Christmas in our family always started on the day after Thanksgiving, when Daddy, my younger sister Janet, and I went to get the tree. Daddy’s traditional tree was a ceiling-tall blue spruce. He would put it in a bucket of water until the following night, when we all decorated it with colored lights, a German glass steeple on the top of the tree, and German glass ornaments. Last to be placed on the tree were foil icicles, Mother’s favorite, which had to hang absolutely straight, three or four on each branch. The tree smelled wonderful.
On Sunday, we went downtown to see Santa’s arrival parade. A week or so later, we went to visit him at the local bakery. I wonder now if it was a clever ruse to keep us out of the department stores’ toy area. Every December, the bakery put a big red sleigh in the yard on the front side of their building. Every evening, Santa was sitting in the sleigh, and his eight live reindeer were harnessed to it. While it rarely snowed in Texas and never, in my memory, in December, there was a snow-like ground cover between the sidewalk and the building. I felt like I was really at the North Pole. I sat on his lap and told him what I wanted for Christmas until Janet no longer believed in him.
One year, Daddy brought home several rolls of some type of, I suppose, heavy-duty foil from which milk, cream, buttermilk, and half-and-half bottle caps were stamped. The rolls were red, green, gold, purple, and a red and silver stripe. I have no idea what the fifth lid color was used for. A current fad was to fold the rolls in half lengthwise and wrap them around a coat hanger to make a wreath. A “bow” was made from a six-hole cut of each of the colors of foil, then layered together, squeezed in the middle, fanned out, and wired to the top of the wreath.
After two or three years, it occurred to Mother to roll out the strips, layer together all of the colors, and weave the coat hanger through the holes. The whole family had to help with this project. She then pulled the flat edges between each hole into a puff, carefully separating the different colors. The puffs made a ring which was three inches in diameter. She put the same “bow” on them. They were beautiful — colorful and shiny, reflecting the tree lights. People raved about those wreaths.
Over the years, we made quite a few wreaths as gifts, including ones for all of our teachers, until that kind of lid was no longer used. Mother never made another for us. The original one was packed in a box on New Years’ Day and brought out the next year until she was moved into a nursing home. The only upkeep was its annual bath and reshaping any crumpled puff. I wonder what happened to it.
The wreaths were my introduction to crafts. When I was about seven, my best friend showed me how to cross-stitch on a printed piece of fabric. The next Christmas, I asked Daddy to take me to the five-and-dime store, where I found a printed cross stitch design on a clothespin bag. I stitched it for Mother for Christmas. For following Christmases, I cross-stitched and later embroidered handkerchiefs, table runners, a set of three mats for her vanity table, another clothespin bag when the first one wore out, and similar items. To this day, I try to give a handmade gift to those on my Christmas list.
Early on Christmas Eve, Mother was always in the kitchen making pumpkin and cherry pies. She made the pie crusts from flour, salt, shortening, and ice cubes. My job was to cut the shortening into the flour until it was about the size of split peas. She then put flour on the kitchen table and, using a wooden rolling pin, rolled a lump of the mixture into an extremely thin sheet. Those crusts, when baked, were flakey and tasted like a croissant.
Actually, Mother’s Christmas culinary creations began in July, when she made a fruit cake out of crushed graham crackers, candied fruit, and pecans from trees in our back yard. This mixture was moistened mostly with whiskey and stuffed back into the graham cracker box to mellow in the icebox. (We didn’t get a refrigerator until I was about seven years old.) A few weeks before Thanksgiving, she baked a different fruit cake, doused it liberally with whiskey, and left it at room temperature in a cake cover to age.
I loved those cakes, maybe because I was only allowed a very thin slice that was one third the width of the box. (Unfortunately, my children decided they didn’t like either fruit cake. I regretfully replaced this treasured tradition with six or eight varieties of Christmas cookies which they helped me make.)
Anticipation grew all day, as we all tidied up the house. Daddy read The Night Before Christmas and the Mathew and Luke Nativity Bible verses to all of us. Both parents talked about their childhood Christmases, and what Christmas meant to them. At about 3:00, it was bath time. We dressed in our Sunday best and then went to Daddy’s brother’s home. Uncle Fred, Aunt Mary, and cousin Freddy celebrated on Christmas Eve with our family and Aunt Mary’s four sisters (whom we were taught to call “aunt”), their husbands, and two of one “aunt’s” teen-aged children.
Janet and I thought Uncle Fred and Aunt Mary were rich because they had a two-story house with two dining rooms. (Actually, I think now, the second dining room was probably a breakfast nook.) The ceilings were 10 feet tall, and so was Uncle Fred’s spruce tree. They had a maid who cooked and served Christmas dinner.
After we arrived, the adults sat around and talked for an hour or so, drinking eggnog that Uncle Fred had made and laced with brandy. Janet and I were allowed to have some without the brandy. It had a much richer flavor than the store-bought eggnog we know today. It looked fluffy and its texture was very light because it had whipped egg whites and whipped cream in it.
