The Magic of Christmas

When we were children, Christmas was such a magical time, full of deeprooted traditions. Every year, my sister and I helped our mom bake and decorate sugar cookies. This was one of the highlights of our year, and we were full of excitement and anticipation. Mom set up the old cardboard card table for us to work on in the middle of our tiny little kitchen. Even for us kids, it was pretty close quarters. We used a set of red, plastic cookie cutters, that pressed embossed designs into the dough. I’m sure we had more than these, but the Santa face, Christmas tree, hanging stocking, and star are the ones I remember. After the cookies were

baked and had cooled, we decorated them with colorful icing and sprinkles. As a family, we drove to the local corner tree stand and picked out a handsome, nicely shaped tree. My parents usually positioned the tree in a corner of our living room. Decorating it was an exciting time and an important event for the entire family. We used long, colored lights, resembling thin candles, which bubbled when they heated up. All kinds of bulbs and ornaments, of different shapes, designs and colors, were hung on the tree. Finally, for the finishing touch, we meticulously covered the entire tree with thin, silver icicles made of lead. Dad used to get so slaphappy by the time we were finished with this task, he started slinging them on the branches haphazardly, I think just to aggravate our mother. On its silver track, my father’s heavy-duty Lionel train tirelessly circled the tree. Around and around it went. Upon demand, the loud whistle blew, and puffs of white smoke flowed from the engine’s smokestack. The train was such a special treat for visiting children and our cats and dogs. Occasionally we would have derailments. Frequently, one of the cats hid nearby, and stalked the moving train. After hunkering down and shimmying back and forth for a few minutes, the cat lunged at the train, ambushing it, and knocking it off the tracks. To assemble the train each year, we gingerly took its handsomely-designed cars out of their orange boxes, one by one. After the holidays were over, we gently tucked them back into their boxes, to be stored away until they were summoned

for their next performance. It was always so much more special and fun to put up the tree and all of the trimmings, than it was to take everything down. As we stored the tree ornaments and other decorations under the eaves until the next Christmas, there was always a slight feeling of sadness. For several weeks, after the tree was taken down, a huge void was left in the room, wherever it had stood. In the living room we always suspended our cute little plastic bear on his tightrope. He traveled from one side of the room to the other. With the tug of a string, he skillfully rode backwards and forwards on his small unicycle. A horizontal bar, with weights on both ends, helped him to stay balanced. Everyone had such fun with him, and he was a real favorite of ours, as well as family and friends. Our close friends, the Haynes family, always took great pride in having a beautifully-decorated Christmas tree. One year, they woke up to a real shock. Their decorated, short needle tree, standing in the living room, was bare, with only a handful of pine needles left hanging. Christmas trees went through a few shortlived fads and trends. For several years, when we were in grade school, artificial metal tinsel trees were the fad. They were bright and shiny and most unrealisticlooking. I recall seeing white, blue, pink, and silver ones in people’s homes. Another popular trend was to have your tree flocked with artificial snow. One year we tried having a flocked tree, but it became a little problematic, when the “snow”

kept coming off all over the carpet.

My sister Jean and I at our grandmother's house on Christmas day, 1953.

On Christmas day, one important tradition for our family was to have Dad read the nativity story from the bible. His voice had such a presence about it. He had a soothing, deep, commanding voice, similar to that of a talented radio announcer or persuasive preacher. Visiting my grandmother’s house on Christmas

afternoon was another tradition. Her house was just a few blocks below ours. In the deep snow, when we were little, Dad often pulled us to her house, on our big wooden sled, made from rough-hewn boards. I remember walking to her house on one enchanted Christmas eve. It was such a magical night. From the black sky, snowflakes the size of fifty-cent pieces glistened in the light shining down from the streetlights. Looking up into the dark mysterious sky, we wondered if we might see Santa’s sleigh or the bright star, which once shone over the baby Jesus. In 1960, the last year I believed in Santa Claus, a young married missionary couple from the Philippines was visiting with us in our home on Christmas eve. I told the wife that I was so eager to see which gift Santa might bring me, since I couldn’t make up my mind between two choices. I wanted a chemistry set and the realistic-looking Baby Dear doll, but knew I couldn’t have both. The suspense was overwhelming. To my delight and surprise, Santa brought me both gifts. I had many "serious" experiments with the chemistry set, and enjoyed dressing up Baby Dear in real babies’ clothes. I immediately cut off her long hair, which I thought didn’t fit the otherwise perfectly-sculpted newborn face. Baby Dear is still at my mom’s house, where many visiting children have enjoyed playing with her over the years. Every year on Christmas morning, my sister and I were so excited about seeing what Santa brought us, we got up before the crack of dawn. To our

