14. Christmas memories

Christmas has always been a magical time of year for this old guy. Growing up, my mom made Christmas memorable. She celebrated a religious Christmas (“And there were in the same country…”), but it was the non-religious trappings of Christmas that enchanted me. They still do. Every first weekend in December, I regress. I become a Christmas child.

A big part of it is the sights and sounds, the flavors and aromas. Packages under the tree, Christmas tree lights, the smell of Italian pizzelles and Russian teacakes, the special taste of those cheap, chocolate-covered cherries (always my Christmas present to Mom when I was a kid… and she was always surprised when she unwrapped it), the Christmas tree smell (Mom delayed buying the tree until almost Christmas Eve, in order to get one for $3), and the decorations we put out year after year. I remember the details of our manger scene like it was yesterday. Every year, I’d debate what color bulb to mount in the back of the stable, to create the special mood lighting for Baby Jesus. And every year I would choose blue, to make it look like starlight.

I remember one cold, clear Christmas Eve when my brother and I walked home after midnight mass at St. Mary Magdalen Church. (We weren’t Catholic, so that was a new experience for me.) There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and looking up at those stars, I imagined that’s what it must have looked like to the shepherds that night. I was young enough then that I still half believed – or wanted to believe – all of that.

And Christmas music was everywhere… Christmas carols being sung by a choir, secular anthems delivered by Nat, Bing and Frank, the classic sounds of the Harry Simeone Chorale. Christmas music is the sound track of December. Ba rum pa pum pum.

In fall of first grade, my family moved to a small town in rural Missouri. My biggest fear was that Santa wouldn’t be able to find me. My parents assured me he would, but I wasn’t sure… until Christmas morning. Somehow it all magically worked out.

Last year – 65 years later – I had the same fear: Would Christmas be able to find us in our new home? In our new… condo?

It was our first Christmas in the condo, and we had some decisions to make. First, where would the tree go? And where do we hang stockings, without a fireplace? In fact, where do we hang all the decorations we brought from the house? It was going to be a very different Christmas, indeed.

We began making decisions.

We could move the big chair a bit, and put the tree between the living and dining rooms. We could see it from every point in both rooms, and so could our neighbors across the courtyard.

Of course, the tree would be smaller. Lower ceilings. Six strands of lights, instead of nine. But it was a nice-sized, perfectly shaped Frazier fir that fit in the space. With that real-tree smell.

We could string pine roping and lights around the outside deck, with red bows hanging down. And we still found places to put the Christmas knickknacks we’d accumulated, including the cow that moos “Deck the Halls” when you squeeze him.

Most important were the tree ornaments accumulated from our many years of marriage, and from each of our childhoods. Ornaments linked to events, stories, places and people, many of them gone. No matter how small our tree was, all of those important memories had to fit on it. And they did.

Finally, the condo was Christmas-ready. Everything was hung. The tree and the deck were lit, packages were wrapped, and Nat King Cole was roasting his chestnuts. Smells of pizzelles and teacakes and pine. And most of all, the people who mattered – our family and close friends – were in one room together, raising our wine glasses in an almost-religious toast: God bless us everyone.

Christmas had magically found us after all, as it will again this year. Mom would approve. Except for the wine.

Merry Christmas from this old guy’s family to all of our friends and extended family, young and old. Ba rum pa pum pum.

7 thoughts on “14. Christmas memories

  1. I can’t remember what ever influenced us Church of God kids to make Midnight Mass at St. Mary Magdalene CATHOLIC (!) Church a part of our annual ritual (actually I do: it was those McDevitt and Colabianchi kids and even J.M the neighbor bully!) But I do remember the ritual of watching “Miracle on 34th Street” on our black-and-white TV set. And the thrill of that last scene when they discovered that the bungalow with dormers they just happened to drive by, looked exactly like the one they’d asked Santa Claus to bring them. “Yes, Virginia, there really is a [god]! Aw sweet…AKA: “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

  2. Yeah, holiday family traditions. Everyone’s got ‘em, and you can’t shoot ‘em.

    Mine were more rural-based (read: redneck). Usually, over forty of us would descend onto Granny’s place for the noon meal on Christmas Day. Most of the males involved were named Billy, which set me apart.

