At this time of year, when I most want to be with my family and friends back in the US, I do everything I can to make the season bright and happy. That means decorating and incense that smells like cinnamon and plenty of strings of lights both inside and outside the house!
Last year, Bear and I purchased what I called our little fake Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, as once you put it together the limbs and trunk are so sparse and pathetic it was truly sad to behold.
Thankfully we had some idea that this would be the case when we bought it, so we also purchased thick sparkly garland and bright multicolored twinkle lights. The tree only hold a few of my Hallmark Christmas Ornaments but we use the remainders as decoration around the house. We have a Santa and his Reindeer poster that we put on our wall and I have a few other holiday decorations that we put up here and there. We also decided to spend this month watching Christmas movies and listening to Christmas music as often as possible. I’ve even found some really old and cheesy, made for TV Christmas Specials online that I’ve downloaded so we can watch along with our DVD Christmas Movies.
We’ve also made ourselves a Christmas Promise which I’ll tell you more about in the next blog. I know, I know….you’ve been waiting for Bear’s blog and I promised that. Well, it’s still coming it was just delayed a bit. 😉
Since I spend so much time away from Bear when he’s at work, I have to find other ways to keep up my Holiday spirits.
I thought perhaps I could accomplish that by telling you my family traditions from when I was growing up.
So, let’s see….where to begin.
Let’s begin at the beginning I suppose!
In the US, most family’s follow the tradition of decorating the house for Christmas the day after (or weekend of) Thanksgiving. Mainly because this is when everyone is already together and off from work and you now have an abundance of slave labor to lug out Christmas Trees, Ornaments, Lights, Decorations and the like. Husbands, brothers and Uncles are dragged away from their football game to put on Coat, Hat and Scarf to go outside and listen to Grandpa tell you how they used to string up the lights when he was in charge of decorating. Now he’s an excellent director of manual labor. When my Grandparents were alive, this was the general hubbub of Christmas, except that was when we spent it with them up in Northern Indiana where they almost always had a white Christmas.
The times when we were home for Christmas, my Mom was stuck with my Dad, brother and myself. When my brother and I were young we were gung-ho with the Christmas decorations and more than willing to go outside in the freezing cold to spend two hours wrapping lights around the bushes or railing in front of our house. We would love spraying the fake snow on the windows. Putting the electric candles in each window. Checking the batteries in the Merry Christmas Wreath lights that hung on the front door. Making the ceramic Christmas Village in our bay window like the one above. Baking the Christmas Cookies. Even putting up the Christmas Tree.
That is, we were happy to do it until Christmas TREE became Christmas TREE’S. Plural. Yes, by the time I was 16 and my brother was 8 we had been putting up four perfectly decorated Christmas Tree’s for several years.
Yes, I said perfectly decorated. Actually, one downstairs was the ‘Family’ tree and we could decorate that one any way we wanted to with any old decorations we wanted to use.
And that was our favorite tree….and always the last one we did. Usually by the time we finished with everything else, we were so exhausted our tree barely got anything put on it…but that stuff we did put on it was full of love and happiness.
You see, once upon a time my mother used to be a reasonable, logical creature who thought that Christmas Decoration should be all about fun and whimsy. Each year we would make our own decorations of popcorn on string or paper looped garland, wooden clothes pins painted to look like tin soldiers or ballerina’s, crotched snowflakes dusted with silver sprinkles, angel hair tinsel, and thousands of multi-colored twinkle lights. My mother was a very talented craftsman and artist. She taught me and my little brother how to do ceramics and often we would make ornaments for the tree or for gifts to other people. She would take us with her to the local Community Center and we would fire our ceramics in their big kiln. My mom loved finding new recipes to cook food that would tantalize our noses, or she would come home with new cookie cutters for us to make different shaped cookies. She would walk around in her Christmas sweatshirts singing Christmas songs under her breath. It truly was a magical time. What we would call an Old Fashioned Christmas.