Because we were little, all of the “aunts” spent a little time making small talk with Janet and me. Then we were ignored, so we would go upstairs and usually got into trouble. For example, when Janet was two, she climbed up on Aunt Mary’s dressing table chair and tried on her cosmetics and all of her perfumes. I thought it was funny until Aunt Mary caught us.
Finally, it would be time for dinner. There were two turkeys, sweet potatoes with brown sugar and pineapple, mashed white potatoes, fresh asparagus, stuffed celery, olives, homemade cranberry-orange sauce, and homemade bread, followed by apple pie and ice cream for children and fruit cake for adults.
After dinner, Freddy distributed the mountain of presents. Janet and I received a toy from Uncle Fred and Aunt Mary, Freddy, and two of the “aunts.” When we were older, we received gift boxes of perfume with same-scent powder from Uncle Fred and Aunt Molly, books from Freddy, lingerie from one “aunt” and hose from the other “aunt.” I never questioned why we called these women “aunt” until I was in college. One day when Daddy picked me up at school, I asked him about it. He told me that he had married another sister, who had died in childbirth several years before he met Mother.
About half an hour after the packages were opened, everyone departed. Daddy would then drive us downtown to see the Christmas decorations in each of the four department stores’ huge display windows. Each store covered a whole city block, and the display windows went all around the buildings. He parked the car, and we walked around all of them. The windows were lavishly decorated, and every year the decorations were different. There were displays of model electric train sets that were running on tracks surrounded by elaborate winter scenes, mechanical elves making toys in Santa’s workshop, Santa doing various things, animated depictions of scenes from children’s books, etc.
At last at home, Janet and I set out a plate with the coveted icebox fruit cake and a glass of eggnog for Santa. And then, to bed, we fell into an exhausted sleep. In the morning, we found one bite out of the fruit cake, but all of the eggnog was gone.
Our felt Christmas stockings were bulging. Mother was the daughter of a widow who farmed cotton. The big Christmas treat for her was an orange, so we always had an orange in the stockings. There also were Brazil and other nuts, several pieces of wrapped penny candy and some stick candy, a coloring book, a BIG box of 24 crayons, and some other small toys in my stocking. Mother hung an old hose, and Daddy hung one of his socks. Mother’s hose always had an orange and a few other widely-spaced items in it. Daddy’s was always stuffed with crumpled newspaper. He would pull out each crumpled piece, unfold it, and then he would begin to screw up his face until he pretended to cry. Janet and I always tried to make him feel better.
That is, until I was nine years old, when I woke up to find that my stocking was empty. I was terribly upset. Daddy tried to console me by pointing to the floor under the stocking, where there was a coconut for me. (Well, I do love coconuts.) Mother tried to explain that the coconut was too big for the stocking. That just didn’t work for me, and I pouted until I was told to go look on the back porch, where I found a bicycle. The bike was what I had wanted, but I couldn’t quite forgive my folks for that empty stocking. On the bright side, it was never empty again as long as I lived there.
After the stockings, we ripped open our gifts. I remember, but only because of Daddy’s home movies, that when I was two, Santa left me a doll bed that had a lift-up side and was big enough for me to crawl into. I also got a baby doll from Santa, and Grandma made a doll quilt that fit the doll bed. These were my favorite toys for several years, until the year I got a Madam Alexander bride doll. The next year I received a bridesmaid doll. There were a few other toys of course, including a board game every year after I was seven or eight, but those dolls were the magical presents that I remember the most fondly. Also, there was a box of ribbon candy for the whole family under the tree every year.
Late in the afternoon, Aunt Louise (Mother’s sister), Uncle Bob, and my cousins, Bobby and Pete, came over, bearing more gifts. Unfortunately, these usually were underwear or socks. Pete was about my age and fun to be around. Bobby, on the other hand, was five years older and a pain in the ass, and our house wasn’t big enough to avoid him. So Pete, Janet, and I played outside almost until dinner was served, while Uncle Bob made Bobby stay in the house.
Uncle Bob and Daddy sat in the living room talking, while Mother and Aunt Louise finished preparing dinner. We had ham, baked sweet potatoes, green beans, canned cranberry jelly, stuffed celery, olives, and store-bought rolls. Aunt Louise always brought ambrosia, an orange, apple, pineapple, marshmallow, and shredded coconut salad with some sort of sweet, creamy dressing on it. And, best of all, it was followed by our choice of a small piece of pie and our choice of fruit cake. I liked the icebox fruit cake and the cherry pie best, the latter because it also had Mother’s pie crust on top.
When dinner was over in the early years, Mother and Aunt Louise cleared the table, put the food away, and washed and dried the dishes. As we grew older, first I, and later Janet, had to clear the table, and later we gradually graduated to the entire kitchen clean-up while the women sat and talked with the men. Pete and Bobby were never required to help us.
Afterwards, Daddy pulled out the card table and chairs, and the adults played card games (rummy, canasta, samba), or domino games (forty-two, later eighty-four). We kids were expected to play board games quietly until the guests left.
Christmas didn’t really seem to end until New Year’s Day, when we sadly took down the tree.