It’s barely daylight and so quiet in the house, you can hear the snow blowing around outside. The scent of spruce boughs lingers in the air as you tiptoe through the living room, bent on checking out those gift-wrapped presents under the tree. Quiet, don’t wake up the snoring parents in the process.
What’s this? There’s a huge rectangular package tucked behind the tree with no tags, no names. A plain brown wrapping paper-wrapped shape, no ribbons or bows. Where did this come from? It has an air mail sticker in the corner that’s marked, “North Pole.”
Whenever I think of my childhood (50’s and 60’s) and all the little special things that warm my memory, this one rises to the surface most often. The gift turned out to be simply a suitcase, meant for me. It was a thoughtful present, as I loved going to church camp in the summer, spring and fall retreats, and to friends’ houses to spend the night. That wasn’t the important thing. It was the unexpectedness, the delight and surprise of it all.
There are other memories, the doll I received that was very nice—but not the one I wanted, not the one I asked for. The year I tried so hard as an 8 year old to provide and wrap gifts for my brothers and parents on my own, and in desperation ended up selecting the very best of the cloth handkerchiefs in my father’s drawer, wrapping them beautifully for my brother’s gift. I remember how accomplished I felt, how impressed I was with myself and how beautifully I wrapped all the presents. Juxtaposed over that image is the look of hurt and perplexity in my brother’s eyes when he opened my elegant box of used handkerchiefs. The anger in my father’s voice as he yelled at me for hurting my brother’s feelings. The lame attempt to pacify my brother with a model car purchased at the all night drug store. What a memory.
I can remember the best part of our Kentucky Christmas dinner—the homemade candies my aunt Laura made, tons and tons of different chocolates, fruit-filled drops, fudge, and mints. The warm and spicy aroma of my grandmother’s house with the meal all ready…the bubbling lights on her sad, pathetic little Christmas trees, that she festooned with paper ribbons, German paper stars, and mercury glass ornaments.
I can still feel the sharp bite of cold against my cheeks as we leave Granny’s house after dinner and gift-exchange, heading for home and the inevitable “unexpected” early arrival of Santa, who always seemed to hit our house on Christmas Eve so Mom and Dad could sleep late next morning. The stale odor of old cigarettes lingered on the car’s plastic seat covers against my cheek and mixed with the scent of foil-covered leftover turkey and dressing that we carried home, pressed upon us by my dear Granny as always.
So many memories rise during this season…the year my brother came home on furlough from the Army, wrecked his brother’s car and went back to base early (understandably). The funny little borrowed doll that came with a note, explaining that Miss Darlene the Ballerina was ill and in the doll hospital, and would make her arrival a week or so after Christmas when she had recovered.
Setting the table for Christmas dinner always held its special charm: first I would raise the leaves of our cherry drop-leaf table until the two-seater would seat 10-12. Then what I pictured as dressing the princess in her ball gown: I covered the table with a padded protective cover, followed by either a solid green or solid red cloth covering. Frosting the beautiful crimson or emerald cover would be a delicate crocheted tablecloth, brought back from Germany when my Dad was in the War.
Mama’s feather-pattern glasses with the gold rims came next, and all her good china, each plate turned to just the right angle, cloth napkins in place, and the knives with their blades facing the plate, each piece nestled in its appointed role.
Leaving room for the turkey platter in the center of the table, I placed candles here and there, with fancy dishes to hold the jewel-like cranberry sauce, the antique silver footed casserole holders with their Pyrex inserts, and the butter knife beside the butter dish just so.
The singular display in its place of honor in our living room, however, was the cloud of angel hair that served as a bed for the Manger Scene. A die-cut cardboard set, it lasted us for years and years. And it never lost its charm. I always pictured the baby Jesus with his glowing halo, just as the one in the figures looked. And that’s the last thing I always fought for, to keep Baby Jesus on display after the holidays were over, all the gifts opened, the tummies fattened, the naps taken. When the tissue and discarded bows were cleared away I wanted him to remain, the last vestige of the holiday—the real meaning of the Christmases I remember so well.