Ghost of Christmas Past

39Although 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.

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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.

A Holiday Fat in Elephants

How lucky am I?

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A lousy picture of this most wonder antique pin, which currently resides on my bulletin board because I don’t trust the clasp.

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A bell-laden parade of pachyderms

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A closeup of same

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Wee brass Ganesha

I also received a lovely elephant Christmas ornament, but neglected to photograph it before packing away the holiday things. (Sorry, Nina.)

Our house is a bit drafty in winter (whose isn’t?) and sometimes my hands get cold as I’m working at the computer. Friend, little brother, confidante, and fellow writer John Valeri found me the perfect solution:

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Peter Pan themed writing gloves!

Hope you all had a wonderful holiday season however you celebrate (or even if you don’t). Now, let’s get writing!

 

My Two Favorite Christmas Stories

Bridget & Santa 2Most of you–dare I say all of you?–are familiar with the iconic tale of Ralphie and the coveted Red Ryder BB gun “with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” In years to come, I imagine Ralph and his family reliving those moments that led up to his receiving that amazing gift: Flick’s grizzly bear, the dreaded “fudge” word, Randy bundled up for the cold and unable to lower his arms, Mom’s brilliant disposal of the hated lamp, and the Old Man’s facility with language.

Every family has it stories centered around the holidays. These are two of mine:

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THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS

The yearly trip to pick out a Christmas tree continues to be a big deal for me and my husband; an event we look forward to with anticipation and delight despite not having family–in particular, small children–nearby to share it with.

One year, we drove to a Christmas tree farm in Mystic, CT recommended to us by an acquaintance. On the back seat lay a blanket to protect the car roof, a bow saw, and plenty of stout rope to secure the tree to the car … plus a silent reminder to NOT tie the doors shut as we had one year.

The farm proved to be everything we hoped for–quintessentially Currier and Ives; rustic and without all the hoo-haws and folderol-fiddle-dee-dees adopted by too many places that turn the yearly Christmas tree endeavor into an amusement park. If I sound hum-buggish, I don’t mean to. I just don’t understand why people can’t appreciate for the moment as it is, rather than needing hay rides and mazes and … well … stuff. This place was different; quiet. There was a machine to shake and net the tree (a lovely invention), a small fire for customers to gather round and warm their hands, a pack of friendly farm dogs, and oodles of helpful folk. They pointed us toward the fields of trees, and we set off.

It was a wonderfully crisp day. A dusting of snow that had fallen the night before lent itself to the magic of the moment. As we plodded along, scuffing our boots through tall stands of frost-burned grass and bits of glittery snow, we heard on every side the voices of other families looking for their special tree.

This area was dense with growth, so all we could see of our fellow shoppers was a vague outline or a sense of motion behind a screen of boughs. Off to our right, we could hear the crunch of boots and three voices–two children (a boy and a girl, by the sound of it), and a woman, probably their mother. We couldn’t make out what was being said, but there was a certain petulant whine to the kids’ voices that made it easy to guess–they were cold, or hungry, or (fill in the blank). Whatever they were, unhappy was a big part of it.

The boy’s voice lifted slightly. We still couldn’t make out the words, but the lift at the end marked it as a question. His mother’s reply–exasperated and LOUD–rang clear in cold air for everyone to hear:

“BECAUSE IT’S THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS! NOW SHUT UP!”

Dead silence followed … for all of two seconds, and then the entire tree lot, all those hidden families, burst into laughter.

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A VISIT WITH ST. NICHOLAS

I love Santa Claus. In my personal pantheon, he’s right up there with Captain Kangaroo; a kindly gent who loves me no matter what.  As my friends and I grew into adulthood, they put aside “rubbish” like Santa with a rapid ease I found disconcerting. I, on the other hand, chose to hang tight to my childlike belief in Santa and all he can stand for.

