Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Memories

A comfortable, safe, fire-lit or candle-lit darkness.... Perhaps a faint, lingering remembrance of the sheltering, life sustaining environs of the womb.  Protected and cared for, warm and surrounded by love.  These are my early associations with Christmas.  Family traditions weaving a pattern of togetherness and belonging through the fabric of my life....  Like the rolling out and icing of sugar cookies that were cut into shapes of bells and stars, trees, angels and reindeer.  Forming the Mexican wedding cookie dough (my Dad's favorite) into crescents and smothering the fresh-baked partial moons in layers of powdered sugar while still warm. The small galley kitchen was a center for mother-daughter activity which included the production of fudge and cheese biscuit delicacies and small bread pans filled with sweet batters (strawberry and poppy seed) waiting for their day to be given as gifts to neighbors and friends.

Other than the one outing to the fir tree farm to cut our own holiday icon (which was an adventure); we typically searched the fire station lot diagonal from our home or the specially set up lot in the empty grassy plot by Ben Franklin and High's Ice Cream. Huge white bulbs hung from draping wires as we lifted one tree then another trying to agree upon which was the best.Then in a shower of needles and tumbling of branches the volunteer would stuff it in or strap it to the car; so we could bring it home.

There was always the event of my Dad trimming the bottom limbs and base of the tree in order to make what always turned out to be an awkward, twisted trunk fit into the stand.  We did have that one time when my Mom and Dad were out for a Christmas party and the tree tipped so dangerously that my sister had to stand precariously holding it for dear life while my brother telephoned some of our oldest family friends.  Mr. Gunter came right over to handle our tree emergency which if I recall correctly required a secure tether.  There was also that other time my parents were out and the front, wide bay windowsill caught on fire due to the large cylindrical candle and encircling holly, but all in all there were no serious decoration mishaps over the years.

My southern Mother has the gift of making a home truly welcoming and lovely for the holidays. Fresh greens: pine or holly with bright orangey-red berries or even magnolia draped along stair rails and mantels, around tall, thin Williamsburg candles and accented with stiff, full cloth ribbon bows. Between the smells of the kitchen, candle fragrance, cinnamon and clove bedecked pineapples, oranges or other fruit pyramids, flickering candles in the windows and Christmas tree lights, stockings hung and log fires; the house was magical.

We strung popcorn and cranberry chains, trying to eat less of the former than we put needle through; and watched seasonal specials like the stop-motion animation favorite "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," fearing the Abominable (well, I did anyway) and never knowing the snowman narrator was the famous Burle Ives. We loved the original "A Charlie Brown Christmas" with Vince Guaraldi's incredible jazz-piano compositions and Linus' indomitable wisdom beyond his years.  I read on Wiki that Coca-Cola was the original television sponsor for this show, but all I remember were those Peanuts' cameos in the Dolly Madison snack cake commercials.

Every December 24th we shared a special, formal Christmas meal with the above mentioned family friends at their house or ours; and then, bedecked in velvet and curls (not my brother - he wore a coat and tie), we piled into the station wagon or current family vehicle and drove to Trinity Presbyterian Church for their Christmas Eve service.  The purple and pink candles were re-lit on the Advent Wreath and the white Christ candle finally flickered and burned.  I loved sitting on the dark wooden balcony pew surrounded by family, hearing the Christmas Story re-told in parts interspersed with the familiar holiday carols. The sweetness of the story, the excitement and anticipation of what the next day held, and the novelty of being at church at an unusual time swirled comfortably around me.  Finally the expected passing of candle light.  Each of us holding our own small white candle, receiving light from the one beside us and passing it along.  It's wonderful to watch the beacons of light spread and prevade the darkness.  Then we sang "Silent Night" raising and lowering the candles in unison to the music and finally filing out of the building, some times to freezing cold or even delicate flurries of snow, we blew out the tiny flames and exchanged warm Christmas wishes before heading into the crisp, star-lit night.

Once home my sister and I, if we didn't first watch "A Christmas Carol" (of which I was mortally terrified), climbed the stairs; donned our matching floral flannel nightgowns with yokes and edges trimmed in eyelet lace; and got into the twin beds in the room we shared, but would one day be hers alone. The room had three windows and the headlights of passing cars traveled through them in an arc across the ceiling.  From the side window we had a fairly good view of the winter night sky and my brother and sister assured me repeatedly over the early years that they could make out Rudolph's nose from a distance through it.  This is irregardless of the fact that a traffic light also stood sentinel in that general direction. It was hard to go to sleep that night.

I guess you can tell, my memories are all sweet.  Even from the Christmas when I was sick.  Year after year one of my favorite things to do was to lay by the fireplace watching the flames and eventual glowing embers and experience the warmth surrounding me, inside and out.  I also loved to sneak into the dark living room and position myself underneath the glowing Christmas tree looking up through the branches at the myriad of twinkling, blinking lights.  Of course, I enjoyed the ever growing number of red and green wrapped and be-ribboned packages under the tree.  And at times we were allowed to choose one to open on Christmas Eve. But in my quiet heart, I loved and love still the primitive hand-carved wooden nativity from the Holyland settled in the candlelight and Christmas greens of the coffee table the best. I could sit there suspended in time and surrounded in the comforting darkness, looking at and touching the figures, because the Light of the whole world shone in my little girl world.  And Love had come.

 This is not my Mother's own nativity, but almost identical. Thank you to Avondale Patillo UMC for this photo from their church display.

Hope you have a wonderful, meaningful celebration of this special season!


  1. Lovely memories..... thanks for sharing them!

  2. Dear Steph,

    Your post sent me swirling back to my own childhood Christmas, so very like your own. Even the singing of Silent Night in the church lit only by our candle light. Have a blessed Christmas, and a kindly New Year.

    In friendship,



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