And the FOOD. Ohhhh the food. My Mother had chosen to get Christmas Plates instead of Wedding Anniversary Plates as Christmas was her favorite time of year. So every year before Thanksgiving and Christmas we all would raid the china hutch and then sit around the table polishing and cleaning the good silver cutlery and serving dishes while my Mom would wash the china and the crystal and set them out to dry on towels on the kitchen counter. Then back in the display case of the hutch they would go until Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Dinner came around. Every week before Christmas my mom would cook one truly special and spectacular meal. Her famous pot roast, corned beef and cabbage, spaghetti and garlic bread, Homemade Macaroni and Cheese casserole or Fried Chicken with white gravy and buttermilk biscuits. My Dad would also have his chance as he could fry steaks on the stove that turned out almost as good as the grill outside could make them. He would make French fries in the oven and broccoli with a special velveeta cheese sauce that always made everything taste better.
And then Christmas Day would come and my whole family would be sure to put on their ‘dinner’ pants that morning after getting through with opening presents and taking showers and the early morning nap. We called them dinner pants because they were attractive, stretchable and elastic wasted pants which let the stomach expand! My Aunt – who is (btw) the world’s GREATEST homemade food cook – would show up with the family staples. Homemade coleslaw with our Great Aunt’s secrete recipe sauce and Honey Baked Ham with a crunchy Maple Crust and Butter Bread crumble top Three Cheese Macaroni casserole (this was SINFUL and usually the first to go) along with her homemade potato rolls. My Mom would still be busy in the kitchen with the Turkey roasting in the oven, also stuffed into the oven would be the Oyster Bake Casserole and Bread and Celery stuffing. On the stove top there would be green beans frying with bacon and slivers of almonds, another pot filled to brimming with garlic mashed potatoes and warm white gravy made with Turkey broth. On the counter there would be three different pies cooling: Pumpkin, Apple and Pecan. In the fridge there would be fruit salad and punch spiked with sprite. The house would smell like coffee and cinnamon and there would be laughter heard over the lightly playing Christmas music in the background (or Dad’s football game downstairs).
We had a few family traditions that were yearly mainstays, like going to see the live Nativity Scene on Christmas Eve and then to church to sing a hymn and wish everyone Merry Christmas. At home, we made sure to watch on Christmas Movies the whole week of Christmas. Us kids were put on “Fruit Cake” watch to see which one of the family or friends were going to try and drop the ‘Traditional’ and about 30 year Fruit Cake tin on our front step. It was a tradition that started with my Dad’s sister got a Fruit Cake in a tin, which she despises, so she put it on someone else’s front porch and then they did the same and so a tradition was began. You did NOT want to be the one who got it on Christmas Day as it was yours to take care of the rest of the year till one week before Christmas the next year. I bet that thing is still making the rounds.
“Going a Visiting” was another family affair. This was when our parents made us get all dressed up in a new Christmas finery and go with them to call on friends, neighbors and people us kids didn’t’ know but hated because they pinched our cheeks too hard and we had to grin and bare it. Also, those people invariably had plastic covered furniture and no toys for us to occupy ourselves while they and our parents “visited”. So, we would sit there in our wools and leotards and try not to squirm from all the itching that was going on. I won’t even discuss the Mary Jane shoes my Mother would make me wear but in one word, torture would suffice.
Shopping was a family affair with one or the other of our parents until I was old enough to drive and be trusted with the purchasing of my own gifts for everyone (one year I made my mom buy my Dad purple parachute pants for his birthday and thus started the regulation of gift buying by my Father). With my Dad, his big focus was on getting something special for my Mom. With my Mom, her focus was on getting that special something for Dad AND getting his gag gift as well as the gifts for everyone else in the family. Daddy always foisted this part of the shopping off onto Mom….buying the presents for everyone else. Hence, my poor father was always sure to have at least ONE gag gift present under the tree. My favorite one year was the Pez dispenser that was a Reindeer that ‘Pooped’ out a different shade of brown jelly beans. My Dad even played along and filled that thing and showed how it ‘worked’ to my squeamish Aunt. Classic.