The first year we lived here in Connecticut, we ended up at BJ’s Warehouse on Christmas Eve afternoon. Don’t ask me why; I can’t recall. Our shopping was done, our packages and cards mailed. The kids weren’t with us that year, so we were anticipating a quiet day of just us and the three cats. Ed was on shift work at the time and had to go in Christmas morning for part of the day, and we hadn’t met many people, leastwise not the sort who’d invite strangers to their homes on Christmas, so I was anticipating a somewhat lonely day, low-key and a little depressing.

We were both wearing our Santa hats as we entered the store. As we passed the candy aisle, Ed said, “Hang on. I forgot to get a cart.” Off he went. As I stood waiting for him, a voice spoke behind me; a voice with a decidedly Germanic accent.

“Are you in competition vis me?”

I turned around. As God is my witness, it was Santa Claus.

Less than five feet tall. (Remember, Santa’s supposed to be an “elf” according to the Moore poem.) A round,comfortably chubby belly. Black boots, red pants, suspenders, white shirt, hat. (No coat; we’d yet to have snow that year and it was unseasonably warm that night.) Long white beard. Wire-rimmed glasses of old-fashioned design. Sparkling eyes. An impish smile and rosy apple cheeks. Heck, I don’t have to describe him to you. You know what Santa looks like.

And there he was. Real.

With a shopping basket over one arm.

I blinked, stunned for an instant, and laughed. “Competition?” I asked. “Never with you!” I spontaneously hugged him, and he returned it. “What are you doing here on Christmas Eve?” I asked.

“Buying candy, of course,” he replied. He winked and went off down the aisle.

Ed was back in less than a minute. “What happened to you?” he asked, giving me an odd look.

I was beaming, my cheeks stretched so high and tight that they ached. “Santa buys his stocking candy at BJs,” I said.

“What?”

“Just look down the candy aisle.”

He did. “What?” I looked. Santa was nowhere to be seen. In seconds, he’d come and gone. I scoured the store, but he’d vanished … leaving behind a touch of Christmas magic for someone badly in need of it.

Believe what you like. I know the truth.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Christmas Memories

When I was a child, I believed our Christmas tree ornaments were alive. When we packed them away in January–each swaddled in its separate wrapping of tissue paper and tucked into a box marked “Special Ornaments;” a visual history of our family or, at least, of my childhood–I believed they settled down for that “long winter’s nap” Clement Clarke Moore wrote of in A Visiting from St. Nicholas. 

I imagined them shifting to get comfortable, snuggling down one against the other before drifting off to sleep.

I believed that the roll of our year seemed but one long night to them. When my dad carried the boxes down from the attic the following December, I’d gently open each lid and whisper, “Good morning. Merry Christmas. It’s time to get up.” They would stir … stretch … yawn … and greet me with excitement, as happy as I was that we were reunited for another holiday.

I’m fast approaching my 61st birthday, and I still believe. Each year when I carry out the plastic bins that hold our collection of (“way too many” according to some friends) ornaments and open the lids, I sense their vitality and that thrum of excitement. Time to wake up! Time to hang on the tree!

The first year my husband and I wound up with a smaller tree than usual, it was clear right from the beginning that we couldn’t possibly fit every ornament. His solution was simple and logical: choose our favorites and leave the rest packed.

I was horrified. “You can’t do that! They wait all year for this moment!”

To his credit, he didn’t look at me as if I’d grown another head. “Well, what are we supposed to do? Get a second tree?”

BINGO! I found a table-top artificial tree at Goodwill, put in on our back porch, and decorated it. It was lovely.

This year, we ran into the same situation. The narrow tree fits our living room beautifully, but–alas–it’s too small to hold all the ornaments. We also own a full-size artificial tree we purchased a few years back. Up it came from the basement and now it stands in our dining room, bedecked and bejeweled. I know some visitors will find us odd to have two trees but, really, if they’re friends, they already know we’re odd and they love us anyway.

And, boy, are those trees beautiful!

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Tree #1

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Tree #2