Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Memories

My family moved around a lot when I was growing up (my dad worked for IBM, aka I’ve Been Moved). So every few years, we celebrated the holidays in a different place. My mom was good about keeping up traditions so that Christmas was Christmas, no matter where we lived. Sometime after Thanksgiving, she’d pillage packing boxes marked “Xmas Stuff;” and once she got going, there was no stopping her. The scent of evergreen permeated the house as she wrapped boughs of it tied with red bows up and down the banisters. Other decorations crowded table-tops, bookcases, mantles, and the piano. Mom’s mix was eclectic: an elaborate nativity set from Italy, trees made from tuna cans, sculptural metal angels, and paper-mache snowmen. No surface remained free of holiday cheer.

But before any counting down of days ‘til Christmas could commence, we had to do two things: (1) Bake my great-grandmother’s shortbread cookies (that had at least 150 ingredients and all had to be iced in appropriate colors), and (2) Get a real tree. The cookie part was almost easy compared to the tree trip. Mom had to bundle up three kids in enough layers to nearly render us immobile then we’d pack into the station wagon, bound for the nearest lot. My dad would grab the first tree he saw and ask, “How’s this?” A half hour and two dozen trees later, my mother would nod and say, “That’s it!” She always liked the biggest, fattest balsam that took eons for them to tie up. Once home, Dad stuck the tree in a bucket and prayed the water didn’t freeze overnight. The next day, he’d stuff it into the stand and put the lights on, and Mom would spread the skirt beneath. Ta-da! Let the tree-trimming begin!

Hanging the ornaments was a huge honkin’ deal. My mother made sure the whole family was present before she put out eggnog and placed a holiday album on the stereo. While my sibs and I unearthed equal parts hand-made doo-dads and delicate glass baubles from the tissue stuffed cavities of cardboard boxes, Nat King Cole crooned of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I loved glass birds with clips for claws so I could stick them on the ends of branches, like they’d flown in and were just resting. I adored silver orbs that reflected every color in the rainbow. But one pair of ornaments remained the most special for years: a burlap man and woman my sister and I had named “Speed” and “Trixie,” after the characters in Speed Racer. Every Christmas, their ink faces rubbed off a little more and their yarn hair disappeared, but Molly and I couldn’t wait to place them on the tree next to one another so they could chat about Spanky and Racer X.

Once the ornaments were up, it was tinsel time! We were tinsel-flinging fools back then. Despite Mom’s instructions to put it on one piece at a time—“like a dripping icicle”—we’d toss fistfuls at the higher branches and see what would stick. By the time we’d finished, our tree looked gaudier than a Vegas showgirl.

We had our big family dinner on Christmas Eve. The menu echoed our Thanksgiving meal: turkey, spiral ham, green bean casserole, corn casserole, cranberry mold, and fat black olives that my sister plucked off the garnish tray and stuck on each fingertip. After dinner, we opened one present from a far-away relative before we put on our coats to attend Christmas Eve service. I loved to warble with the choir on “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and sit in silent awe as the star vocalist belted out “Ave Maria” and “Oh, Holy Night.” Once home and sleepy, we’d set out cookies and milk for Santa, glance at our empty stockings, and head up to bed. Before I nodded off, I’d listen for reindeer on the rooftop (I swear, one night, I heard them!). At the crack of dawn, I’d awaken and fling on my quilted robe as the rest of the house slowly roused. My dad would bark a reminder not to go downstairs until he had his camera ready.

While Dad played Spielberg and Mom sipped coffee, my siblings and I tore through whatever Santa had brought, usually something like Tonka trucks, games, and trains for Jimmy; stilts, a slide-making kit, and a baseball mitt for Molly; a rock tumbler, dolls, and books for me. Always books. My favorite part of Christmas, once the chaos had ended (and it was always over quickly), was curling up somewhere quiet with Nancy Drew, Black Beauty, or Laura Ingalls Wilder. Bliss!

Much about the holidays has changed since my childhood as my husband and I strive to keep life—and Christmas—simple. We don’t go heavy on decorations and never get the biggest tree in the lot. I don’t bake shortbread cookies with 150 ingredients, and I’m not much for turkey. But, as long as I have a pulse, two things will never change: the pleasure of being with family and the joy of un-wrapping a book. Honestly, was there ever a better gift?

Any favorite Christmas memories you'd like to share?

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  1. Susan,

    These memories are wonderful and reflect what the season and family are all about.

    Happy Holidays!

