Monday, May 14, 2007

Christmas on the Farm


A few years ago, I attempted to get some of my childhood Christmas memories down on paper. I wanted to share them with my children and grandchildren while I still remembered them somewhat clearly. I'll share in another post about how I made the memory books and how much they've been enjoyed. But for today, I'm just going to post a few of my memories here.

CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM

How privileged I was to be a child in the 1950s! Today Christmas has
lost so much of its meaning and magic. We are desperately trying to get
it. back. Notice the catalogs full of such nostalgic products as Radio
Flyer wagons and bubbling Christmas tree lights, if you don't believe
it. I've hung on to many a faded glass ornament from those days, so
I'm doing my bit for nostalgia, too. But my memories haven't all
faded. Many of them are as clear and bright as they ever were.

We were fortunate to live just down the road from my grandmother's
farmhouse, so I got to see her Christmas preparations before the big
day. My grandmother loved holidays, and Christmas was her top
favorite. She decorated the big farmhouse to the hilt! Fluffy red
honeycombed paper bells hung from ceilings; shiny red letters spelling
out M-E-R-R-Y C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S were strung across the fireplace
mantel. There were birch logs in the fireplace and a crackling electric
"fire". Colorful electric candoliers glowed in every window. A green
ceramic tree with glowing colored lights lit up an upstairs hallway.
Around the house in different areas were taped the many Christmas cards
she'd received so far. Christmas candles abounded, especially the kind
in shapes like an angel choir, Santa and Mrs. Claus, or a group of
carolers gathered under a wax lamppost. Christmas music like White
Christmas and Winter Wonderland stood ready on the piano. The sideboard
in the back hallway held candy dishes filled with glistening ribbon
candy and peach blossoms, chocolates, mixed nuts, and stuffed dates.

In the front room, the Christmas tree would be set up at one end. I
liked nothing better than to go in and just look at all the gifts under
that tree. It didn't even matter if they weren't all for me! The
wrappings were so beautiful, and each package seemed to be different.
One gift might be wrapped in midnight-blue paper with a scene depicting
Bethlehem and the manger, even the shepherds out in the fields. Another
gift might be papered with glittering Christmas ornaments and pine
needles. A little boy's package might be wrapped in paper showing small
cowboys and their horses. And the tags always matched the paper!
Gram's artistic eye wouldn't have settled for anything less!
It wasn't just that a snowman package carried a tag with a snowman on
it. No, the snowman tag would exactly match the snowman paper!

Of course, the contents of the packages were special also. We always knew
they would contain something we really wanted ( a pre-holiday
consultation with the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog saw to that),
which had been thoughtfully picked out and then carefully wrapped, just
for us.

I was very, very fortunate that in the early lean years of our
marriage, Gram realized I could probably use some Christmas paper,
ribbons, and tags -- and she passed her "leftovers" on to me. I still
have some of the tags and ribbon!

Gram's Christmas tree was beautiful, too. All of my cousins recollect
her tree as being really special. Shirley said it best: "I recall how in awe I always was of her tree in the living room -- so bright and warming." The ornaments were very special. Some of them were sparkly and white and looked as if they had been formed out of
sugar. The shapes I remember for these "sugar" ornaments were bells and
angels. The white plastic reindeer tied with red satin ribbons were
also favorites of mine. But my best-loved ornaments were the faces of
angels -- which, years before, my mother and some of her sisters had cut
from paper, colored beautifully with crayons, and sprinkled with
glitter.

One special memory of Christmas for me is the red corduroy vest that my
Dad would always wear when we went to Gram's for Christmas dinner and
the tree. He and my uncles would all be particularly jovial on that
special day, joking with all of the kids and with one another. I had
forgotten this, but it seems there was always a lot of joking about how
much food my dad was able to eat. One year someone took a picture of
him with the turkey directly in front of him, as if the whole thing was
for him to eat!

