CHRISTMAS MEMORIES 2015
We all have memories, good or bad, happy or sad, of the Christmas holidays throughout our lives.
My earliest memory took place when I was five years old. That year, all of my dolls disappeared mysteriously, only to reappear in new clothing on Christmas Eve. My family celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. When I was about ten years old, I began taking my two younger brothers downtown with me–Downtown Cincinnati where we did all of our Christmas shopping in the five and ten cent stores but we also visited the department stores to see the downtown Santas, who gave children a peppermint stick. We three have wonderful memories of those trips downtown – first in street cars, later on by bus when the city retired the street cars.
We somehow managed—on such limited funds—to buy a grilled cheese sandwich and a coke at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, which we three shared. With perhaps a couple of dollars in nickels, dimes and pennies, we bought gifts for both parents, each other and any living grandparents. Once back to our house on Sutter Street, we surreptitiously hurried upstairs, to my room, where we wrapped our presents—wrapped in pre-used gift wrap that I would iron to make it look like new again.
One year, my brother Biff gave Dad a little wax Santa boot that contained a couple of peppermints; everyone laughed when Dad opened his present from Biff. Biff ran upstairs, mortified that everyone laughed at his gift. Consequently, the entire family had to go upstairs to convince Biff that they weren’t laughing AT Biff’s gift but that they laughed that it was such a wonderful present.
Undoubtedly, none of the adults—my parents or grandmothers or any of our aunts and uncles—had any idea how little money we had managed to save to buy our presents. Neither of my parents had ever given any of us allowances. In my childhood memories of the years following World War II we struggled to come up with any money. I could sell greeting cards that my mother sold for Cardinal Craftsman, we cashed in pop bottles that I think, at the time, could be redeemed for one or two cents each.
When they grew a little older, my brothers could try to drum up some cash shoveling snow for our neighbors and when I was about twelve years old, I began babysitting for some of our neighbors. I babysat my brothers all of the time but that wasn’t something you got paid for.
I have no idea how my younger brothers came up with enough money to go Christmas shopping—but Bill always had the most change (usually in pennies) that he kept in a small change purse in a coat pocket–all of us were aware of the treachery of shoplifters. No shoplifters ever got any of OUR money.
I remember that we got sent to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve day where we spent the afternoon, until my father came to pick us up in his car. Sometimes, my dad’s cousin, Barbara, who was my godmother, came along with him. I liked seeing Barbara because she always gave me a nice gift. My mother decorated our tree when we were all away from home on December 24. She waited until she could get a leftover tree for fifty cents from the tree lot on Beekman Street.
I’m not sure when our tradition of shopping “downtown” which to any native Cincinnatian always meant “Cincinnati” –happened to begin and then end; maybe it was when we moved to North College Hill and downtown was so far away, or it may have ended when “Downtown” suffered a slump with the advent of the malls out in the suburbs.
At any rate, we began going our separate ways—especially once I was going to high school. (My relationship with Downtown Cincinnati continued, however)—I began working at Western Southern Life Insurance—located downtown—after graduation. I would shop around the various streets ferreting out thrift shops and second hand stores.
In December of 1958, Jim & I got married and we had our first little Christmas at home. I would go to one of the five and ten cent stores to buy the pieces to a nativity, one at a time until I had a full set. I still have that nativity which my four sons grew up on. When the boys were little, they liked to play with the nativity. At one time, the Joseph of the nativity set had gone missing and we had one of the three kings to fill in for him until we either found the original Joseph or I bought another one.
I loved Christmas so much—over the years, our Christmases became more and more elaborate and I would go on baking binges with a girlfriend. We would make as many as thirty kinds of cookies and divide everything up when it got close enough to make up the batches of cookies in tins. (One year—in the 70s, I think—there was a sugar crisis in the USA and a five pound bag of sugar cost more than gas). I shopped and bought bags of sugar one at a time, hoarding it so we could still make cookies. The upside to the sugar crisis is that I learned how to make a lot of cookies using honey.
A divorce in 1986 didn’t stop me from decorating the trees (now more than one. At the height of our tree-decorating mania, we decorated eight trees around the house in Arleta.
Between 1989 and 2007, Bob and I decorated trees all over the house. I should add, we accepted any artificial tree friends or neighbors no longer wanted. We took all rejects. I think Bob found discarded artificial trees on our front lawn a few times.
As most of our friends and family members know, in 2008, Bob and I moved to the Antelope Valley, into a house much smaller than the 3,000 ft Arleta house to a 1500 ft house. And in 2011, my Christmas-mania cohort passed away, where I suspect he is advising Saint Peter how the entrance to the golden gate should be properly decorated for the holidays.
Since then, I have gradually been downsizing; I packed up all the angels I could find amongst our huge collection of ornaments and I sent them to a friend in Florida whose house burned down, taking with it her collection of angels–I sent three or four boxes of angel ornaments and decorations to her.
Maybe new traditions are in the wings, waiting to be resurrected; When Savannah was two years old, I began decorating Christmas cookies with her. For a long time we held cookie and craft parties, having the children decorate something like an ornament, and then decorate large cookies to take home.
I thought that tradition had been outgrown along with our children – but a few days ago, my niece Nikki brought over her 4 year old nephew and 2 year old niece; the children decorated turkey and pumpkin cookies. I just happened to have an assortment of different colored frostings for the children to use. (who SAYS a turkey can’t be painted pink or blue?) and I discovered that we now have a new set of little ones to decorate cookies.
Years ago, Nikki was one of the youngsters participating in the cookie-and-craft event at my house—now she was showing her brother’s children how it is done.
When I sat down to write a Christmas letter about my life in 2015, I had no idea what to write about, other than the trip to Seattle for my niece Leslie’s wedding last summer. The truth is, I am still lost without Bob being here to untangle strings of lights and dig through all the stuff in the garage to find whatever I think is missing.
I leave you with this, written before Bob became ill:
T’was a week before Christmas
And all through the house,
Gift-wrap was littered, it
Even covered a spouse,
Who sat forlorn in his old easy chair,
Wondering if there was
An extra cookie to spare—
For cookies were baked
And filled every tin
But to eat even one
Would be considered a sin—
(Unless it was one that was broken or burned)
Decorations hung everywhere that you turned.
In the guest room, presents were piled everywhere,
And trees were put up, not a moment to spare—
Twinkling lights and ornaments too,
But it will look pretty festive when we’re all through—
I’ve scorched all my fingers giving candy a test
And thought it was time that I had a good rest;
When out on the roof there arose such a clatter,
I dashed to the door to see what was the matter;
Up on a ladder, Grandpa swayed to and fro—
Trying to decide where the fake reindeer should go—
I was sure he would fall and smash all the lights
I shouted come down and we’ll fix it all right! **
The dollhouse is back where it belongs
And hundreds of CDs play holiday songs,
Pork Loin’s in the freezer and wood on the fire,
Eggnog in the frig we hope will inspire
But if not there is brandy, bourbon and port
To serve every guest who is a good sport;
We’ll work at it all until we fall with a jerk
And let Santa get credit for all our hard work!
(You haven’t been forgotten Grandpa/Uncle Bob)
–Sandra Lee Smith