Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas memories. I know that its a little late to be writing about Christmas, since today is the 28th of December. But I have been tied up with various and sundry things for about a month, and I'm just now getting around to writing about Christmas, so please excuse the timing of this and the next few posts.

I grew up in the late 50's and 60's. Christmas was such a magical time of year back then. I know that people say 'magical' now for all kinds of things, and it tends to cheapen the word, but Christmas really was magical back then. There were no constantly glowing neon signs, no fancy displays in store windows, no special effects on the television and in movies. And in small towns, like where I grew up, this was especially true. Our streets were deserted by five pm. There was nothing open in our town after dark. No gas stations, no convenience stores, nothing. Things were so much simpler then and we were so naive. And you know, it was wonderful to be naive.

Christmas brought the city decorations out of storage and onto the lamp posts in our town. A few red and green lights, a bow or two and we thought that the town was beautiful! I have fond memories of my parents and I driving around, looking at the Christmas lights, singing Christmas songs. And of course, we would turn out for the Christmas Parade. But the big excursion was the trip to Alexandria (the closest larger city, 30 miles away) to see their Christmas lights, and then go to Wellan's Department Store downtown to look at the window displays. We would ooh and ahh over the fake snow and displays of Christmas merchandise, all for sale inside, of course. The year that they put some animation in the display (I believe that it involved some elves moving back and forth) we were mesmerized by the miracle of modern engineering!

Home decorations back then were fairly simple. You had a Christmas tree, of course. But not one of these fancy trees like they have now. I remember going with my mother and father to pick out a tree. We had to hurry, because the day that the trees came to town, everyone wanted to get down there and get the very best tree. The Christmas tree lot (if you could call it a lot, I remember it as an alley behind the Morgan and Lindsay Five and Dime store) was small, and the bare light bulbs hung over the trees, illuminating the scruffy little sticks with needles that we called Christmas trees back then. The trees were all "Charlie Brown" Christmas trees. None of those tall, full, bushy trees that we get now. These were skinny little trees with scraggly branches, but to us they were beautiful, and the smell was incredible. I try to smell the trees that are sold now, but they never have the heady aroma of those scrawny Christmas trees of my childhood. It took a lot of comparing, turning the trees and looking for the bare spots, but we always found the perfect tree. We took it home and put it in the little green and red Christmas tree stand.

Of course we had lights on our tree. We had strings of those ceramic lights that would not light if even one bulb was out or even unscrewed just enough to break the connection. I remember spending hours trying to find the culprit that was keeping each string of lights from lighting up. I was so happy when they started making the strings of lights that didn't require each bulb to be lit in order for the string of lights to work. And those ceramic lights got so hot, it's a wonder we didn't burn the entire neighborhood down, but we were lucky, no burning Christmas trees for us. My wife and I tried putting the old ceramic lights on our tree last year, but the lights got so hot, I suggested that we go back to the little miniature lights that stay cool this year. Sorry...practicality wins out over reminiscing this time.

Then came the ornaments. The early ornaments that I remember were just plastic bells and lamps and paper mache' birds. But I desperately wish that I had more of those ornaments now than just the three that are hanging on our tree right now. How did those old ornaments get away from us? Did we decide that they were too old-fashioned, and that they were out of style? Did we decide that newer, sleeker, more colorful ornaments deserved to be on our tree? I'm not really sure what happened to them. My family moved several times during the years, each time to a larger, 'better' house, all within the same town. Did some of the ornaments get lost or broken in the moves? Or did we just discard them because we were tired of them? I remember, as a child, painting little wooden cutouts of elves, Santa, bells and stars to put on our tree. Did my little painted ornaments (although I am sure that they must have been masterpieces, since I painted them) shove the other ornaments not only out of the nest but even off of the tree? Did they push the old ornaments into a box for unused ornaments, a box that would be discarded at some future time? Maybe the discarding happened in 1975. That was the year I got married in May and made my home 100 miles away from my hometown. That was the year my father died in October, and that December my mother decided not to put a tree up any more just for her. I'm not sure, but I suspect that was the year that the old ornaments met their demise.

I also remember some unusual ornaments from the 60's that I had on our 'real' tree. You see, my mother had an aluminum tree on display in the picture window in our living room (the room that no one was allowed to enter except when we had 'company'). It was a silver tree with the rotating color light wheel. We were not allowed to go into the living room, and there certainly were no gifts allowed under that tree. We had a 'real' live green tree in the den, and that's where the gifts went. That's also where the ornaments went. On the real tree. I remember some ornaments that I am the only person in the history of the world to ever own. The reason I say this is that we (my wife and I) have looked high and low on EBay, on sites on the internet and in antique stores, and we have never ever seen ornaments like these anywhere. There is no record that anyone has ever owned anything even resembling these ornaments. They were round plastic ornaments, with the front half of the ornament clear plastic, and the back of the ornament was a plastic that glowed in the dark. There were little scenes in the ornament, and you could see them with the lights on or off, since the ornament glowed in the dark. Some were nativity scenes, others were scenes with Santa and elves, and some were rocking horses and other toys. I do not have any of these left to prove that they ever existed, and we have looked high and low for them, but cannot find a one. But I do promise, they did exist. I will continue looking for these, if only to prove that they really did exist. When I find one, I'll post a picture of it, just to prove that my memory isn't going yet. Finally, on top of all of the ornaments, there was the tinsel. I never liked tinsel, even as a child. If you did it correctly, it took forever to put on, so usually it ended up in clumps. And taking it off to save for next year took even longer. Someone in my family must have liked it. It just wasn't me.