When my brother got old enough to get mouthy (aka talking back to his elder sister), the fights of who got to put Baby Jesus in the Nativity Scene began. My mother first tried to alleviate this with having us draw straws but then one or the other of us would start complaining that the other cheated somehow. Finally, she said enough and we began alternating. Even with the squabble, placing the baby Jesus in the Nativity Scene was a happy time for us. It was then that we remembered it was for God that we celebrated Christmas and everything that that stood for.
Then on Christmas Eve, my family would have dinner while watching Christmas movies downstairs in the TV room. My Dad would start a fire in the fireplace and we would sit around in our PJ’s and wrapped in comfy throws watching It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife or Christmas Cartoons about Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer. Finally, at eleven my parents would try to send us off to bed. It would last about half an hour and usually end up with the threat that Santa Claus would pass by our house because we weren’t in bed by midnight. This (and our full belly’s) would send my brother and I upstairs to get Santa his plates of cookies, glass of milk and carrots for the reindeer. Hey…they did a lot of work and needed to eat too! In the morning, there would be cookies and milk missing and half chomped carrots would be found outside in the snow. Of course, it didn’t stop there, my parents would stay up wrapping and putting together the presents that were strictly from Santa to be placed under the tree. It was a huge trouble for them to find new hiding places every year because my brother and I became more proficient at looking as we both grew older. The things my poor parents did in the middle of the night to make sure that my brother and I maintained that feeling of Santa being real lasted years, even after we no longer believed in the REAL Santa and only what he stood for.
But then our neighborhood went from being middle class to upper (and more upper) middle class. My father made an excellent living monitoring huge machines and vats and new computer equipment for one of the east coast’s largest Pharmaceutical plants and we were proud of him and his work. But there were Doctors and Lawyers and Politicians and big Business Owners moving into our little neighborhood and all of the sudden my Mom had to start competing with the other ladies. My Dad later explained that some of them were rude to Mom and made her feel little for having a nice house with money made by a husband who worked with his hands and brains instead of just the last. Either way, those people moving in was the beginning of the end of simple Christmas’s for my family.
Thus began the week-long decoration fest at our house. Gone were the days of decorating the house in the mid morning and finishing up before dinner of the same day. Now, we started on Friday after Thanksgiving and were still going strong till middle of the next week. For a few years we tolerated it because the ornaments were really cool and she did buy some that were strictly for us (I got the Rocking Horse series and my brother the Cars of the World). However, after a few years my brother and I began to drag our feet over decorating the house. Arguments would ensue. My brother and I wanted an old-fashioned Christmas like we used to and we wanted the house totally decked out in thousands of multi-colored twinkle lights.
My mother wanted her four precisely decorated trees, in color motif’s to match the rooms that they were in and with the same amount of designer and store-bought collectible ornaments, all white lights and garland to match the color of that particular tree. She favored Mauve and Cream. One year she brought home a string of mauve tinted cream pearl strings that were to be wrapped around the light mauve colored garlands and then draped in exactly the right place on the tree. Also, each tree took four or more strands of 100 foot lights in white. Why? Because our tree’s were over 7 feet tall and my Mom wanted them to GLOW. It took two hours to get just one of those fake, 7.5 foot tall tree’s up and perfectly placed with all the limbs fixed. And that was just putting the damn things UP. That didn’t include the precisely placed, store-bought collectible Christmas Ornaments that had to be hung on each tree in a specific place. Some of them even had to be hung next to a special strand of lights as they were “Light and Motion” ornaments that needed to be plugged in to the strand in order to work. Then, each tree was TIED by fishing wire to the wall so that there were no chances of an accidental toppling over. This protected the investments…I mean expensive ornaments. Every year she got new ornaments. Every single year. Hence the 1 tree turning into four. By the time I had moved out at 20, those trees were heavy with ornaments and she had plenty in the boxes waiting for a place to put them.
But I will say we had the most beautiful house and decorations in our neighborhood….even IF my Daddy didn’t make his money sitting around on his ass!
And with that….I leave you with the trailer from one of my favorite Christmas Movies.