My hubby, Bruce, has a saying about Christmases when we were young. He says, “They remember better than they lived.” That’s a kind way to tell me I romanticize too much the era of our childhood. I suppose that’s true. After all, it has been many years since either of us could call ourselves children, and neither of us grew up with a silver spoon in our mouth. In fact, some years we’d be lucky to have plastic; but time has a way of polishing off the rough edges of a memory stone and leaving a gem in its place.
The images my mind conjures up are those of big, bright beautiful lights strung around a fragrant, majestic tree that was dotted with glittery glass orbs and dripping with tinsel. I picture the sled dad pulled us on because there was no hill nearby, and I can still hear the whoosh of the runners as they sliced through the thick blanket of snow. I can feel the cold air and the brush of an icy mist on my cheeks as we “fly” through the neighborhood past the Prices, the Wiegands, the Thomases, and the Costanzos….we actually knew the neighbors.
I can smell cinnamon and browned butter from the kitchen as we paused on the basement landing long enough to pull off snowy boots and gloves. I still hear the whir of a Sunbeam mixer as mom mixed and mixed one delicious confection after another. My siblings and I learned to harmonize with that mixer…joining in one at a time, like The Three Stooges doing their “hello” song.
I see a fireplace hung with stockings….a very funny pair, long enough to reach the floor once stuffed with fruit to make knobby knees and nuts arranged to make toes. I see cherished Christmas decorations. I hear the bump and scratch of an old 78 playing Gene Autry singing his ode to Rudolph and Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters wishing us Mele Kalikimaka. I still remember it: “Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day. That’s the island greeting that we send to you from the land where palm trees sway. Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright. The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night. Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way to say Merry Christmas to you.” Of course, as a songwriter I’ve had to explore who wrote it and I’m happy to give credit to R. Alex Anderson for his 1949 creation.
I loved the thought of spending Christmas at Grandma’s house as we sang “Over the River and Through the Woods (to Grandmother’s House We Go)” and imagined myself in a sleigh all the way there. The funny thing is….we never spent Christmas at Grandma’s house….ever…not once. Both grandmas lived too far away. It was a lovely thought, though.
When I’m forced to look back at those Christmases through the lens of reality, I see something a bit different. I see, more often than not, a spindly tree with more gaps than branches, nearly always crooked on the bottom and difficult to hold upright in the stand. And while it was fragrant, it was not majestic for Dad never wanted to pay more than $1.98 for a tree and he usually got what he paid for. The lights had some of the color scratched off of them from years of use and dad would patch the bad spots in the cords with electrical tape and hope they didn’t short out until December 26th. The ornaments were probably left over from the forties and some of the paint was chipped and faded while others were missing chunks of glitter and flocking. The tree was, however, dripping with tinsel because it was cheap and it was the only way to fill the gaps. When you’re nine, though, it looks pretty good, and tinsel is excellent for the “Annual Christmas Tree Blow”, a game invented by my brother, to see how far away you could stand and still make the tinsel move while blowing in its general direction. The farthest, of course, won. He was good at it.
As far as sledding with dad, I can only remember a handful of times we actually had a White Christmas, much less have enough to haul out the sled. Still from time to time it happened and although he would, dad was not enthusiastic about trudging through the snow. I can’t imagine why. He worked three jobs a good part of the time. He was exhausted. So around the block once….maybe twice if we begged, and then back in the barn our human reindeer went.
Fortunately, I can say there were lots of baked goods and homemade candies, and I still crave mom’s divinity. Strange….I saw her make all that stuff and I never saw her eat any of it. Either she had an iron will or she was just better at sneaking than I am.
Our Christmas decorations, outside the tree, consisted of a plastic gumdrop tree which was my job to fill and a tiny country church covered with a trace of “snow”. Today I probably have twenty boxes filled to the brim with Christmas paraphernalia.
The fireplace was “red brick” cardboard that went together when tab A slid correctly into slot B. A little light bulb heated up and caused a metal propeller to turn behind cardboard flames, creating the illusion of a flicker, while a piece of paper flipped over and over to imitate a crackle. Today those stockings would be full of store bought candies and treats and little trinkets you buy at the last minute at Walgreens….because who doesn’t need a nose hair trimmer for Christmas?
As far as I recall we only had three Christmas records that held two songs each, so it’s easy to see why I remember the words to Mele Kalikimaka….I heard it hundreds of times. Today the choices are endless.
Courier & Ives have been portraying the perfect Christmas for years….warm, welcoming, cozy, snowy, full of abundance and all things joyous. More often than not, it’s false advertising. I have yet to spend a Christmas that meets those highest of ideals. There’s always something….something that goes wrong, someone who’s missing, some barrage balloon of fear or dread hovering overhead. We spend too much and enjoy too little. We run when we should rest and when Christmas is over we feel we’ve missed it. I’m guilty.
Where did we ever get the idea that Christmas was supposed to be perfect? Even the first Christmas, the night Jesus was born, the world was upside down with hate and greed. Burdensome taxes. Men killed. They lied. They cheated. They stole. One man abused another because his rank allowed him to. The sick and diseased cried out in their pain and suffering. Some gave up the fight altogether and left others to grieve for them. That “Silent Night” we always sing about I seriously doubt ever existed. Again, a lovely thought, though.
I can’t help but notice that in the second chapter of Luke it says “in the same country” shepherds were watching over their flocks by night when the Angel of the Lord said to them “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
“In the same country” where all that mess and violence was, Jesus came. Christmas didn’t come because the world was beautiful and perfect and still and ready. Christmas came right smack dab in the middle of the mess…..because that’s when you need Christmas most…when everything’s falling apart.
So this year, as we celebrate with mismatched dishes, tablecloths with the shadow of last year’s gravy stain and relatives that get on our nerves…..as we miss those no longer gathered around the table with us, as we try to figure out what’s next in our crazy mixed up lives, let’s try to remember the only perfect part of Christmas is the CHRIST that makes the day special. Relax and enjoy. This mess is why He came.
Wishing you a Christmas to remember fondly!