While browsing the pages of Downhome Magazine last night, I noticed the theme “Memories of Christmas Past” emerge in many of the articles. That got me to thinking about my own Christmas memories and I posed this question to myself: “What is my most pleasant memory of Christmas?” Ask yourself that question right now. Don’t over-think it. What is the first thing that comes to your mind? You might be surprised at how some seemingly insignificant things hold a special place in your heart.
Like many of you, in response to this question, my mind was flooded with images of my childhood Christmases. Unlike today, when toy elves and angels are vying for space on store shelves alongside of skeletons and Draculas, back in the day, there was literally no sign of Christmas until…..brace yourself for this one….DECEMBER! The first inkling that Christmas was around the corner in our home was the checking of the tree lights.
A few weeks before Christmas each year, my parents would take out the box (yes, one box) of Christmas decorations from storage, and plug in the strings of multi-colored lights to check for burned out bulbs. It wasn’t hard to figure out if there was a burned out one in the set, since one going caused the whole set to go out. Finding the offending bulb was the problem, but we children thoroughly enjoyed watching our parents go through the painstaking task of replacing bulb after bulb until the whole set lit up. (We could almost hear the Alleluia Chorus play when they finally did light up!)
These days, it is not unusual for families to put up their perfectly decorated and themed Christmas tree in November. Back in the day, however, if someone had their tree up on December 22, they were thought to be jumping the gun on the season! In our home, the tree usually went up on the 23rd, but for many families, it was a Christmas Eve tradition. Dad would drag the freshly cut tree into the house in the afternoon and set it in the corner. Then after supper, the whole family would pitch in with the decorating, always starting with the lights, next the glass balls and hand made ornaments, followed by the glittering garland and silver tinsel, and ending with the star or angel on top. These days we buy artificial Christmas tree scent by the tin, but nothing can beat the whiff that would delight our senses when the red-hot tree lights warmed the branches of the evergreen.
Let’s face it, for kids these days, every day is Christmas! New toys, books, and treats are things our children take for granted. Back in my day however, Christmas was such a special time because that is the ONLY time we got those things. Unlike some of the families in our small town, my four sisters and I were very fortunate to find a couple of toys each under the tree, and our stockings were always filled with treats of fruit and candy. (By stocking, I mean my father’s wool socks.) To this day when I eat a grape, I almost get the after-taste of wool, because those stocking grapes were the only ones we got for the year. In fact, in rural Newfoundland, that was perhaps the only time of year that grapes could be found in the store! I don’t know of any children these days who would consider fruit a treat (for many kids, it is more likely considered compost).
I am sure many of you as well, recall the “Little Golden Books” that we would get as gifts at Christmas, my favorite being “The Littlest Angel”. These days, kids have literally hundreds, even thousands of books at their fingertips. In my childhood books were a rare treat, and having a story book read to us by mom on Christmas Eve, as we gathered around in our new flannel nightgowns, was another Christmas delight.
These are a few of my favorite Christmas memories, but it surprised me that neither of these was the first thing that popped into my mind when I posed the question: “What is my most pleasant memory of Christmas?” What actually first came to mind for me was the annual school Christmas concert. Starting in early December, hordes of volunteers would stay after school, projecting images traced from Christmas coloring books onto large sheets of Bristol board, then painting them to decorate the walls of the gymnasium. On concert night, the gym would be magically transformed by images of snowmen, Christmas trees, Santa, and children skating on ponds, so that we felt as if we were in our very own winter wonderland. Parents watched with bated breaths as their little ones walked onto the stage to recite their lines. To see their proud faces, you wouldn’t know but their child was giving an Oscar winning performance (best supporting actress in the role of the third elf goes to……)! But the best part of the Christmas concert, was the very last act of the night: the Nativity scene. To be chosen to play Mary was an honor in my small community, and the townspeople would sometimes get vocal if they were not in agreement with the Nun’s choice: “Well, of all the nerve! Trying to pass Betsy Smith off as a virgin, when my little Phoebe would have made the perfect Virgin Mary!” The boys would be decked out in their grandfather’s robes, with a tea towel draped over their heads, while the girls donned large angel wings, trimmed with silver garland and a matching halo. This is my most pleasant Christmas memory: Captivated by the Nativity, as the sweet melody of children’s voices singing “Silent Night” echoed through the room, I felt myself experience for the first time, a most pleasant feeling; a feeling that I have come to know as “The Christmas Spirit.”
The Christmas Spirit is more elusive to me these days, but every now and again it will fill me with its essence. It could be brought on by hearing “Snoopy’s Christmas” on the radio, smelling a real Christmas tree, baking cookies with my kids, or by drinking a glass of Purity syrup (a traditional Christmas drink in Newfoundland). When the Christmas Spirit hits, it is as if I am transported back in time to those magical Christmas days gone by.
I see so many posts on Facebook lately about the true meaning of Christmas, and there seems to be a consensus that it is all about time spent with family. Well, if that is the case, then when I was a kid, every day REALLY was Christmas! Families ate together, played board games together, went on picnics on warm summer days with 50 cousins, swam in the brook, watched Walt Disney on Sunday evenings, and sat around the woodstove to listen to their grandparents tell ghost stories and sing tragic songs with a hundred verses. Visiting with family and friends was not reserved for the Christmas season, it was an everyday thing. I guess in the same way that kids these days take new toys and candy for granted, we probably took those special family times together for granted. So while the true meaning of Christmas in the modern sense may be time spent with family, for me, it will always be that Christmas Spirit feeling brought on by Little Golden Books, a fresh cut Christmas tree, a bowl of hard satin mix candy, new flannel nightgowns, and the Christmas concert!
I would love to hear YOUR favorite memory of Christmas!