Many of us are struck with some seasonal melancholia during this season. SO many Christmases past fill our hearts and minds. I know it is a natural part of life as it reflects the supercharged emotions of the season and also reflects the progression of life. My own prayer and desire is to remember the joyous times and to cherish them.
Dear Lord, please help me to remember the joy, the laughter and all the fun of a child’s face, as far back as when it was my own. I remember the lights and Christmas music of Christmas Eve at our house while my Mom and Dad, three sisters and I gathered around the family table, later in the living room around our tree and felt the magic of that sacred day. Long silver foil icicles hung all over the tree, draping to the floor as the lights were reflected off of them giving the tree a mystical quality.
Mom’s favorite cookies lined in a row on a tray with the Snoball cookies all dusted with powdered sugar and stuffed with pecans sitting next to the Kindergarten bars sweet with dates, brown sugar and oats with nuts. I recall we named them that because the recipe was given to my Mom by my Kindergarten teacher. There was always chocolate fudge made from the See’s candy company recipe. I recall my Dad always had the crack the nut detail as he pounded on them with a hammer each year; equal parts fresh walnut and red pecans. I recall my Mom always admonishing him, but not too hard lest he stop doing the job. “Bill, be careful, you’re getting shells all over the floor.” He continued to pound away. Mom always had a new cookie of the year and one year it was thumbprint cookies, rich with butter, rolled into balls, dipped in beaten egg white, rolled in chopped nuts then placed on a buttered cookie sheet where you then put a finger in the top of them to make a hole. After baking she would fill the hole with jelly, bright and cheerful. One year she happened onto a delicious recipe for Cherry Bourbon cake. It was not only delicious but hilarious as she went to the liquor store each year and frightened someone from the Baptist church would see her, always explained to the man behind the counter she was buying it to make cake. Now that I think of it, that was a lot of bourbon for a few cakes, but she went every year. I wonder now who was dipping into the bourbon in our tea-totaling family? There was always that event when my Dad would take over the kitchen to make his famous Tomato Soup French salad dressing. During the war my Dad had worked at a factory during the day and moonlighted at a restaurant where he cooked. That salad dressing was so delicious and the whole kitchen seemed to have a bit of it displayed. We had jars of it for weeks.
I recall the year my older, teen-aged sisters volunteered me to sing Away in a Manger at our church and I had to have my usual braided hair curled with hard metal rollers which one slept on all night. I had to wear a choir robe that was much too large for me and have a fake halo on my head; of course, guess I couldn’t find my real one…looked all over for it. Nope not now or then. I was so frightened the words caught in my very dry throat. Our large church auditorium was filled and beautifully resonated Christmas carols all over the main floor and the balcony with music and Christmas wonder. My piano teacher played an enormous organ which caused the floor and the balcony to rumble with the bass tones.
I remember the privilege of going shopping alone with my Dad as he shopped for my Mom and my sisters. I remember Mom’s joy the year he gave her a diamond engagement ring to go with her very thin wedding band she had worn for many years. It felt so very grand.
I recall the early morning frost and my sisters who wore many ruffled petticoats under their skirts complaining about all the soot that sullied those petticoats from the smudge pots they lit in the groves of orange trees years around our house. In southern California, before they had wind machines to hamper the frost, oil burning smudge pots were lit to keep the oranges, lemons and grapefruit from freezing in the wintertime.
I sadly remember the year I was-eleven-years old and had to spend most of the year in bed due to rheumatic fever. Bedrest was the only answer for that particular disease at that time. Every Friday afternoon my Dad would carry me to the Chevy where I would lie in the back seat while my Dad, Mom with us, drove to the doctor’s office parking lot where a kind nurse drew blood from my arm. Christmas that year I got to spend on the couch and felt so privileged to escape my bedroom. My sisters must have resented me terribly because the only TV in the house was placed in my bedroom. One of my sisters who was in nursing school at that time in Los Angeles confessed to me years later it was hard for her to be around sick people all week and come home to more sickness on her breaks. I had a kind home teacher and looked forward to her visits, not wanting to get behind my fellow classmates when I returned to school. I recall so many kind people in our town who would drop by to say hi and to cheer me up but I still felt different, maimed in some way and set apart. I do think that is when the idea of becoming a nurse was planted.
I lovingly remember the years when my children were tiny and the joy and laughter of sharing the holidays with them, a house full of relatives eating and talking, a plethora of food on the dining room table.
The first Christmas after my divorce, my children and I were alone because my parents had to take a turn with one of my sister’s families in another part of the state. My small children and I invited another single mom friend over and we shared our dinner and had great fun with a piñata I had bought for the holiday. The kids practically beheaded each other as they whacked away at it and hard candy spilled all over the floor in the hallway, because it was the safest place to hang it.
Money was scarce and we always made the ornaments and garland for our fresh Christmas trees. I found some beautiful patterns for sugar cookie cut-outs and used those for many years. The cut-out soft cardboard forms of elephants, giraffes and other animals, as well as a fat Santa were so beautiful. It wasn’t easy to cut out the shapes on the rolled-out cookie dough, carefully using a table knife to make the shapes come forth. We painted the baked cookies with frosting and strung them with twine for the tree. I think I still have those patterns around here somewhere and am certain they are covered with buttery fingerprints and flour. We also glued small Styrofoam balls into ice cream cones and strung them for the tree. If we wanted them to look like a particular flavor of ice cream, we painted them that color. Of course, we made paper chains out of construction paper, made a mess of trying to string drippy cranberries and excelled at stringing popcorn. I used to buy a very special popcorn that was only available at Knott’s Berry Farm which was a few miles from us in S. California. It was huge when it was popped and easier to string. It was also delicious as a treat while we were stringing it.
Like most of you, the cycle of life moved us forward as I went to nursing school as a single mom, later married my dear Jim and worked while my kids grew into adults we could be proud of. They insisted for years on the traditions we later established like homemade cheese ball, lemon bars, strudel, Mom’s Snoball cookies, and my homemade fruitcake. Hey, don’t knock fruitcake until you’ve had mine. I’ve tried to base it on one my Dad bought every year from the Helms bakery in S. California. They had a truck and would drive through the neighborhoods. They could always count on Dad to buy cream puffs and a holiday fruitcake rich with candied cherries, pineapple, nuts and raisins.
Now my children are grown and establishing traditions with their own families and it is a wonderful thing to observe. Each generation brings in their own tastes, ideas and favorites while embracing what they enjoy and remember from the past.
Illnesses, tragedies and loss also fill many of the memories yet they are a part of who we are. They are us. May we embrace the struggles, the triumphs, the ongoing challenges and remember the blessed, the humorous and all those happy memories. May we file away the sad and dark memories and forgive those who were responsible for them.
Loved ones now gone are remembered, often with a tear in the eye and an aching in the heart as a tribute to the lives they lived, those of us they loved and the memories they left in our hearts. Please enjoy your Christmas and Holy days with your own memories and traditions and know that we are all part of a family as our bodies, our lives and our families grow and change. My special Christmas wish for you is to embrace life as you find it, improve what can be improved, grieve for that which is lost and move on. Change can be a blessed gift if we embrace it and look to the future while remembering and cherishing the past.