Although the tryptophan/sleep myth has been debunked, there’s something about Thanksgiving that incites relatives to break out old hurts and vendettas with scripted regularity; an urge to pick the scabs off ancient wounds in their eagerness to get to the pumpkin pie. Maybe it’s the flow of alcohol, which often begins quite early, or maybe it’s the onus of having to spend protracted time in the company of people you’d rather lived at the bottom of a very deep and dark hole.
In any case, the opposite seems to be true at Christmas. The resentments are still there, but they bubble and sizzle just beneath the surface, keeping conversations spritely and people moving from room to room as they try to avoid one another. Maybe it’s the threat of Santa’s ever-watchful eye (not to mention those of the children, who see and hear everything), or that oft-repeated wish for peace on earth, but something about Christmas makes people behave just a teensy bit better than usual.
The same was true in our house. Mom hated Thanksgiving because it meant a day of cooking and a meal with relatives she couldn’t stand (Dad’s side of the family). In fairness, no one except my married eldest sister ever contributed a dish to the meal, so I can see Mom’s point of view. Christmas, on the other hand, was all about baking. Mom loved that … and all the trappings that came with Christmas. Having grown up dirt poor in rural Maine, about as far up in the state as you can go without getting a nosebleed, the chance to create the Christmas of her dreams proved irresistible.
Dishes of hard candy bright as jewels. Bowls of almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts (what Dad called filberts), and walnuts waiting for the silver cracker to reveal the treasure hidden inside their shells. Peanut brittle. Homemade popcorn balls. Chocolate fudge, peanut butter fudge, and buttery cookie cutouts decorated with egg yolk paints and sprinkles. Pies galore—mince, coconut custard, apple, pumpkin, and pecan.
Nary a surface went undecorated. One year, little elves with folding legs (a precursor to today’s “Elf on a Shelf”) came with bottles of dish detergent. Mom collected them all and placed them throughout the house. Wreaths made of red cellophane hung in the living room windows, plugged into the baseboard below so the center candle in each case a red glow against the early winter darkness. A art deco-y candelabra with three electric tiers sat in another window. (I have it now, although at more than 60 years of age, its wiring makes it unsafe to light.) A balsam door wreath purchased fresh each year hung on the front door, tricked out with added decorations bought specifically for that use. On another door hung a long Styrofoam candy cane. And, of course, there was the tree—purchased two weeks before Christmas and decorated with lights, garland, bulbs (new then, antique now), a collection of what were called “Special Ornaments” (those that were particularly fragile or one of a kind), and the whole thing topped with tinsel icicles until the whole thing shimmered and swayed in the slightest breeze.
I served as the proud Licker of Stamps when Mom wrote out the cards, and served the same duty for the seals used to secure packages in place of cellophane tape and long before the advent of self-adhesives. The cards we received hung on the brick front of our fireplace, secured with curls of masking tape. When Mom wanted me out of the way (usually when wrapping my gifts), she’d set me up on a corner of the couch with a glass of ginger ale and the three immense holiday catalogs we received from JC Penny’s, Sears (“The Wish Book,” including 33 pages of dolls that I swiftly passed over), and Montgomery Ward to craft my list for Santa.
Music tied it all together. As soon as the Thanksgiving carnage had been swept away, out came the Christmas record albums, and that’s what we listened to exclusively as the anticipation swelled, until the day after Christmas when they were safely packed away once more. (For those of you who don’t know what I mean by “record albums,” Google it.)
We owned several holiday albums: Ferrante and Teicher, Sandler and Young, Roger Williams, Mario Lanza, Ken Griffin, and others. My favorites were a series of records produced by Firestone. Yup, the tire folks. A bit of quick internet research revealed that there were seven of these albums, although we owned only three. They featured the likes of Julie Andrews, Vic Damone, Roberta Peters, and others, and were beautifully engineered considering they cost probably one dollar apiece at the time. For me, these album were Christmas.
But time passed. I grew up and moved away from home. My parents graduated from albums to cassette tapes, to 8-track tapes, and finally to CDs. The old albums were packed away. When my parents moved, a series of garage sales cleaned out the old house in preparation for the shift.
Dad died in 2012. After a bit of “shuffling” (the best word I can use for it at this point without initiating incendiary excuse-hurling by certain individuals), my husband and I moved Mom in with us. Once again, this time with sad finality, their house was packed up, cleaned out, sold. I discovered the Christmas albums in the basement, tucked beneath the counter of what would have been bar, in what would have been a rumpus room, had my parents either drank or raised rumpuses.
I brought them home with the idea that “one of these days” I would break out my old turntable and receiver and give them a whirl. When I did, I discovered that the drive belt on the turntable had desiccated into a dozen pieces. I finally located a replacement belt, and the speakers went on the fritz. New speakers, and now it was the receiver’s turn to die. In frustration, I shelved the project. After Mom died in 2015, I felt little desire for much of anything.
However, this year, we figured out how to connect the ancient turntable (coming up on its fortieth birthday) to our very modern Bose outfit, and voila!
We’ve a stack of vinyl between us—Rolling Stones and Rush, the soundtracks to The Magic Show and The Muppet Movie, Marc Bolan and Robin Williamson, among others—but I saved the Christmas albums for when I was alone. Yesterday, I played Volume 4 of the Firestone albums
Yeah, I cried. For the past, for my Mom and her deep love of Christmas, for what might have been and wasn’t, but mostly for the shine those old memories still possess.