Last week, Ann and I began our Christmas celebration. We laid out Christmas cards, stamps, and address lists on the dining room table, lit candles, put carols on the cd player, and poured a glass of wine. Family members long since gone to their reward pulled up chairs and joined us, and we were immediately enveloped in memories of Christmas past.

I’ve been trying to put that couple of hours into words, but I haven’t been able to. I’m paralyzed by Dylan Thomas. He called up childhood memories so movingly my efforts seemed embarrassingly lacking. If that was not impediment enough, there was the looming risk of falling into Hallmark mawkishness. But I’m going to offer some images anyway. Maybe they will suggest happy memories of your own, and we can join together in a moment of holiday cheer and take a break from worrying about division and want.

My mother would always make fudge, divinity, and penuche, and my brother and I were invited to help. I would stand on a stool so I could see, and we would watch for when a bit of the candy dripped into cold water formed a ball indicating that the fudge was done. Then something – I’ve forgotten what – had to be stirred with a wooden spoon for a long time until it was just right. It was a good job for a little boy.  She would also make fruitcake. And mincemeat pie. Daddy talked about using actual meat in it like some of his English relatives did, but I don’t think she ever did.

The cooking and the Christmas tree and candles gave the house an aroma that lasted well into January.

Once or twice, we strung popcorn to use as garlands on the tree. We had plenty of store-bought decorations, of course; the popcorn garlands were a sort of homage to “old fashioned.”  Mother just couldn’t get enough of “old fashioned.”  I do recall one exception – she wanted all blue lights on the tree, like she had seen in a store window. I don’t think we ever had such a tree, though.  Whether all blue or mixed colors, the lights were a nuisance. No sooner would we get them shining brightly and spreading their special cheer, than one bulb would fail, and because of the way lights were strung together in those days that would cause the whole string to go out. Finding the troublemaking dead bulb was a tedious trial-and-error process. And sometimes more than one string would go out at the same time.

Daddy was in charge of getting the annual bottle of bourbon.  During the year, he would join his carpool buddies for a beer now and then on the way home from work, but there was almost never any alcohol in the house except at Christmas. time. He would anoint the fruitcake with it. Then along about Christmas Eve – maybe a day or two earlier – he would measure some into eggnog, stir it a little, take a test sip or two, make adjustments, and pour a small glass for Mother and some without the whisky for my brother and me. I have wondered sometimes whether he might have had a slug straight up when Mother wasn’t looking. My grandfather enjoyed a snort now and then. In any case, by Epiphany, the bottle was gone. (For my part, fruitcake, mincemeat pie, and  a confection called Turkish delight were the only parts of Christmas that I am happy to leave in the past; I did not like them at all. But Christmas would have been lacking without them.)

As Christmas day approached, gifts accumulated under the tree. Most were for my brother and me. We always got pajamas and other clothes. They were wrapped and tied up with a ribbon as if they were other than necessities that we would have gotten anyway. They just bulked up the pile under the tree, and we knew it. The argyle socks Mother knitted for us were, however, a higher order of clothing gift. One banner year, I got my first bicycle, a Shelby Flyer. At around that same time, my brother, who was older, got a chemistry set, which he immediately opened and set up on the work bench in the basement. It was the beginning of his lifelong vocation as a chemist. From the nearby drug store, I would buy pipe tobacco for Daddy and the finest dusting powder on offer (Tussy) for Mother. One year Daddy bought Mother a purse she had seen at a department store but thought too expensive. I don’t recall any of her gifts to him.

Daddy wrote a surprisingly graceful hand. You don’t expect that from a man who wore steel-toed safety boots and a hard hat to work.  He was also good at wrapping packages. He would cut and crease the paper with precision. I liked seeing that side of him. Together, he and I would slip into a bedroom, close the door securely, and he would wrap the gifts we had for Mother. He’d make the Tussy look like it had just arrived from Paris.  Mother was good at wrapping, too. The heap under the tree was really quite artful.

While waiting restlessly for the big day and stuffing ourselves with sweets, we spent a good deal of time turning the dial on the console radio searching AM broadcasts for music. It was not constant, but there was plenty. If we were lucky, we’d catch Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians performing The Night Before Christmas. On Christmas Eve (I think it was), we would gather around the Magnavox and listen, enchanted, to Dickens’ Christmas Carol with Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge.

Gifts from Santa that arrived during the night were often not wrapped, and they were claimed and celebrated before opening the ones that were wrapped. Someone was appointed by mutual agreement to be Santa, i.e., to get wrapped packages from under the tree and distribute them. Mother insisted that we open packages one at a time and admire each one and say thank you as the pile of wrapping paper grew.

The final act of little boy Christmas was to go outside and see what the other kids in the neighborhood had gotten.

It was an exciting, special time. Above all, it was reassuring. It still is.



11 thoughts on “CHRISTMAS MEMORIES

  1. Nancy Garniez

    Lovely, Paul! Thank you! The buildup to Christmas in my midwestern Presbyterian church is as rehearsal for the Hollywood-style Service Beautiful at dawn Christmas Day. Then bang. Nothin’. My adult love of Advent is profound.
    Then this year came covid.
    Merry Christmas to you and Ann!

  2. Judy Morris (from All Saints'-Austin)

    OMG, Paul, thank you so much for this cozy, rich as maple syrup memory! It was so familiar and warm, I feel all Christmas-upped! Wishing you a warm, fuzzy Christmas and all good things in the new Year!

  3. Ellen Rienstra

    Your memories stirred up so many lovely, magical Christmas memories of my own. I particularly loved the image of all the ones who had gone before pulling up chairs and being present at your table. I hope you and Ann have a lovely, peaceful Christmas, accompanied by the presence of all those friendly spirits.

  4. Mary Jane

    Not mawkish at all! I recall a comment by Garrison Keillor about a Christmas tree, which was ALL the Christmas trees you’ve had in life. Our Christmas tree always sat on a large piece of wood around which ran my brothers’ Lionel trains. I find it amusing to think of a train roaring past the Baby Jesus as he slept quietly by the train track.

  5. Robert Vannortwick


    While you have a few years on me, many of your memories remind me of my childhood.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    Miles Van Nortwick

  6. Vic Van Hyfte

    If it were not for Christmas I don’t believe I would have ever have had any new underwater or socks. Do they really last a year long? My memory is a little fuzzy. Merry Christmas everyone. Vic

  7. Paul Laemmle

    Wonderful Christmas message.
    Yes it does stir memories of a special family time, many quite similar. You certainly appreciate all the amazing efforts it took to create such memories.
    I was truly fortunate.

  8. Robbie

    Thanks for sharing. We are also blessed to have many special Christmas memories, some very similar to yours. My mother baked Pannetone, which we just knew as Christmas bread. I baked one the other day, and the smell of anise took me right back.


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