Originally posted November, 2012.
For Biff and Bill, two of my younger brothers
Christmas has always been, throughout my life, the most special holiday of all. I was one of seven children and we were encouraged at a very young age to give presents to one another, our parents and our grandparents. Consequently, as Christmas approached, there would be much giggling and whispering, along with outraged threats when one became annoyed with a sibling. “Just for THAT, you aren’t going to get a Christmas present from ME!”
Of course, those threats were never carried out and as Christmas approached, we all fell pell-mell into a frenzy of shopping, making and wrapping up presents. I remember Santa ornaments made out of walnut shells, a lot of Woolworth’s hair nets and cards of bobby pins, and a bottle of nail polish that had a cap resembling a fingernail. There were dozens of bottles of Midnight in Paris cologne on my mother’s vanity and odd little gifts like miniature German-American dictionaries.
For we didn’t, of course, have much money–this was in the early 1940s after the end of World War II. The gifts we children made or bought were devised out of our own ingenuity or resources. We didn’t have any such thing as an allowance, and it was difficult to earn money. We did, though. We mowed lawns and shoveled snow; I sold greeting cards from Cardinal Craftsman for my mother, to the neighbors; we picked apples from my grandmother’s back yard trees and cherries from our own back yard. We ran errands for all the neighbor ladies (usually good for a nickel—but sometimes all you got was a cookie…it was considered bad etiquette to ask in advance how much you might get for running an errand. You ran the errand, and then crossed your fingers.
We collected soda pop bottles which were worth two cents each, and cashed them in. When we got a little older, there were babysitting jobs and paper routes and for my older brother, Jim, setting bowling pins at St Bonnie’s bowling alley (before automatic pinsetters were invented). He also had a parttime job working for Durkee Foods, where our Uncle George worked and occasionally brought home items that had expired dates on them. sometimes the expired cans of biscuits would explode when you began to open them.
We saved old gift wrap and ribbons from one year to the next and ironed out the paper and ribbons. We made tags out of old Christmas cards, construction paper and those little stickers that didn’t stick to anything else.
Throughout all of this, as Christmas approached, we memorized Christmas songs—hymns and tunes like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. I happen to belong to the generation that remembers when Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman were first released. We had the sheet music for piano and learned all the words. I sang “Rudolph” with two clowns at a Christmas party sponsored by my grandmother’s club that year.
We took piano lessons and flute and clarinet and we practiced these melodies ad nauseam, until everyone around us was thoroughly tired of hearing them. When we got tired of hearing each other, my mother would sit down at the piano and play “Silver Bells” which was, I think, the only Christmas song she knew how to play. She never had lessons and played entirely by ear. Incredible, when I think of it. She was actually pretty good. And because she never could read music, it was probably also why she pushed so hard for us to have music lessons. **
My younger brothers and I went downtown, in Cincinnati, once a year – sometime just before Christmas and a few times right on Christmas Eve day. We’d have our hard-earned pennies and nickels and dimes tightly guarded against potential pickpockets—sometimes as much as a dollar—to shop for Christmas presents. We took the bus from Fairmount to the downtown area, do our shopping, visit all the department store Santas (we knew they weren’t the real Santa but each one was good for a peppermint stick) and have lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter as well. You could get a grilled cheese sandwich with dill pickle, and a coke, for fifteen cents. We three shared one sandwich, one coke. Bus fare each way was a nickel, leaving us at least seventy five cents to shop with.
Not too many years ago, my childhood girlfriend Carol confessed that she was always jealous of me on those shopping trips.
“ME!” I exclaimed, “Whatever FOR?”
“Because,” she replied, “You could buy so much more with a dollar than
My brothers and I have fond memories of those shopping excursions.
Late in the afternoon, we’d board the bus, elated with our purchases and go home to wrap them up in ironed-out previously used gift wrap. I think we ironed out the ribbons too (this was long before pre-made bows became available).
“The funny thing is,” I told my friend, Carol – “I was no more than ten years old when I began taking my brothers downtown. Can you imagine letting one of your own children do that at the age of ten?”
Times have changed, we agreed. **
We listened, from Thanksgiving on, to Santa Claus reading children’s letters on the radio –all the way from the North Pole! That, we knew, was the real honest to goodness Santa. The Santas in Department stores were just helpers.
And throughout all of this planning and preparing, none of us lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas. It was there for us to see in the crèche made up of almost-life-size statues in our church. There was a living nativity downtown at Garfield Park that we visited every year too. Real animals. Real Mary and Joseph. Not a real Baby Jesus though. We had advent calendars and we sang Christmas hymns in church and school. We went shopping with our mother and got new shoes at Schiff’s, and a new hat and outfit to wear to church on Christmas morning. I think some of the new clothing was ordered by mail.
Christmas was celebrated, officially, at our house on Christmas Eve. We children were usually sent to my grandmother’s house on Baltimore Avenue, for the afternoon. If my brothers and I had gone shopping that day, we went to grandma’s house afterwards. There wasn’t a hint of Christmas in our own home prior to Christmas Eve. Then my father would come with the car to pick us up. His cousin, Barb, who was my godmother, was often with him. Everyone piled into the car to go home. As we pulled up in front of the house, we would see the lights on the Christmas tree through the living room window. Sometimes snowflakes would begin to fall.
“He’s been here! He’s been here!” all of us children would shriek, tumbling out of the car and up the steps to the house. My mother would meet us at the door. “He’s just leaving!” she’d cry. “If you hurry you might catch a glimpse of him from the back door—“
The pageant never changed. We all shouted the same words every year. My mother’s responses were always the same. We’d fall all over one another trying to catch a glimpse – too late! He was gone – but oh, boy, see what he’s left behind!
