste with some plastic berries and holly leaves a pretty wreath would be created. We made beautiful paper snowflakes and taped them in the window with a string of lights bordering the glass. Another popular homemade wreath was made by tying plastic bags around a coat hanger, formed into a circle, to create a strange white fluffy structure with a red ribbon bow. Everyone wanted one. The homely decorations are just as fun as the expensive ones when that is all you have and it looks like Christmas.
Today fruitcake is a joke but my mother made a delicious version with dried fruits and nuts, not those gummy things, and it was delicious. She made it for my Christmas time wedding. We made fudge and divinity especially the new-fangled marshmallow fudge that was no fail. We had big bowls of nuts in their shells waiting to be cracked as we sat around the tree in the evening. We often had a contest to see who could break out a Brazil nut whole. Peanuts in the shell were also a favorite. I never did this for my kids because it was too messy, consequently my kids never learned to like nuts like we do.
We hung up our stockings—the ones in our drawers—not the fancy things they have today. There was always an orange, some hard candy, a candy cane, and a few trinkets like marbles or jacks. I loved jacks and I was a champion player. My fingernails on my right hand grew crooked for years because I played jacks so much.
I liked dolls so I usually got one. My mother liked baby dolls so mostly I had a baby. My favorite doll had hair I could style. When my mother let me have at the sewing machine I made lots of quirky doll cloths and blankets with fabric scraps. I liked dishes and remember a little plastic set that I carried around for my tea parties. It had fancy little goblets for toasting. One special gift was a beautiful dusty rose chiffon dress with a matching purse. I recall it was the most exquisite thing I had ever seen—store bought, something I rarely had. (See photo)
When I got older I received a pair of ice skates. We skated a lot in the winter on the local ponds and rivers. It seemed water froze better in those days. Someone would get an old tire to burn to keep warm, but it was very stinky and smoky. I nearly frosted my feet once walking home through the snow in thin shoes after an afternoon of skating. We had a lot of fun. We did some sleigh riding also but mostly we skated.
The rural country Mormon church was a wonderful gathering place for parties, dances, Christmas programs, caroling and dinners. My mother sang with a group and I have so many warm memories of her beautiful Christmas songs. My life would have been sadly lacking without these social and religious gatherings.
When I was a young teen my brother Jack joined the Navy. He came home for Christmas after boot camp and brought the family a record player with two records, one of Johnny Cash and the other of Chet Atkins, the guitarist. We listened to these two records hundreds of times during that Christmas season. Today when I hear Johnny Cash sing it feels like Christmas to me. “How High’s The Water Mama?” is one of my favorite carols.
Most of us accept life as it comes to us and we can find joy in the simple and inexpensive. We don’t really need much to be content and excited as long as its uniqueness says Christmas. I think about how complicated we have made Christmas and I am not sure it has made the season better but it is all still good. I thank God for sending his Son and all the traditions that surround His novel birth. All of it has potential for joy when there is love and a family, no matter how wacky they are.