disappointment, our parents never allowed us to go into the living room right away. They insisted that we take out our curlers and brush our hair before coming into the living room. Their girls had to look presentable in those all-important photo shots. We did a lot of posing for Dad after he got his new movie camera. Our gifts from Santa were never wrapped, but we could tell whose was whose, by what each of us had asked for. One of my favorite things to do was to reach down into my stocking, to find hidden surprises. One year, down in my stocking, were brightly-colored wooden pencils with my name engraved on them. When I was in grade school, I discovered one of my favorite stuffed animals hiding among the branches of the Christmas tree. He was a chimpanzee, with a great plastic face and hands, an orange cloth body, and long, curled tail. Our family always made the rounds on Christmas day, to visit close friends and family. The day after Christmas, we usually visited our neighbors, to see what Santa had brought them. As kids, we were always a little disappointed to open our presents from two of my father’s sisters. They were very good at crocheting and tatting. Typically, they sent us crocheted slippers, table top doilies, or pillowcases. Those weren’t very exciting gifts for children. As an adult, and one who has done plenty of crafts, I have a completely different perspective. Now I can appreciate the incredible amount of time they spent, and the mastery of their skills. Those presents were real

labors of love. I still use the crocheted doilies and the pillowcases, which have beautiful, intricate designs along the edges, made from tatting. The amount of time my aunts had invested in our gifts, still is amazing to me. Some of my most treasured Christmas gifts as a child, were from my friend, Margie. She lived across the street and a few houses up from us. Her father, Harold, was a fine woodworker, and made gifts for Margie to give us. One was a small cedar chest, 3x7 inches wide, and about 3 inches tall. It has a gold clasp on the front, and is perfect for storing jewelry. The hand-written message on the bottom reads: “Merry Christmas to Nancy from Margie, 1956.” Another year, he made us small, beautifully-crafted, cherry chests of drawers. They were ten inches high, and had three drawers, about six inches wide, and four inches deep. He left no detail out, as the top and bottom were trimmed with molding, and the drawers had cut off gold pop beads, for knobs. These wooden treasures were so sturdily constructed, they will outlast all of us. Our family often made the presents we gave to one another and friends. For two different years, my parents made plaster plaques as gifts. One year, they gave everyone a set of large decorative keys, to hang on their walls. The keys were finished with a wood tone stain, and actually looked like wood. Another year, they gave four season plaques as gifts. These were popular as well, and were stained with the wood tone. The real deluxe gifts were painted in color, showing all of the

details. I gave presents of paintings on wooden plaques and canvases, and drew animal portraits from pastels, often burning the midnight oil to finishing up these gifts. My most ambitious gifts were pant suits I sewed, when I was in college, for my mom and sister. I can't imagine wanting to do that nowadays. Some of the most creative gifts were the padded stools, which my first husband and I made. We bought small wooden barrels, which we sanded, stained, and varnished. The padded tops were made of a thick foam, covered with a red, textured, velvet-like fabric. My mom still uses hers in the den, as a magazine holder. One Christmas season after I was married, my parent’s black poodle, Pepper, nearly became the Grinch who stole Christmas. While they attended an evening church service, he became quite mischievous. Upon arriving back home, they opened their front door, to discover a shocking surprise. Pepper had filled the living room floor with shredded bows and ribbons, and chewed up pieces of wrapping paper. He had ruined the wrapping on every single present, which my mom had so painstakingly decorated to perfection. Going Christmas caroling was always one of my favorite traditions. Our scout troop and church youth group spent many frigid nights caroling, with frozen hands cupped over our candles. We were grateful for the slightest amount of warmth coming from their flames. Caroling from house to house, we received

warm welcomes and heartfelt words of appreciation. When we were finished, we always went inside someone’s home or the church, to enjoy a delicious batch of steaming hot chocolate. When my sons were in grade school, they insisted on going caroling at my parents’ home, one cold Christmas eve. I was sick and couldn’t go, but the rest of my family took them around the neighborhood. They stopped to sing for all of the families they knew. I was so touched, to see my young sons carrying out a tradition which has always been so dear to my heart.

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