Christmas memories take me back to childhood in the 1960s. When the nostalgia bug bites, I like to look at the Vermont Country Store catalog to see the old fashioned ornaments and goodies from long ago. Somehow they magically still have some of the stuff I remember from Christmases we had as kids.
Christmas featured snow. We lived in a snowy location. Back then it got cold enough to support snow on the ground for the holidays. The snow made the old neighborhood magically pretty and quiet. The city noises were muffled under the snow. The streetlights glowed magically. Snow frosted the trees and covered the muddy spots of the yards and the cracked, root-heaved chunks of sidewalk. Everything looked better for the snow.
Christmas meant a real tree in the house. We put ours up at the end of the living room, between the piano and the record player. All was calm, all was bright until one year a Siamese kitten levitated out of his box like a Harrier jet and took off running. He liked climbing Christmas trees, so after one musical crash we guyed the tree between the piano and the record cabinet.
The real tree shed its needles. It smelled good. There was no clever decorator color scheme; reds, greens and golds dominated but everything was fair game. This weird spiky thing on top that was allegedly a star went on top. German glass ornaments hung on the upper limbs where the cat wouldn’t play with them. We strung cranberries into garlands and flung tinsel on the tree, and then the presents started collecting. The lights we used always looked a little blurry, because of their matte coloring.
More blurry lights got strung outside along the edge of the porch roof and outlining the door. We didn’t get crazy in those days; nobody had to have the biggest display in our neighborhood, but folks did their thing and it was nice, comforting and happy-looking.
Our stockings were hung from the mantel each year, and ceramic Santa and Mrs. Claus stood above them. Stockings were stuffed with oranges, apples and nuts, and one candy cane. Santa did not get cookies and cocoa–he could just get down the chimney as it was.
Music and movies
Christmas music was special still back in the day. The TV shows, like Frosty the Snowman, were starting to proliferate with their signature tunes. There were a few commercial tunes I liked to hear growing up, such as “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow!” I even tolerated “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” But I’ve always been a traditionalist for holiday music.
For me the best Christmas music was done by choirs in the church with the organ. Our church had a really thundering one and big choirs to sing with it. Christmas carols and hymns sounded really majestic.
At home we could also sing the carols with Mom at the piano or with Dad on the guitar. There weren’t carolers so we made our own music. Since Dad loved parodies we also sang “Deck us all with Boston Chah-ley” and “Good King Wenceslas look out, on your feet so even.”
And then there were some movies they showed every year. We watched the Miracle on 34th Street every year, the one made right after the Second World War, and it always made me cry. Around Christmas time they used to show Auntie Mame as well, about a kid who got out of boarding school to visit his aunt at Christmas year after year. And every year was a complete surprise. I also liked White Christmas and Holiday Inn. We didn’t pick up on It’s a Wonderful Life, though, because I think Mom thought it was a depressing tale.
Flavors of the season
We had a few strong food traditions when I was growing up. Christmas cookie making started with springerle, which my brothers liked because it was like hardtack that Dad talked about. I liked them despite the anise, because of the impressed designs. Mom always made them right after Thanksgiving to have around Christmas. She made sugar cookies with cookie cutters closer to the Big Day and I always got to help cut them out and decorate them.
Candy wasn’t a big deal at our house. We occasionally got the candy fruit slices, which disappeared fast. Likewise dried fruits such as dates and apricots. At my best friend’s house they always had ribbon candy but I was trained not to ask for such things so I never found out what that was like. Mom usually ended up with an assortment of chocolates which we helped her eat.
Someone usually sent a fruitcake so we dutifully ate that up. Some of those were actually pretty good, especially one from our great-uncle Hap from Chicago. It was unusually full of dates and quite dark overall.
Our mandatory Christmas dessert, though, was plum pudding with brandied hard sauce. My father would pour brandy over the pudding, light it and bring it in, all covered in blue flame. Then we got to eat some, and it was delicious! It was a tradition from Mom’s side of the family. Her grandmother used to make them. We got ours at the grocery store, and now they’re such a specialty item you have to get them online.
Then and now
Mom really made Christmas happen for us. She loved “making Christmas at home” and forbade travel for that holiday. Our grandparents came to visit some years, and my paternal grandfather came once. For Mom, though, the family Christmas always centered around family. So when she died, so did a lot of what we did at Christmas.
Fast forward to the past quarter-century with another mom, my husband’s, setting the standard for Christmas. Her kids all get together still, even though she is also no longer with us. We eat, exchange gifts, and just hang out together for a while. Sometimes we have Trivial Pursuit games and small concerts by the kids. But whatever is going on, it’s good to slog through the snow, smell the tree, feast on fabulous foods and just be together as a family.
May you and yours have a wonderful Christmas!