Memories of Christmas Past
Christmas will be here before we know it and, as it does every year, it got me to thinking about Christmases past. I am in my 69th year and Christmas has certainly changed! Here are a few cherished memories I have from my childhood. I hope they trigger memories of special times you had.
Growing up in the desert we did not get snow, so forget about building snowmen, sledding, and snowball fights like in the movies or on TV. Forget about Santa arriving via sleigh, too. When the leaves blew off the cottonwood trees, and the nights grew cooler we knew that winter was on the way. After Thanksgiving all the things that signaled “Christmas” started happening.
My mother was a baker and enjoyed making candy, too. When the season changed, she started buying extra butter, sugar, flour, and nuts. While my dad watched football games on TV, it was his job to crack open the walnuts, almonds, and pecans that would end up being used in Mom’s cookies, pecan logs, fudge, divinity, and toffee. Since many of our extended family lived in other states most of her confections had to be mailed, which meant getting everything made early. Wonderful smells filled the kitchen, and it was so hard not to eat everything as soon as she had it ready. But we knew better! After everything was safely in the mail, Mom would start all over again to make the same goodies for our local friends, and for us! Now, all these years later, my sisters and I still make many of the cookies, toffee, rolls, and other sweets, using Mom’s recipes. We have made three cookbooks containing her recipes, so they don’t disappear.
Getting a Christmas tree was always fun. Most Christmases we went to a tree lot and bought a tree, not a flocked tree, or an aluminum tree with one of those gadgets that rotated and turned the tree different colors. We had a real Douglas fir tree. There were those times, though, when we drove up to the Greenhorns in the Sierra Nevada mountains to cut a tree. My grandparents had a mine they tinkered in and there were trees on their property, so that’s where we headed. To get there we had to drive up through Walker Pass, which often had snow. We got to get out of the car and play in it, and of course we had to build a snowman. Many people had sleds or toboggans, but most of us used a squashed cardboard box to slide down an embankment. It was a special day, and when we were done playing, we headed home to dry clothes and a warm meal. That evening we set the tree up and decorated it, right down to the silvery icicles dangling from all the branches.
Of course, Santa Claus made an appearance to kick off the season, but he didn’t arrive in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. No, in our neck of the desert Santa arrived on a Navy firetruck, with the horn honking, siren blaring, and Santa waving at all the kids lined up and down the street while his elves threw candy. We scurried into the street to grab all that we could. It was chaos! Santa’s arrival also meant the opening of Toyland, a magical place set up by the Navy Exchange for the benefit of the sailors and their families stationed at China Lake. It was housed at the fire department, and parents could take their kids for a visit to view all the toys they hoped Santa would be putting under their tree on Christmas morning. Mom and Dad could go back later to get the right toys.
The Navy also installed and maintained a giant star on B Mountain. On a certain night in December the star would be lit up with white lights for all to see, and THAT meant Christmas was getting close! After I left home, I would visit for Christmas, and knew I would see that star when our car rounded the curve and dropped into the valley. It’s light shining meant one thing: I was home. Sadly, the star was destroyed in the 7.1 earthquake on July 4, 2019, and has not been replaced.
Christmas also meant school programs involving plays, singing, and band concerts. I generally liked that kind of thing, but when I was in the 7th grade, our music teacher wrote a play that called for eight small reindeer. I was always one of the shortest kids in my class, so I and seven other pee-wees donned paper-mache reindeer heads and pranced about the stage. It was something I won’t forget and at my 50th high school reunion last year, I was able to visit with one of the other reindeer.
Our church always had a Christmas Eve service which my family attended. We sang carols and carried lighted candles. At the end of the service each child received a stocking made of netting, filled with candy and fruit. I can remember Mr. Porter’s friendly smile as he passed out the gifts.
My most memorable Christmas was when I was a freshman in high school and my youngest sister was a Kindergartener. A week or so before Christmas, she came down with the mumps, and of course it spread to the rest of us kids. The twins both had light cases, but as luck would have it, my symptoms showed up on the Friday we got out of school for Christmas vacation. My neck disappeared, I felt terrible, and all I wanted to do was sleep. I had no appetite, not even for all the good stuff Mom had made. I lived on Fresca and aspirin for the better part of two weeks and my Christmas was spent lying on the sofa watching my siblings open their gifts. I have no idea if I opened my gifts that day; I couldn’t eat Christmas dinner with my family, and I was miserable. My mother said I was the sickest kid she had ever seen, and since she had six of them, she ought to know! Every Christmas I make it a point to remind my little sister (now 60 years old) of that memorable “gift” and that I have never forgiven her for it. Just kidding.
Christmas would not have been Christmas without the Firestone Christmas albums my parents bought every year. You know, the ones with all the stars of the day singing Christmas carols, The Boston Pops playing something jaunty, and the obligatory operatic star belting out a hymn. After listening to those albums over and over, year after year, we became experts at imitating the songs on them. Now, I’m not one to brag, but yours truly still does a pret-ty mean imitation of Maurice Chevalier “singing” Jolly Old St. Nicholas. Just ask my sister, Martha: she calls me every year to tell me that when she plays her CD of the album, she still hears me singing Jolly Old St. Nicholas and we laugh together, just like we did when we were kids.
Who hasn’t seen the movie White Christmas? If you’re like my family, we watched it every year, eventually memorizing the songs from the movie. I have three sisters, so every time Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sang “Sisters” we would have to sing along with them. My sisters and I live in different parts of the country now, but we will watch it and send each other a meme just so we all know we are thinking of the other sisters.
Christmas has changed: I live in Washington now, so having a white Christmas is a distinct possibility. The Sears Catalog we pored over and circled all our Christmas wishes in is no more. Instead, we have Amazon. Making homemade goodies for neighbors and friends doesn’t happen so much. Time moves on. Although Christmas is different, I am blessed with being able to recall those long-ago times and smile. Maybe even laugh.
Merry Christmas to all!