Pre-Holiday Musings & Memories of Christmas Past
“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.” — Laura Ingalls Wilder
“The bright moon glows amongst pines.” — Wang Wei
Christmas approaches and for those who celebrate this Christian holiday — or families like mine of Northern European heritage who practice a more Americanized consumer tradition —we are being treated to a Full Cold Moon on Christmas Day. The Full Cold Moon is also called the Long Night Moon by some Native American tribes because it’s near the Winter Solstice.
For me, like many others, Christmas is a mixed bag of a joyful time with family, friends, and loved ones and a season characterized by stressful activity, including workplace and family obligations and gatherings, holiday shopping, gift exchanges and the three “O’s,” overeating, over imbibing, and overspending. For those of us in the Midwest and Northern tier states, we do this in the coldest, sometimes most treacherous season of the year.
As both the holiday and full moon approaches, many of us are scurrying to finish shopping, wrap gifts, bake holiday cookies, travel across town or country, and prepare, or enjoy festive meals with loved ones. We’re then asked to take a deep breath, relax, and be present as we celebrate with each other. Sometimes that’s a difficult transition to make.
My coworkers are cranky and so are the customers we serve. Personally, any interruption in the flow of holiday preparation escalates quickly from an inconvenience to disaster status. This year mine is dealing with the cable company. Just when I was ready to sit down and relax this past Sunday night following a festive holiday cookie exchange party and football victory by the Green Bay Packers and watch the finale of The Affair, my current television guilty pleasure — the television remote died. It stopped communicating with the cable box.
So tonight on the eve of my travels home to celebrate Christmas with my family — I have a date with the cable guy (or gal). This appointment was scheduled following a trip yesterday to the cable provider office to pick up a replacement remote which again failed to communicate with the cable box. H-m-m-m-m, I see a theme developing. As is my practice, I quote a film — “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke.
The remedy suggested during my second customer service call in two days was that perhaps the cable box needs to be replaced and the rep suggested I return to the cable office the next day to pick up a new one (a second trip). This would of course require me to setup and sync two devices with my television, both the cable box and remote. It was the tipping point. After my l-o-n-g silent pause followed by, “I’m not going to do that,” the rep was intuitive enough to schedule an appointment with a tech to resolve this time-sucking — yet in the larger scheme of things — unimportant irritant.
In addition to cable issues, I saw a nurse practitioner this past Friday for an angry boil that wouldn’t disappear. She diagnosed it as a sebaceous cyst and rather than lance it and risk additional infection, we’re treating it with antibiotics. To reference another film, I’m waiting for the Alien to exit my body at any moment. I don’t mention this bodily function story to gross out any of my readers but instead to note that things in life usually happen in threes — and to intentionally mix metaphors — I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I practice gratitude as often as I’m able, so I’m going to stop my whining and look back at holidays past — and reminisce per Laura Ingalls Wilder’s quote, “… in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.”
Looking back at my childhood Christmas’s, I’m amazed at how much my parents were able to accomplish secretly to create our family holiday traditions. They would shop throughout the year and hide presents in the attic of our house or under their bed. Mom and Dad both worked full-time jobs and belonged to Christmas Clubs, where each week a predetermined amount of money was deposited in a special savings account at the bank drawing interest until it was withdrawn for Christmas shopping.
Another tool they used each year was a layaway plan. When the local hardware or department store Toyland had their biggest sale of the season, Mom and Dad would select the gifts for all us kids and “Buy Now, Pay Later.” It was one of many tools they used to make Christmas a memorable occasion for their children. Both parents grew up post-Depression era and though they we were blue-collar, working-class family, they wanted their children to experience the abundance and optimism of the 1950’s and 1960’s and receive many of the material things that were missing in their own childhoods.
Christmas was the time of year that we received both the necessities: winter clothes, pajamas, underwear, and socks, and it was a time that our wish lists for toys, games and hobbies were fulfilled. What made the whole experience truly amazing was the following, a typical Christmas Eve and morning:
Just like the classic Christmas stories, we’d hang our stockings. Lacking a fireplace we hung them on the railing going down the basement stairs, one sock per stair, beginning with the eldest down the stairs to the youngest. Over the years the family grew to six kids, plus Mom and Dad. Some years one of us might receive a lump of coal if Santa determined we were naughty, not nice.
