12.18.2009

"Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose . . ." Kevin Arnold


Growing up my family did Christmas in quite a big way, mainly I suppose because we lived in such a big house.

There was the year of 7 Christmas trees, for instance -- 6 smaller ones parading down the long dark hall, each dressed in its own color, with the big tree in the receiving area. My mother preferred flocked trees, which were usually delivered due to their enormous size. But on at least one occasion, we loaded the tree into the convertible and drove home in our parkas.

She had no qualms about experimenting with interesting color. I can recall salmon flocking and maroon flocking, to name a few. And the ornaments also varied from year to year depending on her whim. For the Bicentennial in 1976, I remember a white tree with red lights and blue ornaments, puncutated with large flag-striped bows. Every package in the sea of gifts was wrapped in white paper and tied with the same red, white and blue striped ribbon.

One year we participated in a charity "Christmas Home Tour" and an army of decorators took over the various rooms on the main floor. In the living room, I remember a full-size antique sleigh and a tree tied with bunches of heather and decorated with, among other things, a cello. It was a huge fresh tree, and smelled just like you'd imagine a tree decorated with heather and a cello would smell. Heaven.

There was singing around the grand piano, or an evening medley of carols wafting up the long hall from the full-size organ. Some years there was a caroling party, which due to several professionals in the family was impressive and a true pleasure. We invited other musical families as well and strolled through our lovely old neighborhood, spilling perfect four-part harmony across snowy lawns. Laughing and unruly, we were always somehow immediately under the direction of my mother's expertise once the doorbell was rung.

Our family didn't have a lot of traditions, aside from a grand Christmas eve dinner and Christmas morning breakfast in the dining room. The dining room was simply splendid -- an old oil-painted mural encircled the room in a depiction of "The Search for the Holy Grail", painted by an itinerant artist when the home was built in 1929. I believe it was probably that oil paint which gave the room its unique smell.

The ceiling was gridded with heavy wood beams, the walls dressed halfway in dark, richly carved wainscoting. There was a large marble fireplace of a faint mustard color, with a mantle that stretched to the ceiling. Sam, our suit of armor, presided from the corner. And the dining room set was a massive old beauty with tapestry upholstery -- a very similar style to the one at Hearst's Castle, in fact.

But we children had a few odd traditions of our own. The first was a Christmas Eve bed party, always held on my older sister's bed, which consisted of a pillow fight, "rocket rides" from her couch to the bed, and finally a "King of Bunker Hill" grudge match in which we all started on the bed and kicked at each other until we flew off one-by-one onto the floor, with only the "King" remaining (I was always kicked off immediately, by the way, puny and timid as I was.) We each had our own "theme noise" as we plowed into each other, a strange amalgam of grunts and music. Once my sister got married, her husband was reluctant to let her participate and our bed parties slowly died out.

In the pre-remodeling basement was an enormous room with a concrete floor, on which we staged our own "Christmas Eve on Ice" type spectacular. This consisted of a variety of feats performed on roller skates and with hoola hoops. We were dressed up in ready-made costumes, due to my mother conveniently providing us with matching Christmas Eve attire.

Christmas Eve, 1972

My older sister, who could skate backwards, of course garnered the most applause from the assembled grandparents. I marveled at her skill.

On Christmas morning an enormous fire roared behind the heavy-screened gates of the soaring living room fireplace, devouring mountains of wrapping paper. As we assembled our gifts into individual "displays," Grandma Myrl assembled her cinnamon rolls on a platter in the dining room.

That house was at its best
during Christmas.



Perhaps because Christmas loomed so large in my childhood memory, I tried hard as a mother to recapture some of the magic and majesty of those celebrations. Though we moved a lot, we carried a houseful of traditions with us.

We always had a splendid tree which required several days to decorate. Once a visitor to our home asked if we really decorated that tree every year, suggesting that we might be wiser to wrap it in cellophane and store it somewhere. We also had a more diminutive tree, which I dressed only in my collection of antique ornaments and oddities.

Then there was the nativity display -- well over fifty creches from around the world, set up in a towering lighted panorama in the living room, for which we held an open house every year so people could enjoy celebrating Christ's birth as it has been depicted around the globe.

As my children have become adults, I've gotten busier with my career and it has now been several years since we celebrated what Hannah would call "a real Christmas, with EVERYTHING!"

I felt bad about that for the first few years, but I'm slowly adjusting to just one tree, a sprinkling of nativities, and most importantly, time spent with my favorite people in the world.


That's the real gift, after all, and I've already supplied them with the kinds of memories that have been my own life-long Christmas companion, and for which I am truly indebted to the adults in my childhood world.

They gave me a gift that has only improved over time, and one which I continue to cherish as the Decembers of my life spin past with hectic and ever-increasing speed.

4 comments:

Amelia and Justin said...

Mmmm...I love it. What a beautiful description of your childhood Christmases.

This year my mom went all out and got every single thing out. It was very cool. In the last few years she has just kind of done a "luck of the draw" type thing, and only opened a few boxes. But, it was nice that she did it all - I missed it :)

whimseycreations said...

What a beautiful post! And such memories it brings back to me - my mom was a theme Christmas mom too. Flocked one year, a different color the next. The one I remember most is one my father made - he was a carpenter. She got this idea that she wanted a wood tree with handmade wood ornaments hanging down from the branches - kind of a feather tree style. My dad spent hours and hours on that tree and painted the ornaments. When they put it up, she decided she really didn't like it after all - it was just too 'out there' for her LOLOLOL I'm sure my father was crushed. As kids we LOVED that tree that year though. LOL Thanks for making me think of that today. Merry Christmas.

luanne said...

Having my kids all together here is the best part of Christmas, and something I know can't last forever, so I'm trying to really enjoy it and go with the flow.

You lived quite the large life in that fancy-manse of your childhood, with musicians and house tours and dining room murals! We lived in a small suburban ranch-style house after we left my grandma's, with just one tree (first a mod aluminum tree, then eventually a fake fir). The good/bad thing was that in such a small house, it was pretty easy to "accidentally" discover gifts in the closets or under the beds in the weeks before Christmas. But Santa got even once by giving the gift I wanted to one of my sisters. Lesson learned!

And finally, about those zanzy matching 1972 Christmas Eve outfits... now there's a future Small Works piece, just waiting to be born!

susan m hinckley said...

Amelia -- I wish I could have been at your mom's. It made me a little homesick to hear that she had everything out this year! So glad you got that little gift, extra special since you've moved away.

Jill -- I'm so intrigued by the tree your dad made. I wish I could have seen it! I hope you have pictures.

LuAnne -- I know, HOW ABOUT THOSE OUTFITS?! I picked that photo because I think those were the worst ever, although there were a couple of other lulus.

Someone in Grandma Myrl's family had an aluminum tree with the spinning light that changed its color -- I thought it was very cool. I love hearing other people's Christmas memories because everyone's are magical somehow, regardless of the details or circumstances.

Glad you're enjoying the flow . . . I'm trying to learn that lesson myself.

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