Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reflecting on Christmases Past

The activities around the house leading up to Christmas usually added to the expectations, the eagerness for that day to finally arrive. Just after Thanksgiving Dad would begin the yearly search for the tattered boxes of decorations and strings of lights. Once found they were all dusted off and drug into the living room to be accounted for. My brothers and I would be assigned our own box while Mom would put the inside decorations aside. As we pulled string after string of lights from the remaining boxes strands of color would appear. Red, green, yellow and blue painted bulbs the size of my Dad’s thumb, filled the dark Bakelite sockets placed repetitively along the red and green wires. Each strand was uncoiled, laid out along the floor to be inspected for loose or broken bulbs and bare wires before the two prong plug was gingerly pushed in the wall socket. If we were lucky the entire string would suddenly burst into bright primary colors. Dad would survey each string; directing us to change the color scheme here and there, while Mom would admonish us not to melt the carpet with the hot bulbs. Then bundled up against the December cold we’d carry the strings outside and feed them up the ladder to Dad. He’d clip them to the gutters, run them along the roof peak and edges, then down the wrought iron porch supports. We’d have to wait for dusk when Mom would finally flip on the porch light switch while Dad and his boys stood across the street to admire their work.

One evening during the next week we’d all scramble into the station wagon to begin the pursuit for the perfect pine. It usually ended in the old Ward’s parking lot in Lakeside. Once discovered the tree was tied to the roof of the car for the quick trip home. Dad would cut the trunk and set it in a bucket of water on the back porch while Mom fretted over which corner of the living room would be the best place for it. After the usual struggle to get the tree to stand straight while showing its best side, the routine to get the light strings ready was repeated. Eventually they were wound around the tree spiraling down from the top. Appearing from tissue paper wrappings a dozen or so special lights would be added to the strings. Delicate blown glass bubblers of various colors, painted shapes of Santa and Mrs. Claus and my favorite; a painted plastic reindeer with a glowing red nose were placed in prominent positions, replacing their more common counterparts. Then it was Mom’s turn to direct the placement of the glass ornaments; orbs of shiny red, green, gold and silver. Finally she would scattered around the tree a number of family “heirlooms” – simple colored construction paper pasted shapes of trees, stars and wreaths. Some were not as recognizable as others, all the result of young hands in celebration of the holiday. Handfuls of silvery tinsel were randomly tossed among the branches soon to be rearranged to meet my mother’s satisfaction. Last to go on the tree was the topper; a spire of clear leaded glass with a star at its apex, lit from the base. Ceremoniously lighting the tree after dinner we’d all enjoy a cup of hot chocolate with melted mini-marshmallow topping while listening to Christmas carols on the stereo.

Also adding to the excitement was the traditional Saturday baking day. The kitchen would be filled with cooks and their assistants. Assorted aunts and cousins would arrive with grocery bags, cookie sheets, presses and cutters of various shapes and sizes. Eventually there would be dozens and dozens of cookies laid out across the kitchen table; some waiting for young hands to coat with colorful frosting or sugar. The aromas of anise, almond, hot oil and heated metal filled the house. Stacks of pizzelles cooling on racks along with amaretti, canestrelli, biscotti and other Italian delights replaced Santa Claus faces and pressed cookie wreaths. After what seemed like thousands of pans, bowls and utensils were washed and dried they started on dinner. The sugary sweet smells were overcome by the savory and spicy smells of an Italian dinner. Usually there was an assortment of lasagna, ravioli, spaghetti, meatballs, sausage and freshly baked bread. And there was the chance for a small glass of homemade Chianti provided by one of my uncles.

On Christmas morning my twin brother and I would race each other down the hall, anxiously surveying the colorfully wrapped packages that were laid out under the tree, knowing that we couldn’t touch anything until Grandma arrived. Then there was the anticipation of watching for my Dad’s reaction to the small gift that I had struggled to find for him. After days of searching for just the right present I always hoped that it would bring a smile to his face and a punch to my shoulder – his way of giving you a hug. The afternoon brought the usual faire of turkey with all the trimmings, grandma’s gravy – the best ever, and a chance to skim a spoonful marshmallows off the top of the sweet potatoes before they were all gone.

One of my favorite authors wrote, “What if Christmas… doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?" I can’t remember much about the gifts of those Christmases, but I do recall the richness of the feelings and the blessings we enjoyed.

May you all have a Christmas to remember, full of generosity, peace and love.

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