I remember as a boy at Christmas my brothers and I were so excited. The Sears catalog would arrive in the mail and we’d spent hours paging through the toy section looking in wonder at all the new toys.
Dad would string the house with lights and he even put some on the pine tree in front of the house. Back in those days we had the Christmas lights with real light bulbs, you still see some these days. We had a strip of plastic that would wrap around the posts on either side of our front door and made them look like candy canes.
Someone came one night and stole some of the bulbs off the pine tree. I remember my Dad being concerned about thieves in the neighborhood and putting a bunch of mouse traps in the tree in case they came back for more. No more were stolen, so I guess it worked.
My Mom always did a lot of baking around Christmas. She made buttery shortbread cookies, mincemeat pies, butter tarts, and rum balls. I know we gained a lot of weight around Christmas because my Mom made fudge too. Sometimes we got to help by putting colored candy sprinkles on the cookies and even help cut the shortbread with cookie cutters in the shape of Christmas trees and ornaments.
Christmas trees were real in those days, always real. My favorite part was putting on the tinsel and my Mom was particular about how you put that on. You had to do it one piece at a time, not in clumps – she disliked clumpy tinsel.
I remember that the lights on the tree were also real bulbs, smaller than those on the house, but still real. Each string only worked if all the bulbs worked so we held our breath when they were plugged in and if one didn’t work we had to go searching for the one with a bad filament and replace it. I remember that there was an ancient red bulb in one string that had been on trees since my Mom was a kid, it was an antique bulb that had survived for decades of Christmases.
The bulbs got hot when they were lighted! I remember that I could hold a piece of tinsel over one of those bulbs and it would shrivel up from the heat. There are even little decorations that would attach to the bulbs with wires that had little shades on a pivot that allowed them to spin through the convection of heat from the bulb. It’s amazing that every house in those days didn’t burn to the ground from Christmas tree fires.
Another Christmas tradition in those days were the multi-colored wax candles. We had an old wine bottle that had a woven wicker basket around it and this was the candle holder for our multi-colored candles. As these candles burned, they’d drip various colors, blue, red, green, pink, any color you could think of. The drippings formed a rough collection of stalagmites all around the outside of the bottle. My brothers and I would watch it dripping and call out when the color changed. It was an event to see it each year and the holder was carefully wrapped after each Christmas.
Christmas Eve was the most special time of Christmas for me. Part of it was the impending excitement about Santa coming that night and it was also about the family rituals we observed. We would read Christmas stories and I remember my Mother reading the Bible to us, the part where the wise men came to baby Jesus in Bethlehem. I’m pretty sure that the TV was turned off for the night and the Hi-Fi was on with Christmas carols. In later years of my childhood there were probably Christmas specials like Andy Williams or Peanuts but I don’t recall. TV just didn’t figure as large in our lives then as it does now.
My brothers and I had Santa hats to wear with our names sewn on them that Mom made for us from felt with a cotton ball on top I think. It made the whole evening festive and we wore them to bed that night in preparation for Santa’s arrival. Going to sleep was hard and I’m sure that my Mom and Dad had a hard time waiting for us to go to sleep before moving our presents out under the tree so they could go to sleep.
In the morning we would wake up early, put on our robes, hats, and slippers, and we’d sneak out of our room and tip-toe down the hallway to the living room to peek at the tree with all the presents piled under it. Oh it was always a thrilling sight, the presents were colorful and decorated with ribbons and tags and they piled up under the tree and spread out into the room.
The anticipation was almost too much to bear and yet our parents were still asleep. We’d slip back into bed and we’d wait until we were just going to burst from excitement and then we’d knock on their door to wake them up. Some years it was too early, well maybe it was too early every year, but they’d tell us to go back to bed. We’d slink back into our beds and toss and turn waiting for the sun to come up. (picture is from the band “Orleans” web site, not me and my brothers, but it looked familiar)
Finally my parents would wake up and call for us to come to the living room. I’m sure we were beaming with the pleasure of Christmas morning. We were allowed to open our stockings first and then it was time for breakfast. Mom cooked for us all and we’d sit down around the table. My brothers and I would try not to hurry because even if we finished eating first, we needed permission to leave the table in those days, and nobody was going to open any presents until Mom and Dad had finished their breakfast anyway.
After breakfast was finished, we’d all go to the living room and one of us boys got to play Santa and deliver presents one at a time in turn to each person. We were expected to wait while the person opened their gift to see what Santa had brought to them and when we got a present we were to read the tag aloud to everyone. There were gifts from Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles, and of course from Santa Claus too.
We always got something we wanted, but of course we always wanted more than we could ever have received or used. The Sears catalog ensured that would always be the case. My brothers and I would spend the rest of Christmas Day playing with our toys and then in the afternoon we’d all put on our Sunday best and go over to our grandparent’s home for a formal dinner. My Grandmother, Nanny, would cook a huge dinner and put out name cards so we’ know where to sit, and crackers for us to pop and read our fortunes.
Crackers are very English. It’s a crepe paper-covered cardboard tube with a little explosive inside that pops when you pull both ends. There is always a little toy inside and usually a fortune if I remember right. They’re colorful and we really liked the noise they made.
I remember that most adults smoked in those days – right in the house too. When we boys were a little older, like seven or eight, it was considered polite for us to light the cigarettes of the ladies when they wanted to smoke. My grandparents had a large heavy table lighter and we would lift it up and light the lady’s smokes for them. They’d make nice comments to my parents too, “Oh, he’s such a little gentleman. The ladies are going to like him when he gets older.” We liked being complemented and while we didn’t know why but we liked the idea that the ladies would like us for lighting their cigarettes.
We usually got another present at my grandparents. But as most grandparents are practical people by virtue of surviving long enough to be a grandparent, and thriving well enough to host such a party, the presents were usually practical and utilitarian, not something one would find in the toy section of the Sear’s catalog. Socks were a common gift from my grandparents, argyle socks.
Christmas ended each year with a car ride back home from our Grandparents’ house. My brothers and I then made a quick change into PJ’s before being tucked into our beds. The day after Christmas was always a bit of a let-down as we faced another whole year until the magic of Christmas could happen again.
Some dreams never come true and some dreams come true once a year. Christmas is one of those special dreams that comes around each year and my memories of it are built over a lifetime. They are rich and heart-warming memories. I won’t be restless this Christmas Eve and I won’t have trouble with waking up too early. But the warmth of the season is still something I feel and treasure. I hope I never lose that.