Christmases Past

I am a big fan of the holidays and all the froo-fraw that goes with them–family traditions, decorating, baking, singing carols and so on. As most of us do, I compare my Christmases now with the ones I enjoyed when I was growing up.

Back then, each Christmas Eve Mom and Dad and I drove to my grandparents’ house for her famous seafood chowder and homemade watermelon pickles. Mom always made her wonderful Parker House rolls to go with it. My grandfather (whom we called “Bumpa”) had strung lights up on the spruce tree on one side of the porch (he called it the “Janie tree”), and my grandmother (whom we called “Ba”) decorated the other smaller tree nearby with gifts for her beloved birds; bags of suet studded with seeds, hollowed-out pieces of wood with peanut butter filling the holes, and handmade feeders made from hollow gourds filled with birdseed.

The parlor was always our “Christmas room,” with the Christmas tree in the big bay window with all the presents underneath. My red stocking was already hung by the fire, and all my stuffed animals who had lost their little red felt tongues during the year sat all together in a wooden chair. It was a tradition to leave them out on Christmas Eve so that Mrs. Santa could sew on new tongues for them.

The Christmas tree was beautiful: Ba had made Victorian ornaments out of scraps of pretty materials such as velvet, organdy, silk and chiffon that were carefully glued to styrofoam balls and then decorated with sequins, gold braid and bits and bobs of costume jewelry. Honestly, they looked like the crown jewels to me. There were gold and silver birds with silver floss tails clipped on the branches, and strings of candle lights made the tree a shimmering work of art.

Swags of real pine branches wrapped in red velvet bows decorated the mantle piece above the fireplace, and on either side, a golden dove was placed among the branches as though they had just settled down. The Three Kings tableau I had made for Ba years ago (made from construction paper cones decorated with glued-on sequins and glitter and topped with styrofoam heads with little crowns) was in pride of place on the heavy dark wood table.

Ba’s presents were works of art. They were so beautifully wrapped that, even as a child, I hated to open them. The year I remember best was when Ba chose pale pink glossy wrapping paper and coppery lace ribbons as her “present theme.” The final touch was carefully shellacked acorn caps (collected by both of us in the fall) on their twigs, glued onto the ribbons.

I always stayed there overnight, and it was a night filled with anticipation, joy, and pure magic. “My” room was upstairs in what Ba called the “Pink Room;” she had painted it herself in her favorite rose-pink, and all the bedclothes were pink as well. Around 8:30 or 9:00pm, Bumpa would say, “Well, if we want Santa Claus to come by tonight, we ought to think about getting to bed.”

Ba would put down the book she was reading, and go to the pantry to fill a plate with Christmas cookies and a glass of milk for me. Previously, we would have put out Santa’s own plate of cookies plus a carrot for the reindeer on the little end table by the fireplace. Once I had washed up and put on one of Ba’s voluminous nighties (I always ‘forgot’ pajamas when I stayed overnight so I could borrow her nighty), I kissed them both goodnight, and Ba gave me the plate of cookies and milk to take upstairs with me.

Once settled in the pink bed, I read my book and ate the cookies, all the time listening for sleighbells on the night wind. I always opened the window near the bed a crack, and loved the feel of that cold, cold night air coming in as I snuggled in warm blankets. I thought of all the good (and bad) kids all over the world, who must be thinking, as I was, of Christmas in the morning.

When it was still dark out, I went downstairs as quietly as I could to collect my Christmas stocking. The night before it was flat; in the morning it was lumpy and bumpy with unseen treasures. I always looked into the fireplace, too–and there were Santa’s footprints in the ashes! I don’t remember how old I was when I finally figured out that Bumpa used his boots to make those footprints, but it didn’t matter to me–I still got a thrill out of it.

Once I lugged my stocking back up to the Pink Room, I got back under the covers and upended it in my lap. There was always a Lifesavers “book,” filled with rolls of Lifesavers. There were little puzzles, a small stuffed animal, a storybook or two, an orange (always in the toe), a little red net bag of chocolate “coins,” wrapped in gold foil, a little doll, a few candy canes, a silver dollar, a stretchy beaded bracelet, and, as every year, there was a carefully wrapped china angel for my collection.

There I would sit, like a queen counting jewels, in bed and surrounded by all my treasures. After eating a few rolls of the Lifesavers and reading my new books, I always fell back to sleep. The scent of freshly-made coffee and bacon woke me up later on, along with the sound of Bumpa stacking the fire with more wood. It was my signal to get dressed, come downstairs and wish Ba and Bumpa a Merry Christmas.

While I waited for Mom and Dad to arrive with all our gifts from home, I lay under the tree looking up at the lights and enjoying the sweet anticipation of all the presents under the tree. Also, each and every one of my formerly tongue-less stuffed animals had brand new red tongues!

Christmas breakfast was always Ba’s creamy scrambled eggs served in the china casserole dish shaped like a chicken; also crisp bacon, orange juice, buttered toast and caramel cinnamon rolls. It was all delicious, but by then all I could think of was all those presents under the tree. Finally, one of the adults would take pity on me and say, “Ok, let’s go open presents!”

It was Ba’s particular genius each year to give you the one thing you just couldn’t live without. Looking back, I know now that she must have saved all year long to do this. One year I got a beautiful bride doll, complete with tiny pearl earrings. Another year my favorite gift was the fashion accessory every girl wanted that year; a gold watch pendant on a long chain. Yet another year there was a set of the newest invention: hot rollers! You plugged the whole set in, let them heat up, then curled your hair with them. At that time, it was light years away from the old brush-and-wire rollers we slept (and suffered) in.

The year I remember best was when Ba gave me a Singer sewing machine. That summer she had patiently taught me how to pin on a dress pattern, cut it out, follow the directions to sew the pieces together. It opened up a whole new world for me–I could actually make my own clothes! For the price of some cloth, thread and a pattern, I could make simple shifts, skirts, long and short-sleeve dresses, and once, even a bathing suit! That was 47 years ago, and to this day, I still use that old Singer. Newer, lighter and more efficient sewing machines are everywhere, but I wouldn’t trade that old machine for anything.

Those Christmases are ever close in my heart, as well as the overwhelming feeling of love and goodwill I felt and still do feel. Before I drifted off to sleep in that wonderful pink bed, I swear I heard the distant music of sleighbells floating on the air on that magical night. As grown-up Wendy said to Peter Pan when he finally thought to come back to take her to Neverland, “I am ever so many years past 20.” But I still feel that same magic at Christmas time, and I still hear those sleighbells late at night, wafting on the wings of the wind.



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