Christmas was the most magical holiday of my childhood; in retrospect many years later, I realize that my mother went to great lengths to make Christmas special, even though there was very little money.
I remember my dolls disappearing around in November and would reappear on Christmas Eve with new dresses that my mother made for them.
We celebrated the Feast of St Nicholas on December 6th, hanging my father’s long white socks (because they were the longest) on nails on the pantry cupboard door. It was the only time I remember having a tangerine, and there would be hard candies in your stocking too. The Feast of St Nicholas meant that Christmas would soon be here.
My mother waited until Christmas Eve day to buy a tree, because by then whatever was left on the lot was marked down to something like fifty cents. The Christmas trees I remember were beautiful but as I look at an old photograph taken one Christmas when I was about five years old, I see that our Christmas trees were really spindly and sparse. Bare spaces were filled in with a lot of tinsel.
We didn’t have great expectations, in the 40s and 50s—intuitively knowing that anything expensive would be out of the question. We would go through the Sears catalog oohing and ahhing over all of the toys—for me it was all the baby dolls. Many of our gifts would be underwear and socks, articles of clothing always needed. I remember one year receiving Days of the Week panties in different colors.
We celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve and my mother managed to get all of us out of the house for the day. Some of those Christmas Eves, I took my younger brothers downtown to do our own Christmas shopping. We probably never had more than a dollar each saved up but somehow we managed to find presents for our parents, grandparents and siblings, at the 5 & 10 cent stores. My brothers and I loved going downtown in Cincinnati, especially during the holidays. We visited all of the major department stores (Shillitoes, Pogues, Mabley & Carew) so we could go see all of the Santa Clauses and get a free peppermint stick. (We knew they weren’t the real Santa Claus – these were just helpers – but my brothers climbed on each Santa’s knee and told him what they wanted (a Gene Autry cap gun and holster and a authentic cowboy hat for Bill—but I can’t remember what Biff asked for).
How we ever managed to buy gifts for everyone in the family with our meager savings is a mystery. My girlfriend Carol Sue sometimes accompanied us downtown and years later confessed to being jealous of us. Jealous? I was incredulous – how could anyone be jealous of children who might have only a dollar to spend on all of their family members, never mind needing a nickel for the streetcar ride to and from downtown? Carol said it baffled her that we managed to find gifts for everyone. AND if we had enough money left over, we shared a grilled cheese sandwich from the luncheon counter at Woolworths. I can only liken it to Jesus and the loaves and fishes. Somehow there was always enough. We would tote our treasures home and then wrap them in old gift wrap that we ironed to make it as good as new.
Christmas Eve generally found us children at my grandmother’s waiting for a telephone call. Then my father came to pick us all up in the family car. When the Chevie pulled up in front of our house on Sutter Street, we could see the decorated tree glowing from a living room window. My mother met us at the porch, exclaiming “You just missed him! He just left!” and we’d dash through the house hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus—not worrying too much about missing him when the living room was filled with PRESENTS.
I especially remember the year when the first thing I spotted in the living room was a desk. I had SO wanted a desk of my own. “My desk! My desk!” I cried.
“How do you know it’s for you?” my mother asked.
“Oh, I know!” I exclaimed, running my hands across the top of the desk. I was about ten at the time and already had my career as a writer planned.
I may have been about the same age when my mother gave me a copy of Little Women for Christmas. It was the very first book of my own (not counting books I had found in my mother’s bookcase and commandeered them for my own). Another Christmas, a few years later, my brother, Jim, gave me five brand new Nancy Drew mysteries – by then I was off and running. It wasn’t enough to read the books; I wanted to own them too.
I don’t remember my mother ever doing a lot of holiday baking; my grandmother did, however. What I remember most vividly were butter cut out cookies all cut into diamond shapes; she would dip each cookie into egg white and then into a mixture of granulated sugar and chopped walnuts, before baking them. My sister, however, remembered Grandma making many different Christmas cookies which were packed into a dress box. I have a lot of cookie cutters today, perhaps three hundred of them – but you know what I treasure the most? Yes, of course – grandma’s diamond shaped cookie cutter and another that is heart shaped.
I became a Christmas maniac once I got married and began having children of my own—I would shop for bargains throughout the year and hide them in a closet so that my sons would have a lot of great presents to unwrap on Christmas morning. I began collecting Christmas ornaments and started baking cookies and freezing them in September. I began collecting recipes for fruitcake and trying many different recipes. You can’t have too many ornaments or too many Christmas cookie cutters; you can’t have too many angels –or, in our case, you can’t have too many trees. Before we moved into a much smaller house in the high desert, we were putting up eight Christmas trees!
This is what I remember about Christmas – not the presents so much as the unity between my younger brothers and myself, those trips downtown, our surreptitious trips upstairs to my bedroom where we wrapped everything, while my mother’s small Crosley radio (on top of the frig) played Christmas music .
If you ask my brothers, I think they will tell you the same thing.
Remembered by Sandra Lee Smith