Next we’d put out decorated cut-out cookies and milk for Santa and a carrot for Rudolf. We’d get kissed and tucked into bed and told to fall asleep as quickly as we could, because the sooner we slept, the sooner Christmas morning would arrive. We were reminded to wait for Dad’s call before we came down the stairs or opened our bedroom doors. It always seemed like the longest night of the year.
While we slept, Mom and Dad would retrieve the Christmas tree stored in a neighbor’s or friend’s garage. First, they’d quietly climb upstairs to retrieve the ornaments and lights, the angel tree-topper and the tree stand. Boxes of wrapped gifts would follow. They’d spend the next few hours, sawing another fresh cut to the tree, decorating it with lights, tree-topper, ornaments, candy canes and popcorn balls wrapped in holiday-colored transparent cellophane. The finishing touch was handfuls of aluminum tinsel. Next they’d fill the stockings with a candy cane, some loose change and a new dollar bill and some kind of small toy, and if room an orange. Dad and Mom would put a bottle of beer in their stockings and sometimes, someone would receive a lump of coal.
Next they’d return to the kitchen for a break. Mom would smoke a cigarette and they’d both have a beer or two. Someone would take a bite out of the carrot and eat almost the entire cookie, only leaving crumbs and and empty the glass of milk. The most difficult challenge was still ahead. Dad —who was not the handiest father in the world — but if nothing else the most dedicated and well-intentioned — would work late into the night or early morning putting together a gift that required assembly. Some years it would be the electric train for my brother, or his hobby horse, a wagon or pogo stick, a tricycle for the youngest girl. Mom would help by reading directions and try to minimize and contain my father’s frustration, or in the very least, remind him to keep his voice down.
The final step was to arrange the presents in a precise order under the tree. We each had our own personal real estate — again arranged from oldest to youngest. After all the gifts were placed, Mom and Dad would try to get an hour or two of sleep before they’d wake us kids when the sun rose. As soon as we heard Dad say, “Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas!” we’d be invited to come down the stairs and asked to walk by the tree to the basement stairs and retrieve our Christmas stockings first, again by age, and check to see if Santa ate his cookies and Rudolf his carrot.
When we returned to the living room, we would stand gobsmacked by the wonder and awe of it all. Brightly-wrapped presents stacked tall and spread under the tree over almost half of the living room. The tree in full color was pure magic and the scent of pine intoxicating. We tried to locate our favorite ornaments, including handmade ones we proudly gave our parents. The multi-colored lights would reflect in the tinsel which would rustle in a crinkly sound and dislodge as we shifted gifts under the tree.
Unwrapping gifts might take an hour or two. When we opened gifts, we would take turns by age, this time beginning with the youngest opening all of their gifts, then to the next in ascending order. One difficult rule, of which we protested passionately, and for which Dad was unwavering, is that we could only open one toy to play with until his mother, our Grandma Lenzke, could visit and see all of our gifts before packages were opened, toys broken, or parts missing. We also had to change out of our pajamas and wear a special new Christmas outfit, because the next activity, difficult for children, was to leave our bounty, wear dress-up clothes, and behave appropriately when we’d travel to the Grams, Grandma Lenzke and Great Grandma Flanigan’s third floor, 750 square foot walk-up apartment in downtown Racine which would be filled with our paternal extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins with more presents to be opened. It would take another couple of hours and after a holiday ham dinner, we finally returned home tired and cranky.
Years later, as adults when we look at family holiday pictures in sepia tones and faded color, we’re amazed at what my parents accomplished to provide us with a memorable holiday. It wasn’t always perfect, but it was always born out of love and sacrifice. Though sometimes today as an adult, I feel like I do some things with my family out of obligation, I can never do enough to thank them for the love they shared with us. They don’t expect me to repay them either other than to keep returning home to celebrate the holiday with them.
Watch for the next installment of Full Moon on Christmas Day: Part II when I write about Christmas Present and Christmas Future.
Happy Holidays however you celebrate them (or not). Hold your loved ones close!