    We had annual stuff like all the grandkids shanghai-ing Granny, kicking and screaming, and tying her to the outhouse. Two of my cousins, Billy and Billy, and I couldn’t let the day pass without the National Goose Chase. I won’t explain other than to say if we were to try it now, we’d all be resigning from Congress.

    Granny’s house had 1 ½ rooms, so seating for forty-plus was challenging. The ladies sat wherever they could, while most of the Billys took their paper plates outside and ate off the hoods of their trucks.

    For a couple of seasons, we all loaded into cars and pickups after the home festivities and headed two miles to the state pen for a visit with Uncle Billy. The last year we did such, we were eventually herded into a large conference room by the warden and several guards. The warden, with all the decorum he could muster, patiently explained that one member of our family was sufficient to test the composure of his institution, and that we would not be welcomed back after our impending departure. We never saw Uncle Billy again.

    We tried giving presents only one year. Aunt Inez heard from a friend down at the beauty shop that someone’s family drew names for the exchange of gifts. Imagine 16 packages under an aluminum tree all tagged “for Billy”. Of course, there was one for me, which I opened in a flurry of flying ribbons and newspaper stuffing. There, in a Miracle Whip jar with the label partially removed, were six of my cousin Billy’s toes, along with the 30-30 shells that shot them off. Even at my youthful age, I was touched.

    We always had a family sing-along of good ol’ Christmas carols. For some reason, there was never any recollection by anyone other than myself of the previous years of disaster at this attempt. Another uncle, Billy, always had dirty lyrics. Even the dogs outside howled their displeasure.

    Those days are a distant memory, which has likely improved dramatically with time. I was careful not to name a single one of my four kids “Billy”, and these days, gifts are more likely to be Amazon cards. Various family members show up at random times between December 20 and January 15. We just stay home.

  3. I love reading about your memories. Didn’t you and Gary ever get up early to go in to where your gifts were to take a quick peek to see if Santa brought you what you wanted? Shirley and I usually did so we could sleep better. One time we did that and saw the bikes waiting for us. I am sure daddy had to put them together and mom couldn’t wrap them. I still remember how excited we were. Sure hope you all will have a great holiday.

    1. Mar, I do remember trying to talk Gary into opening just one present after we came home from midnight mass, since legally it was Christmas morning. He didn’t buy it. He was such a goody two shoes!

  4. Thanks for the peek into your memories. We may have a new question for Mitchener trivia in July. How many families include(d) boxes of chocolate covered cherries as a traditional Christmas gift? They were always included for my mom and the tradition continues in Virginia. Merry Christmas to the Chicago and New York Mitcheners!

  5. Re: I remember one cold, clear Christmas Eve when my brother and I walked home after midnight mass at St. Mary Magdalen Church. (We weren’t Catholic, so that was a new experience for me.) You could do an entire blog on the Catholic midnight mass ritual (parishes selling raffle tickets for the prime pews, people saving entire pews for family members who happen to arrive just as the priest starts his processional, the college kids who never attend Mass and decide to stand in the back vestibule of the church gabbing with their buds, etc.). I took Methodist April to midnight Mass back in ’83 in Leawood, KS. One of the coldest nights I can remember -13 degrees (wind chill was far worse that night) with 7 inches of snow of the ground and roads. We were not married then so I had to drive her home to her parents house in Olathe at 1:30 in the morning in my dads Olds 98 Regency that he would end up giving me for keeps after we got married 3 months later – easily an hour trip there and another hour back home to my parents house. I could not tell you what the temperature was yesterday but I remember that night. Merry Christmas Larry. See you in July? I miss that car. https://i2.wp.com/www.curbsideclassic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/P70700311.jpg

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