  2. What a beautiful post, Susan! Thank you for sharing these memories. They sound oddly similar to mine. :-) Are you sure we weren't separated at birth or some time shortly thereafter? Maggie

  3. Sounds like Christmas was always enjoyable for you. I enjoyed hearing your stories about putting up the ornaments. We don't celebrate Christmas, but I used to go to my cousins' house with my family every year since they celebrated it. Their tree had lots of Disney ornaments and was fun to look at.

  4. Love your Christmas memories, Susan! I read so many Nancy Drew and Laura Ingalls Wilder books, too...I loved, loved, loved getting books for gifts. And I also loved the holiday when I got my first (and only) electric typewriter! Wishing you a wonderful week ;). xo

  5. Thanks, Marian. I have really fond memories of childhood Christmases. Just miss my grandparents a lot, especially when Christmas rolls around as we spent many holidays at their house.

    Maggie, we are definitely twins. It's scary how alike we are! ;-)

    Melissa, we keep Christmas pretty low key at our house these days. But my mom still goes all out. So it's fun to go over to my folks' place and celebrate with the family...then come home to the quiet. :-)

    Marilyn, oh, I loved my first electric typewriter, too! Even before I knew how to type, I'd bang on those keys. Wishing you a wonderful week right back!

  6. I didn't get over here yesterday but I loved reading this today. So much reminded me of my own childhood Christmases though we spent ours with aunts & uncles & cousins usually. And I thought flinging icicles at the tree was a requirement! LOL!!! :)

  7. My Christmas memories are close to yours, although we didn't decorate *every* surface and never moved around. The family, the excitement and the special present of a book - that I can relate too.

    Thanks for sharing the memories, brought back many for me.

  8. Such a lovely post! My mother (er, Santa) always did spectacular stockings for me, and kept them coming through my early twenties. With much more than just candy, she stuffed it with everything from funny socks and makeup, to simple jewelry and fancy chocolates. Hey! I miss those! Gotta make a phone call...

  9. Thanks for sharing your post with us.

    We did the tinsel flinging and laughed out loud when a clump landed on one branch.

  10. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories with us. The cookies are so pretty and I'm sure they are delicious!
    Happy Holidays!

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  12. Lovely memories. I always make sure to give my nieces and nephews books for Christmas, too!

  13. Tori, I miss tinsel! Does anyone know why they quit making the stuff? (Like kids ate it or something?)

    Patty, so glad you stopped by!

    Oh, Jessica, yeah, the stockings! My, Santa...always did spectacular ones as well. In fact, we used to end up with drawers full of "stocking stuff" after Christmas. Loved that! I do one for my husband now...and I make him do one for me! Mom still has stockings for us at her house, believe it or not. But it's more practical stuff, like Band-aids and apple corers (although my husband does seem to get lots of beer in his!). ;-)

    Dru, yay for tinsel clumps!

    Carol, the cookies were always delicious and so pretty! I think I'm going to start doing more cookies next year.

    Lourdes, I give lots of books to my niece and nephew at Christmas, too! One can never have too many books, right? :-)

  14. Wow, your Christmas memories sound an awful lot like mine! Are you sure we aren't related? My dad was in the military but haha, lots of the same things in our past! I love Christmas, but we've been making a lot more homemade goodies, aka homemade jelly, home canned dill pickles, etc. They go nicely with books as gifts! Have a merry Christmas!

  15. We celebrated on Christmas Eve, opening our gifts after the Christmas Eve candlelight service. Christmas Day was for the big dinner.

    It's an important holiday for me because of the many happy memories it stirs up.

    Merry Christmas and happy reading.


  16. Keizerfire, people used to think my dad was in the military because we moved so much (he was in the Air Force for awhile but that was before I was born!). Glad you have such good Christmas memories, too! Making homemade jellies and pickles sounds yummy! Merry Christmas! :-)

    Marilynne, your Christmas traditions sound lovely. Enjoy the holidays! And happy reading to you, too. :-)

  17. I loved those glass birds too. My mother got rid of them all in a move, after I'd left her home but before I had a reasonably stable home of my own to welcome them. I don't miss glass balls, really; they were so fragile and the slivers got EVERYWHERE.

  18. You're right about those silvered balls, Jayne! When they broke, they splintered into a million pointed pieces! I like unbreakable ornaments myself, especially with three cats!

  19. Susan,
    My best Christmas Memories center around family and my grandmother's fabulous sugar cookies. Grandma has been gone for almost 40 years but we still gather together as a family and enjoy her sugar cookies, only I get to make them now.

  20. Your childhood Christmases sound ideal! Wow! Thanks for sharing!

    As for me, well Mom & I always had the Christmas Spirit ~ and we always do what we can to keep our little happy traditions going however we can. :)


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