Years and years ago, when I was just a boy and my sisters were a girl, Christmas came announced with post cards and Grandmemere lived upstairs. Her sister, Justine, wrote to us of wolves and bears in the great north woods beyond the Laurentian Mountains just outside her farm house door that was Canada.
In those days, rubber footed and mittened socked hands, the snow was wet and cold, like water not yet iced, stinging on our fire-red faced skins. Blue nosed, we would stay days outside before the street lamps went on to call us in.
It was Mom that shoveled Christmas from the drive way and led a path to where the Sacred heart stood, white plastered in the snow igloo grotto that had been blessed by a frocked dressed priest when it was summer and the weeping willow bent around the stone built chapel that was Dad.
Nuns in black with starched faced collars walked across the white school snow-yard to where we jumped at rope and cried, “we don’t stop for nobody.” And boys with bats hit balls so far that we had to get the nuns permission to fetch it from beyond the gated yard near the river that flowed and was dangerous because it never froze. And one year, an angelic pink faced boy with eyes as blue as robin eggs, who never listened to anyone, stepped heavy footed on the glass, ice stream and fell inside the ice and he was not found until the dam by the firemen in yellow suits with angry faces.
Christmases were White back then, white with light and soft as rabbits fur. Somehow, even when it did not snow it seemed they were white in my memory. And the colors were as many as we were children. The tinsel drapped, strand by strand, on the tree than glistened an aluminum shine, reflecting colors against the white in my minds eye.
We always dreamt of Christmas back then and the snow fell against the houses that were on my street and seemed to grow, as if from roof tops and covered the thin naked arms of trees in the yards and along the river that was Peter’s brook. Thin and naked cold winds had made them purple in the dying evening light of early night.
We wore socks for mittens
And sled down the tree lined hills
Far from where we lived – so far that
We could not hear mom’s voice if she called.
Our hands frozen to the ice-covered red flyer sled and
Metal saucers that carried us
Head-first into the frozen white slush
That was Christmas in 1955.
I remember how Mom always sprayed snow from an aerosol can on the inside of the window and hung blue and red delicate ornaments in each pane of glass.
And, on some years we could paint what ever scene we wanted to paint on the windows—
It was always a manger.
And the largest of yellow star, hung painted in the far upper corner of the window; and stick figures that never looked like wise men, moved toward the farm-barn popsicle stick manger
that Mom made one Christmas when
Christmases were so much one like the other, in that small town corner square were the store stood by the church between me, and where they lived the girl that I would marry.
And Dad drilled a hole in the back of the Popsicle manger with a drill in the cellar that was so large it could have bored a hole in a submarine..and through the hole Mom placed one orange or one blue Christmas bulb, and the manger was as real as if the baby Jesus himself was being born in our dining room under the aerosol snow-stained window glass and the red and blue ball moons that hung beneath the painted yellow star…
Christmas was never spelled with an “X” in those days. It was a sin to take “Christ” out of Christmas. Almost as mortal as was opening the door to the oven when Mom was not there to supervise the viewing of the bird. Stern-faced and determined, she baked custards and meat pies, turkey and trimmings and always there was too much egg-nog and ginger-brandy. Apron-decked and neck-laced with simple pearls, she cooked and baked and wrapped and decorated the small house that was Moody Street, by the church that was a school, near the corner where the store stayed open forever it seemed—in case she needed a can of condensed milk or a last minute bottle of cream to top a pie or drape a cake.
Always there was the smell of crisp, skinned turkey glazing in oven for so many hours longer than any bird should have ever taken to cook. The trimmings all over the kitchen table and turnips and mashed potatoes being whipped with butter and milk until the lumps were gone and only the smell of one indistinguishable food was left; and the gravy soaking into every dish and vegetable—food mounded on my plate until there was no room to place even a cranberry and it looked as if it would take until evening to eat everything there was to be eaten off my plate.
Then after the food, the blue light of the T.V. screen blared a Christmas special about a reindeer who lost his way and Christmas had to be cancelled that year. Or Lawrence Welk, accordioned a longing to be home for the holidays, and danced with costumed ladies and pretty faced boys to melodies that we knew so well, or did not know at all; and we were bored because we were all ready there—home for the holiday with no place else to want to be.
Puffs of bluish white smoke circled, spiraling upward like incense from the recliner that was my father’s green vinyl chair—a beer warming, near the steam-clanging radiator, as he slept and kept one eye open on us as well.