My cousin Wayne remembers: "There were always a lot of
grownups and oodles of kids around with a constant level of voices and
laughter." Sometimes it seemed that there was more excitement in that
one day than in a week or a month of ordinary days. We would have the
tree and presents at home in the morning and then go to Gram's for
dinner and her tree in the afternoon. Often we cousins would bring
along one or more of our new Christmas gifts to show the others --
dolls, trucks, games, or whatever.

Gram would be dressed to suit the holiday in a bright red dress or
jumper, with plenty of sparkly holiday jewelry in the shape of holly or
poinsettias. Her earrings and pins always matched her dress on any day,
but she pulled out all the stops when dressing up on Christmas day.

Christmas dinner was always a festive affair, with the tables carefully
set for the younger children in the kitchen and the adults and older
kids in the dining room. The smaller cousins always had special little
Santa mugs to drink from. The dining room table would be set with
Gram's set of ivy-trimmed white dishes. It seemed to me that food just
looked and tasted better on those plates. Equally impressive to me was
the fact that all of the serving dishes matched! She would have a snowy
white cloth on the table, and all the glassware and silver sparkled.

Often we would all start off with a juice glass full of tomato juice or
V-8. I'm sure the meat we had for that meal varied; I seem to remember
roast beef, turkey, or roast pork at different times. Somehow I
remember the vegetables best: the fluffy mashed potatoes, the squash
with lots of pepper; the green peas which I seldom wanted to take any of
so there would be more room for other things. There was also a tossed
green salad with Wish-Bone Italian dressing, always. This was a huge
treat to me because we never had bottled dressing at home. Sometimes my
mother would make Parker House rolls to contribute to the meal, or Aunt Dot
would make her famous oatmeal rolls. It's funny, but I really don't
remember at all what our Christmas desserts were. I do remember that we
didn't eat dessert until after the present-opening in the front room.

After everyone was gathered and seated in the front room, Gram would
have the cousins pass out the gifts. We would end up with everyone
having a gift from Gram, and sometimes I think there were family gifts
which the aunts and uncles had brought for their siblings' families.
And then there would be a huge pile of gifts next to Gram's chair. It
would take forever for her to open them! But we didn't have dessert
until she was finished with the task, unless she decided the rest of us
needed dessert and took a break from opening her gifts.

I remember, too, that the Christmas music was all out on the piano or in the bench
and sometimes one of the aunts would play Christmas songs. When some of
the cousins grew old enough to take piano lessons, there would often be
"recitals" taking place in the front room as well. I think that
sometimes Christmas music would be playing on the record player in the
corner. The songs I associate with Christmas at Gram's are "Silver
Bells" and "Winter Wonderland."

I seem to remember ice cream for dessert, and usually there was some of
Grammie Wallace's date cake around. This dark-colored loaf cake,
frosted on top with a thick white frosting and trimmed with walnut
halves, was a tradition in Gram's family, but I never liked it very
much. I think Gram may have baked a sheet cake of some sort as well --
she was a big fan of cake mixes and liked the unusual flavors such as
butter pecan or cherry chip. Aunt Dot usually brought some of her famous
date balls, which early on earned the nickname "Dot's Oddballs". (I am
not sure if it was my dad or Dot's husband Howard who gave them this
name. They share the same quirky sense of humor, so it could have been
either one of them.) But my major "sweet" memories of Christmas were
the candy dishes on the sideboard -- especially the chocolates and the
thin, fragile, bright-colored ribbon candy.

As wonderful as Christmases on the farm were, you can easily imagine
how cruelly disappointed we kids were whenever we had to miss one. With
four kids in the family, there were the inevitable times when one or
more of us was sick. If it was only one or two of us, one parent would
stay home with the invalid(s) while the other parent and siblings joined
the fun at the farm. But mostly I remember the times when all of us had
to stay home so we wouldn't infect the other cousins with whatever we
had. How sad we felt to watch the arriving cars of the fortunate
relatives who were not sick!


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