The tree would be in a corner of the living room—surrounded, it seemed to our childish eyes, with a tremendous wealth of toys and presents. My mother would call out the names on the packages, one by one. One year she was in the hospital right up until Christmas. She came home to be with the family and had to return to the hospital shortly thereafter. (In retrospect, I think this was a year when she had a miscarriage, followed by a blood transfusion, which led to a bout with Hepatitis—she was in the hospital for most of one winter).
I realize now that there weren’t so many presents under our tree—and much of it consisted of what we gave to one another and the bulk of gifts from our parents were practical –generally socks and underwear –but the delight was always there. My two younger brothers always asked for (and seems like they always received) gun-and-holster sets, like Roy Rogers wore, and wind-up trains that never seemed to last from one year to the next, although my older brother Jim had a Lionel train set that survived a lot of childish abuse.
At a very young age, I developed a great love for books—one of my favorite Christmas memories is the one when my brother Jim gave me five – FIVE! brand new Nancy Drew books. It was heaven.
Is it any wonder that the joy of Christmas spilled over into my adult life? At our house, we began “thinking Christmas” as early as May, when the first raspberries ripened to make raspberry jam. Later, we made pomegranate jelly and pomegranate cordial, and I would begin stocking up on nuts, chocolate chips, sugar and flour, to make fruitcake and cookies. I collected a huge assortment of Christmas books and magazines and the pages often became dog-eared from so much handling as Christmas approached. Every member of the family had their particular favorite cookie and no matter how often I resolved “not to let everything get out of hand this year” by the time I’ve baked everyone’s favorite, every container in the house is filled to the brim with cookies.
When my sons were really little, I’d buy gifts all year long and wrap them as soon as possible, to hide in a closet far out of the reach of inquiring eyes and poking fingers—but no matter how secretive I thought I was, my son Chris’ packages always had a finger hole punched through each one of the packages that had his name on it. (One year, I overlooked an entire box of wrapped gifts and didn’t find it until after Christmas – but we were celebrating Hanukkah with my girlfriend Rosalia and her family, so I took the gifts to her house to give to my sons as Hanukkah presents. They thought celebrating Hanukkah was just fine).
Christmas catalogs started arriving in the mail around in September—happily, I was not alone in my mania and a number of friends shared my enthusiasm; we’d swap catalogs and go through them until they were almost in shreds from handling. The children would go through the catalogs too.
“I want this,” they’d say. “and this…and this…and this…”
We saved fruitcake tins and collected baskets of all sizes. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if each of our friends didn’t receive a goody basket when they came to visit. One year, the boys decorated “gingerbread houses” made out of graham crackers. Another time we made gingerbread boys and girls for all of the children. We have, on different Christmases, baked dozens of different kinds of cookies and confections…not so difficult to do, really. I would make up batches of cookie dough to freeze or refrigerate—this could be done months in advance—then spent a week (evenings only since I worked full time) baking up one batch after another.
When I was a newlywed, our first Christmas tree ornaments were some old glass blown ornaments from Germany that had belonged to my husband’s mother. The original hooks had been lost and my husband, when he was a teenager, had twisted bits of flexible black wire on them instead. We still have those glass ornaments with the black bits of twisted wire. Way back when, I started collecting ornaments – originally with the thought in mind that as each of my sons got married, they would have a collection of their own ornaments. My collection grew so much that it became impossible to get them all on one tree. So we added a second tree. Then a third. Our last Christmas in Arleta in 2007, we had eight Christmas trees throughout the house.
Whenever I went on vacation somewhere, I’d look for a Christmas store—amazing how many cities have one! (Favorite Christmas stores? One near Carmel, California that my sister Becky and I discovered one year, and one in Atlanta, Georgia where we had flown for a niece’s wedding).
Ornaments make great gifts too and over the years my many nieces and nephews have received an assortment of homemade ornaments from Aunt Sandy. One year they received clothespin soldiers, another year a friend’s mother made up crocheted snowflakes for me. Still another Christmas the children received ceramic gingerbread boys and girls that a penpal of mine in Maryland made up for me. And another Christmas, a penpal in New Jersey made up tiny clothespin gnomes for me. Christmas ornaments, I always felt, were the ideal gift – they’re put up on a tree for a short time during the holidays, no one ever tires of seeing hem and remembering where they came from—and every Christmas, and those ornaments bring back memories to the recipients.
The plaster of Paris crèche in our home was purchased piece by piece in dime stores back in the late 1950s; many of the pieces are chipped from being handled repeatedly by my sons when they were little. They liked to re-arrange the figures. One year we somehow misplaced St Joseph and had to have one of the Wisemen stand in for him.
One year, I fulfilled a lifelong desire to make an entire gingerbread house (it was a lot of WORK and I don’t think I will ever attempt it again–Bob did a great deal of the work putting all the parts of the house together) – and another year when we were in northern California for Thanksgiving weekend, we found a Lionel train, fulfilling another lifelong dream. (Then I didn’t want the younger children handling the Lionel train, so we began buying battery-operated oversized train sets).
When I was living in Florida, I acquired two penpals who loved Christmas as much as I, and we forged a special friendship, sharing memories and exchanging (what else?) homemade ornaments.
Christmas is too commercialized, you say? I don’t think so. There are still many of us around who love Christmas, who have never lost sight of the fact that Christmas is our celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus.
Christmases, from the time you begin to create a family until your children are grown and bringing their children to Grammy and Grandpa for Christmas—are a collection of memories and maybe that’s what much of Christmas is all about – all those memories, spanning decades, going back to your own earliest childhood.
May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.
Sandra Lee Smith