Dear Clients and Friends,
As the holidays approach, the memories begin to flood in, for all of us, I’m sure.
I grew up in the house in which my mother grew up. Her parents had built it. I’m sure she brought many of the childhood memories she experienced in that house to the Christmas seasons during my childhood.
My father’s parents lived in Maryland, outside of Baltimore. We always had Thanksgiving dinner up there, with many aunts, uncles, and cousins. Dad has a big family. I always felt like it was the beginning of the holiday season, because I knew the Christmas decorations at home would be coming out soon.
My father’s mother, who we called Nanny, was a marvelous cook—a “meat and potatoes” cook. When you grow up with a Northern father and a Southern mother, you are in the delightful position of getting both sides of the coin, food-wise. At my father’s parents’ house, I remember roasts, turkey, mashed potatoes, hot lettuce (“sweet and sour”), meat pies and, always, a loaf of white bread on the table. Stick-to-your-ribs food, and it was always delicious. Nanny always wore an apron and a smile, and Pop-Pop would put us on his lap and wiggle his moustache on our cheeks and neck.
The Christmas season started early in our house. Around December 1st, the boxes of decorations (and there were a lot of them) would be brought out of the storage area (known as “the hole” because it was more or less a crawl-in space on the second floor of the house, underneath the slanting roof. The hole was unheated, and had that scratchy insulation that made you itch).
We decorated the tables, mantle, put up wreaths, etc., first. Mom would pull out the Christmas albums—the annual Firestone albums, Barbra Streisand, etc.—and beautiful Christmas music would flow out of the big stereo cabinet in the living room. I loved those albums and still do today—I have them now, and I pull them out in early December and play them all through the holiday season on, yes, my stereo.
We had the most delightful decorations. Some were old, I believe from Mom’s grandmother, and some were from Mom’s childhood. And many were the decorations of the ‘60s and ‘70s: tinsel and sparkle and flash. Lots of candles, lights—and I remember an enchanting scene on the dining room table. Mom laid a big mirror in the middle of the table, which became an ice skating pond, and she put cotton around the edges to represent the snow. Then, she put little skating figures on the “pond”. We kids loved it.
Mom is very creative. Back then, she had craft kits that came in the mail each month, called the “Fad-of-the-Month Club.” Many of the crafts were centered around the different holidays, and the family still has many of them.
Dad’s domain was the Christmas tree. We never put it up earlier than the Sunday before Christmas, probably because live trees back then were mostly Scotch pines, prickly and short-lived inside the house. And the lights! Bright and colorful, but they burned hot! Not the best for a drying-out tree.
We had a train track, attached to a large board, that went under the tree. Dad would put the track board down, then stand the tree towards the back of the board, in the middle of the track. He put the lights on. He always did a perfect job, but cussed the entire way through the process. (I have to admit that putting lights on any tree is my least favorite job of decorating the tree, and I’m sure some unsavory words come out of my mouth, too). Besides the old-fashioned colored lights, we had ice lights and bubble lights. Mom just gave me the ice lights this year, and I have to find an appropriate place to use them this year.
After the lights were up, Dad was finished, and the rest of the family would all get together and put the decorations on the tree. Today, this is my favorite decorating task. As I pull out each tree ball, memories pour over me. I have tree balls from four generations of my family,and I cherish each one. Mom started a great tradition when we were just little kids—each year, we each picked out a tree ball, and Mom would put our initial and the year, using fingernail polish, on the ball. When we moved out on our own, we got all the tree balls we had selected over the years, giving us at least a few decorations for our own trees. I still have them.
Once the tree was decorated, Dad went back to work and created a village under the tree, on the train track board. Oh, I loved that village and train. He had a really old, large transformer, and you could press a button on it and the train’s whistle would blow. Also, he had a little pill that he would drop into the engine’s smokestack. Like magic, the smokestack would send out little curls of smoke. We were thrilled as little kids. (My brother was notorious for making the train go too fast, so fast that it would often wreck. And our English bulldog, Spike, was enamored with the train when it ran, too.)
The holiday cooking would begin, and we would have the treats we looked forward to all year. Mom made Snickerdoodles, press cookies with sparkles and beads, cut-out sugar cookies with all the holiday shapes, butterballs…she still makes these today.
When we were really little children, my brother and I would set the alarm clock for 5:30 a.m. (there was one year, and only one, when we set it for 4:30 a.m.), then we’d sit on the top step until my parents got up and gave the go-ahead to go into the living room to see our stockings. Dad would go downstairs, to the big, knotty pine paneled rec room we had, turn on the tree and the extra heater down there, and we’d go down to the tree after the stockings were finished. My parents weren’t really big on birthdays or any other holidays throughout the year, but Christmas—Christmas, they went all out. “Santa” had come overnight, of course, and when we walked into that rec room, it was miraculous—“Santa’s” gifts were unwrapped and spread around the room. We each had our own “spots” on the two sofas that were in the room; my brother and I each had half of one sofa, and my two sisters each had a half of the other sofa. It was magical. On top of that, there were wrapped presents piled next to the tree, from all members of the family to each other.
On Christmas afternoon, we always went up the hill to my grandparents’ house, my beloved Gramma and Gramps. Their house was decorated just as heavily as our house. They always had two, sometimes three, big trees. One I particularly remember was the silver tree they put in the front bay window—it was covered with elves and had an electric color wheel that made it change color, which was magical for all us kids. My aunt, uncle, and cousins would be there, too, for Christmas. More presents, more music, a big delicious meal, and family camaraderie. My grandmother’s meals were always more Southern, of course, and ham was at the center of the Christmas table (along with other meats and lots of other Southern delicacies). Gramma always made Franklin nut cake and fresh coconut cake. Mom’s side of the family was not as into pies as cakes, as I recall…though, when there was a pie, someone would say to my grandmother, “Mama/Gramma, who made the pie? It’s delicious.” And she’d smile and say, “Mrs. Smith.” Then came her wonderful laugh. We still say this today in our family, and it still makes everyone smile.
Many years, the weather was mild, so we could play in the yard (I don’t really remember a white Christmas, back then).
The tree always came down the Sunday after Christmas, if I remember correctly. In any case, it was never up for more than two weeks, for safety’s sake—by then, it would be so dry.
Such wonderful memories. I have been very fortunate and I am grateful.
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