The smells, perfumed balsam wreaths, & the old aunts too brittle to carry a dish, would sit poised, their backs not daring to touch the backs of the the chairs for fear that they would never be able to rouse themselves when dessert was called. Auntie Bea and Uncle Larry who always had a camera, but we never saw the pictures, and Aunt Helen & Uncle Cleo-why was there a “C” in his name? They never had children, or so we had been told, and we were they to them—too noisy, too, too much of anything and everything, so they laughed even when it was not funny—because they were quiet and it was Christmas and we knew nothing of quiet at Christmas. When we sang they laughed because they did not sing and we did.
We sang upon a midnight clear, loud and off key—hark the herald angel sings—Glory to a new born King. We were not a musical family but on Christmas Eve everyone could sing: OH Little Town of Bellingham, How Still we See Thee Lie. And the kids, when I was one, or when I had them of my own, were only eager for the presents. The songs and the food went on for all too long while Mom and Sis and I sometimes, cleared the kitchen of all but the drinks and stuff still left to eat, while the children pushed and shoved their way beneath the tree to play the Santa of the year and give the gifts. One at a time we oooed and aaahed at what ever was unwrapped. Even the smallest of children knew to feel thrilled even if they were not, because it was Christmas and only good things would happen at Christmas.
The house was small and when we gathered in one room, there was no place to sit, except on the floor and some of the uncles stood against the wall with an ale in one hand and a cigarette in the other, always ready to sneak back out to the kitchen for a bite of whatever plum pudding and maple snack was left out for nibbles.
Some years we waited until the end of the Midnight Mass before eating, and then it was not until the middle of the night before the packages could be opened. On those nights we were always able to open one or two little wrapped boxes before going to bed for the nap we never took. There was much too much noise in the house to ever sleep. The present was always a disappointment, a pair of new gloves to wear to church, a scarf that did not match, of itchy wool against my neck, with a coloring book and a box of colored pencils to keep us occupied—never the real presents those we always had to wait for.
I remember that I was suppose to like going to church, and that it was always very cold getting there; although, it was no more than a dozen or so steps away from our front door—the front door that was never used, and year after year was covered in aluminum foil and tied with a gigantic pretend, red velvet bow that made the house look like one big present. And the two candles that dad milled out of old textile bobbins, on each side of the wrought iron railing—except that we could not open the door until January, because it was so decoratedly delicate, that it would be disturbed if ever it was even jarred a little. Always some faded aunt in make-up rough and powdered cheeks would ring the bell and the foil ripped and torn had glittered its only night of glory well before the night was through.
One year Dad placed a speaker outside the door and everyone coming to church could hear the carols coming from his Hi-fi, record playing, blond, oaken radio music box, with a lid that slid up or down and played one record after the other in some magical deluxe, automated kind of way. It was 1950 something that year and Mom did not want him to play them loud, but Dad wanted everyone to know where the music was coming from. We were so lucky to have the best family around and on Christmas we proudly lit every light and boldly watched from the ball decked aerosol snow-stained glass window as cars came round from every part of town to pray the holy service at midnight once a year while flakes of snow fell like feathers gliding to the earth.
We only had to walk. It was as if the church was somehow more our church because it was there where we already were.
There were always too many presents under the tree, even the smallest of children became tired and rubbed their eyes and wanted to lie here or there, or against a warm aunt, put a thumb in their mouths and close their eyes to the holy noise that was food and drink and merriment well into the morning hours. And even then, Mom kept every ribbon. And, if she thought she could wrap next years present in a less than totally wrinkled piece of Christmas wrap, she folded it with care and placed it near her chair as though it were a present to herself. As the evening rolled head long toward the morning light, each of us took a piece of wrap and a favorite present and placed it back under the tree, there to admire when the light led to half pass the night at 5:05 and it was time to kiss the coated aunts and aim with tired eyes and loose limbs, toward a bed, a couch or a chair…with one final glance outside the window to were the brook ran beneath a moon lit night, there was nothing left to do but sleep a most savory sleep drifting into that everlasting Silent Night.
Merry Christmas & Season’s Greetings. May your holiday be strung with an endless string of delightful lights, filled with memories of those you have loved, and may your moments run one into the next with the awe and joy of this magical children’s time of the year…….
Bellingham, 1950 something………..