Christmas is joy, religious joy, an inner joy of light and peace. Pope Francis.
My memories of Christmases past include hiking into the woods, Daddy picking out a pine tree, chopping it down, and the two of us dragging it home. Looking back, I’m not sure the trees were always on our property, but if not, people in those days were generous and fence rows were for keeping cows in, not neighbors out. Old Clarence beat us to our “secret” mushroom patch every spring and helped himself to our raspberries in June and we all knew about it and no one cared.
Back at our house, Daddy would nail the bottom of the tree to the “x” he created from two boards. It might not have been the best tree stand in the world, but it served its purpose until one year when … We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but I promise we will return to the end of this little story. Mommy would bring our boxes of colorful glass ornaments that had been in our family for years before I was born, my favorites being the birds with fiberglass tails that scratched me when I touched them – and I always did – and we would drink old fashioned hot cocoa that Daddy made. It seemed my friends’ hot chocolate was milk chocolate from a mix, but our family was stuck with the dark chocolate that wasn’t as sweet and was made with water, not milk. I confess to having been a little envious at the time but I know better now.
Mommy was thrifty, both by nature and necessity. Had she been to the manor born, she still would not have wasted anything. We weren’t allowed to rip open our gifts, but instead had to remove the wrapping paper gently so that she could fold it and put it away. I remember the same bright blue foil gracing my presents for what seemed years until it finally disintegrated.
What is your favorite childhood Christmas gift? I loved my Cinderella watch which came in a glass (plastic) high heeled shoe, and always looked forward to books (except Black Beauty which made me sad), but my most cherished present was a sled, when sleds were wooden and long and had metal runners and not today’s plastic saucer shaped things.
By the time I was born, Daddy was closer in age to being a grandfather than a father, but he was young at heart and loved the outdoors. A little girl plopped on top of an older+ man sailing down a snowy hill was a frequent sight. We had fun, if you don’t count the day we went flying down our lane and into the road, able to stop only in front of a car with an alert driver at the wheel. “I knew it was you, Ray,” stated family friend Gene. Gene was calm, and so was Daddy. We never told Mommy about our little misadventure but she probably would not have been surprised.
Another vivid memory is getting a little white gift bag from our small church: an orange, a few Brazil nuts, and chocolate covered vanilla cream drops. It was such a simple offering, from hard working folks, but to me it was a treasure and I pretended it was from Jesus.
Where were we? Ah, the homemade Christmas tree stand… One year one of Daddy’s cousins stopped by, bringing along his youngest son, approximately my age, in need of a little Christmas cheer as his wife of twenty years had run off with another man. My parents could not understand why, but although I was ten, I was a worldly (I thought) ten. Our cousin had several children, all boys, and nineteen dogs and twenty-one horses. Even I could figure out that all those animals cost a lot of money, as well as time and attention that his wife could have used. Please don’t ask me how many pets I have had in my lifetime, or even how many I have now, because all I will tell you is that my bed gets pretty darned crowded in the winter and I don’t always end up winning the battle of the covers.
Did I mention that our cousin brought along one of his dogs on his visit? His beagle and our beagle played tag throughout the house, even running into The Good Room which was normally off limits to both two and four footed creatures. Where do you think our Christmas tree, loaded with glass ornaments dating back to the Great Depression, stood on that rickety hand-made stand? How many of the ornaments do you think survived the great crash caused by the beloved beagles? Not many. I will always recall the sound of that disaster, but even more shocking was the sight of my mother calmly sweeping up the broken glass and never once commenting about the carnage. Perhaps she thought it could have been worse. Our cousin could have brought his entire herd of dogs over to play, or one or two of his horses and we could have suffered a Level One Calamity.
Daddy’s older sister, Aunt Oatie, was a widow whose only chance at motherhood ended (allegedly) with a botched delivery by a country doctor, a stillbirth, and damaged female parts. She also had to pinch her pennies as she was far from wealthy. You might think that her circumstances would have made her bitter toward life, but you would be wrong. Among her interests were watching Dean Martin on tv (anyone who mistakenly called her on Thursday nights would be politely reminded that “Dean’s on” before she gently hung up the phone), riding around in a red convertible with a much younger man who in those days was referred to as a “confirmed bachelor” and making Christmas goodies. One lucky niece would be invited to her house for a day of measuring flour, sugar, salt and various ingredients, stirring in real butter, walnuts, vanilla and other yummy fixings, then sneaking a taste here and there before popping cookies into the oven. Her candy cane cookies were plain and delicate, but delightful. Aunt Oatie also made taffy, fondant, fudge, and potato candy, and was generous with her secret to successful confectionary delights. “Humidity,” she would tell my mother. If there was too much humidity in the air, candy would not set up. Mommy took her advice to heart, but she never was able to master the soft ball stage of fudge making.
I loved all her Christmas goodies with the exception of potato candy which I thought was too rich, almost to the point of making me sick. Of course my tummy ache could have been the result of indulging in everything.
I will always miss Aunt Oatie, and at Christmastime I often wish I could open one of her gaily wrapped boxes and sample her culinary efforts. I also wish I had some of her recipes, not that I could replicate her treats.
Mommy, Daddy, Aunt Oatie, Gene and even our animal loving cousin are gone now. But every year I make small donations in their names and others to honor them, and Christ.