This is the essay my sister wrote several years ago about our Christmases when we were kids. It’s long, but she does a wonderful job of describing just what Christmas felt, tasted, and sounded like to us as little girls.
I remember the way the Maple tree looked through our kitchen windows from where I sat at the large, picnic-style table my father had fashioned to accommodate his family of six. You could tell it was cold out looking through the frosty windows at the sky, clear as blue glass. A majestic background for the giant limbs, now bare, that stretched over the drive.
I can still feel the chocolate mint dough sticky on my palms, as I rolled the little balls, dipped them in confectioner’s sugar, and flattened them on the blackened cookie sheet.
Roger Whittaker’s Christmas album, a tradition at our house since before I was born, poured in from the living room, evoking, even then, happy memories of Christmases past and hope for what this present season could bring.
For me, Christmas in our old State Street home was magic. The season was made special by my blessed parents who found their joy in four shining faces and their squeals of delight. I’ve often thought how much more I could have appreciated had I been then as I am now, but nevertheless, my sisters and I immersed ourselves in the season as only children can, with never a thought to growing up and leaving behind our dear house and all its memories.
The Christmas season began officially, for my sisters and I, the day after Thanksgiving when my parents gave permission, at long last, for the large stack of records to be carted down from the upstairs closet. Soon Bing and Frank filled the house with “White Christmas” and “Silent Night.” Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” particularly delighted Debra, who liked to set the record back and hear it again, risking the aggravation of my parents who had never been great fans.
In the evenings we would sit and listen, pouring over the Sears catalogue and furiously writing down page numbers just in case Santa needed any help in filling our stockings.
The next event was the buying of the Christmas tree. My most vivid memories of this are when we were older and my sisters, busy with the “more important things” of teenage years, left the duty to Dad and I. So, on the designated evening, after Dad was home and dinner was finished, we two would set out, bundled up, on a mission to find the perfect tree. We would stop at all the stands in town, and weaving in and out of the rows, Dad would stand a tree up, spin it around for my approval, and together we would pick out it’s various flaws. Too tall, bare on one side, not enough branches at the top, and on and on, until at last we made our choice. To top off the evening and celebrate a successful mission, Dad treated us to ice cream cones, which we licked happily, never minding the cold outside.
Once home, the tree was brought in for the approval of Mama and sisters who weren’t always pleased with our selection, but weren’t at liberty to complain since they’d opted not to come along, and me secretly glad since I’d had Dad all to myself for the evening.
Once the tree was decked we would turn our attention to baking. Mama would take her worn recipe box down from the cupboard and with the box in her lap she would pick out all the holiday favorites and us girls would each choose a recipe. My favorites were lemon bars with a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar. Holiday recipes would come and go, stained-glass cookies one year, haystacks the next, but the sugard cookies were always a standard. To us it could not be Christmas until the dough was cut into bells, Santas, crosses and stockings, and each was decorated with colored frosting and red and green sprinkles. Somehow I think more frosting ended up in our bellies than on the cookies, but nonetheless, we conquered the yearly task with zeal, armed with sticky-handled butter knives and the sweet tooth inherent in all the Shannon clan.
Christmas Eve was sometimes spent at Grandma’s house around her tree. There were always presents to open, a foretaste of what would come from under our own tree that beckoned us back home. In later years, when we better understood the reality of the holiday, the night before Christmas was a reminder of the sacredness of what we were truly celebrating. Mama would read those familiar, comforting words aloud, “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” And I would imagine the scene as I had so many times before, almost hearing the rustling of the cattle about Jesus’ cradle as we sang, “Away in a Manger.” I would climb into bed, carols still in my head and my stomach full of cookies and eggnog.
Christmas morning began with four little girls in barefeet and nightgowns racing down to the family room. Our stockings, each one knitted by Mama in red and green, and marked with our initials, waited for us in a row like special friends that only came out to play once a year. The small gifts that rested at the top of each were torn into as Mama snapped pictures and Daddy stood by smiling. The usual bag of bon bons and nuts retrieved from the bottom of each sock and taken down to keep us chewing as we opened the rest of our gifts.
One by one, taking turns, the glittery paper and bows were torn off and boxes were opened to a fresh cry of joy. Each doll was hugged. Mickey Mouse phones were tested.
Some years there were “special” presents – a desk or mirror that Daddy would make. The picture of my Daddy bundled up in his winter coat and heading out to his workshop will forever be etched in the cherished banks of my mind. When there were whisperings and hushes and warnings to keep out of the shop, you knew it was going to be a special Christmas. The cold evenings, the singing of the saw blade, the sanding, the varnish, and the love that shaped each piece, combined to create something worth much more than the wood it was made of. I can see Mama’s tears.
In my case it was a cradle where my Cabbage Patch dolls spent their best days and now waits for my little girls to come play.
Christmas day ended with a family dinner at a table that seemed to stretch for miles covered with so many things that were so easy to spill. There were cousins and new toys to play with while the Aunts, Uncles, and Grandparents visited. Christmas went out leaving tired bodies and full tummies in its wake.
I was always a little melancholy the day after Christmas. I knew that soon the tree would be taken apart, the clothes-pin reindeer and paper stars put away for next year’s tree. The cookies and treats would disappear from the cupboard and the stack of records would return to their corner in the closet. The thought of waiting a whole year for the season to come around again saddened my heart. But the school year would pass while last Christmas’ toys kept us company and we’d begin another. Before we knew it Christmas would show once more in the smells of the kitchen, and the sound of our excited giggles.
Of course, we can’t always believe in Santa. The cradles and Mickey Mouse phones make way for a thick volume of Jane Austen and, in Debra’s case, a CD of Elvis’ Greatest Hits. We no longer live in our dear house on State Street with it’s perfect place for a Christmas tree and family gatherings aren’t what they used to be. We cling less to the gifts and more to the baby Jesus. Most of us are married and some are expecting little ones of their own. There are new faces in the family. A niece with Debra’s curly hair and a nephew with my round cheeks. But when we all make it home for Christmas, all grown up with little girl memories, we watch the little ones who find those same old stockings of Mama’s, a sugar cookie or two to decorate themselves, and perhaps, a Roger Whittaker carol to remember always.
by Marni Shannon Stout