As far as the rest of the decorations go, there weren't many. A wreath on the front door, a plastic Santa and his reindeer flying on his way to bring us our presents, a snowman holding up NOEL sheet music that was lit by a bulb inside of him. My favorite decoration (besides the tree) was a little Santa, 6 inches tall or so, lit from the inside by a C7 bulb. His hands are outstretched, and he is flocked, velvetty feeling. I always looked forwards to putting him by the tree and turning his light on.

And of course, we can't forget the nativity scene. Early in my life, we had a cardboard nativity scene, which, oddly enough seems to have met the same fate as most of our ornaments circa 1950-60s. The nativity scene that I have now (and put out each Christmas) came from Woolworth's in the early 1960's. Every weekend, my mother and I would go to Alexandria, which was not only the closest city to my home town, but also the residence of my mother's sister (Aunt Lucille). Since I was an industrious child, and earned an allowance, I looked forward to going to Alexandria and especially to Woolworths. There we would have ice cream at the soda fountain, and I would get to spend my little money. I collected fourteen pieces of a nativity scene, one or two pieces at a time (15 to 35 cents apiece) until I had the whole nativity scene. I saw on EBay that these figures are prized now, but I would never part with it. Not because of religious sentiment, but for memories of another time and place. I can remember walking the hardwood aisles, with all of the merchandise displayed on flat wooden tables with partitions between each item for sale. I remember picking up and considering each figure, trying to decide which one was needed the most. I'm sure that I bought many other things from this Woolworth's store, but this is the one that connects me to the store the most, and connects me to that point in time, and the memories of my Christmases past. But more than anything, my memory of Christmas is a feeling, a feeling that I try to identify and put into words. I cannot describe the feeling fully, but I keep on trying. Maybe I'll capture it one day.


At 7:06 AM, Blogger Carmen said...

That was great post. I love your "memory lane" posts!

When I was a child we only had a fake tree. My mom called it the "green toilet brush" and she hated it. One year my dad dragged us to a tree farm in 3 feet of snow & we spent all day searching for the perfect tree. We brought it home, dad put it up, and I cried. It was not perfect like our toilet bruch tree & I hated it! My dad still makes fun of me today about that.
We have a local gifty/floral kind of shop here in Cleveland that rescued all those department store window animated elves and such. They put them on display each year & people flock to see them. Honestly they are quite scary. With their jerky motions & weird painted on fabric faces. They do remind me of the big trip to downtown cleveland each Christmas though & running up to the department store windows to see what was new! But scary just the same!
Hope you guys had a good Christmas down there! We have yet to see a real snow that lasts more than 10 hours!

At 7:57 AM, Blogger GoGo said...

Thanks for sharing. Memory Lane is a fun walk with you.

I recently called my mother to find out what happened to my remembered childhood manger. We lost the baby jesus as a kid and each year would replace it with my sisters Barbie baby. It was weird, but funny. Anyway, Mom informed me that one day she found my little brother had gotten it out and made it his garage for his hot wheels. Best laugh this Christmas for me.

Glad to see random posts, there.


At 9:57 PM, Blogger Carmen said...

That totally made me remember a ritual we did when I was little. We had this dilapidated little manger under the tree & everynight we put a milkbone in next to baby Jesus & my dog would very gently pull it out & eat it. I have no idea how this bizzare tradition started & we're probably going to hell for it, but it made me smile!

At 1:03 AM, Anonymous cozmic said...

Thanks for sharing your memories, it evoked so many memories in myself, that I got quite misty eyed. Thanks, memories are precious, the older you get the more you get, but as the memory goes so does some of the memories. What a shame. Anyway, I wish you a very Happy New Year, may you live long and prosper. cozmic

At 3:19 PM, Blogger GoGo said...

Miss your posts. Hope all is well in your life.

Send me a email if not a post to let me know how life is going.

At 12:14 AM, Anonymous cozmic said...

Hope you guys are alright?? missing your posts.

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trying to reach you by e-mail. Haven't heard from you in a long time; is everything ok? Kelly

At 6:36 AM, Anonymous Conor J. Murphy said...


I hope this message finds you well. I see that you have been noticeably absent from blogging, much like myself. I can't find your e-mail address, but I thought you might be interested in my new site, Wayward Uncle. It includes five great writers including myself and a very talented cartoonist. I hope you get this message. Go to www.waywarduncle.com

All the best and I wish you guys the happiest of holiday.



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