THE day is almost upon those of us who celebrate/observe/pay homage to some aspect or other associated with December 25th. This year, like most years, I tend to reflect on Christmas past, although I’ve done the reflecting on my own. I don’t need any ghosts to help me.
Here are a few of my clearest holiday memories from childhood.
Cookies and cakes. Every year, both of my grandma’s, with a little help from a few aunties, magically sent to our home their annual tins of holiday cookies and cakes and candy. Each grandma had a style of their own. One made the homespun, hearty, creative sorts of treats that I associate with women who had to find ways to make do. The other grandma made more refined, citified treats that you might find on a tea-table.
Grandma Fiscus (Vernona) was my dad’s mom. She lived about an hour south of us and didn’t travel much. Her house was quaint, and filled with practical items. Most everything was covered in some sort of hand-made yarn project. Her quilts were like rainbows. My dad would visit her, sometimes with me in tow, at some point before Christmas, and return with a tin, or tray, or box of treats. I remember opening the box each year and looking for one treat in particular. Everything in Grandma’s box was special, but the figgy pin wheel cookies were my favorite. They looked like this, although Grandma’s weren’t quite so perfect.
Then there was the box that would come with Grandma Bunny, (Blanche) my mom’s mom. She would drive down to us from her Seattle apartment home to the north. She lived in the big City. She came to stay with us almost every Christmas, driving to our home in her big boat of a Cadillac. That car had fins on the back and you changed gears by pushing buttons. The front seat was so big I could lay flat-out on it while someone sat in the seat. Mostly Grandma Bunny would bring fudge and divinity. I liked the fudge, the divinity not so much. It was too sweet and it’s appearance reminded me of eating chalk.
We would also get donuts. Grandma Bunny’s apartment was just across the parking lot from a Winchell’s Donut shop. She brought glazed donuts. I liked those. She also brought Crullers. They made my mouth feel odd, almost like some of the chalkiness of the divinity had wiped itself onto the Cruller. Eating those left a film in my mouth.
Gifts. I don’t really remember many of the gifts I received. It was the 1960’s and everything was decidedly gender proper so I admit to receiving things like baby dolls and Barbie, and the Easy Bake Oven. We opened presents on Christmas eve. I don’t know why. I just remember that we always had to wait on my dad to get home from his annual office party. I don’t remember what age I was when I realized that he came home drunk every Christmas eve. For many years Grandma Bunny would bring with her a ‘special’ present for me. Remember, this was the 60’s, so at the time I was pretty impressed. She would give me a jar, or coffee can, or bag filled with pennies. Always pennies. Literally every penny she collected as change over the prior year. I would wait for those pennies. Someone was actually giving me MONEY. No one gives a six or seven-year old kid money. I had to be the luckiest kid ever. I look back now and can’t remember what would happen to those pennies, although I have no memory of ever actually spending them, or even seeing them after that night.
Santa. Yes, our family did the whole Santa Claus-down the chimney-cookies and milk-thing, although in our house Santa always arrived early and left those presents so they would be ready for opening on Christmas eve… I look back now and it’s really amazing what kids will believe, or convince themselves of when it comes to mythical figures. Yes, I also perpetuated Santa with my own kids, but that’s another story. One year, maybe I was five or six, and the memories are vague, but Santa actually came to my home. It was Christmas eve of course, and some grouping of family members were present. Hints were flying all evening about someone ‘special’ visiting.
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! Someone (or something) knocked really loudly at our front door and everyone was trying desperately to get me, the little kid who had been told over and over to never open the door to strangers, to just run on over and see who was at the door. I was not only waiting to get smacked for doing something I had been forbidden ever to do, but I was also terrified. I adamantly refused. Someone else finally opened the door and I caught a glimpse of a hairy red giant on the front step before I dived directly under the dining table and refused to come out. I think it pissed everyone off. It ruined my night for sure. I never found out who Santa was either.
Christmas trees. My dad used to sell Christmas trees from our yard. I don’t know any of the intricate details about things like permits and business licenses, and legalities and such. I’m pretty sure that none of that stuff existed then anyway. I just know that he would go up into the woods, cut down some trees, set them up along our fence line, and people would come and buy them. I learned that Noble Fir was a much better tree than the Douglas Fir. While the Noble was often less full looking it had shapelier needles and the space between its branches allowed you to really see the ornaments and lights. The needles actually curled up a bit, showing a faint hint of silver.
Noble fir trees are still my favorite Christmas tree. I think that I had a notion that my dad must have had some direct connection to Santa and the North Pole. I mean, I didn’t have any friends whose dads had actual Christmas trees in their yards.
All of this remembering makes me wonder what my own children have taken away into adulthood of their Christmas’ past. We started many of our own traditions and we didn’t open presents on Christmas eve. Our Santa only came late in the night so that we could all get up at 5 AM and find our gifts under the tree. Christmas, the entire holiday season has changed for me, which of course is inevitable as we grow up. I have mixed feelings about this holiday in general now. Things like: how much to perpetuate the traditional images now that we have Miss G in the family, or how much to simply let go and make this time more about a general sense of giving and caring for others. This is a holiday that is very complicated, or at least it became so when I stopped being a child. I find that a little sad, but I also acknowledge the reality.
Sometimes though, it’s really nice to remember what used to be.