When we were growing up, preparations for Christmas began just as soon as the Thanksgiving holiday ended. Our Mom, with the kind of disciplined effort that would put Martha Stewart to shame, turned the house into our very own Santa’s workshop and the kitchen became her bakery. Bags of flour and sugar appeared, along with chopped walnuts and almonds, chocolate and multi-colored sprinkles, candied cherries, Hershey kisses and seemingly endless supplies of butter and vanilla extract – some of which ended up on her apron, her face and in her hair. She was a woman on a mission and we knew better than to get in her way. The end result was hundreds of cookies and dozens of loaves of Bishop’s bread, a kind of fruitcake – not like that Claxton stuff, that was designed to be re-gifted for decades and end up as a door stop – but a delicious mixture of dates, cherries, chocolate chips and nuts. The cookies came in assorted varieties – snowballs, thumb prints, almond and rum balls, dusted with cocoa and powdered sugar, or rolled in walnuts. There were some that came color coded, with the icing serving as the key to what was inside before you took a bite.
Not all of those morsels were meant for us, of course. Dozens of Christmas tins were filled with cookies, carefully layered for maximum eye appeal, each one placed in its’ own holly-printed paper. The tins were to be delivered as gifts for close friends and family and our school teachers. If you were among those who were truly special to our family, a loaf of that Bishop’s bread was added – Mom’s way of telling you how much you were loved. I still believe that the cookie tins meant for our teachers were strategically scheduled to be given right before report cards came out, just in case there was any question about what grades or comments we, well I, could anticipate – I’m the middle child and the runt, so that might explain a lot of things. What I do know is that the recipients of these tins accepted them as if they’d been handed a winning lottery ticket.
Then there was the Christmas tree selection. Sometimes it was purchased at the local fire house, where the firemen wore Santa hats and handed out cups of hot chocolate while we browsed amid a forest of freshly cut Douglas Fir and Blue Spruce trees. Having found the perfect one, it was tied to the roof of the family car, ready to be put into a pan of water and decorated by all of us.
I do remember a couple of years when the tree was an odd silver, sculpture-like thing. It had to be assembled and a color wheel was pointed at it, turning it from red to yellow to blue to green. I think it also served as part weapon, part security device, because if you walked across the living room carpet and brushed against it, that metal monster delivered a shock that made you think twice before attempting to get close to the wrapped packages again. The color wheel was okay, though, and we used it to cast shadows on the walls while we performed our own hand-puppet shows in front of its rotating lights.
It didn’t stop there. Mom had more to do, and she set about, writing dozens of greetings and going through boxes of Christmas cards, armed with her book of names and addresses. Wreaths were hung, electric candles were placed in windows, the Nativity scene was placed on the mantle, and, late at night, the sound of packages being wrapped could be heard from behind the door to a room that didn’t need to be marked “Do Not Enter”. I guess we were still young enough to believe that even the elves couldn’t do everything and Moms were enlisted to help with the presents. Nearly every step in this process was accompanied by Christmas music coming from the radio or a record player or our piano. Mom’s favorite carol was “Little Drummer Boy”. It’s become mine, too, and I think about her every time I hear it. Here it is, by the Harry Simeone Chorale – the version I grew up with, and still think is the best one.
By the time Christmas Eve arrived, we were beyond mere excitement, and to quell some of that pent-up energy, we were allowed to open one present a piece. We could choose which wrapped box we wanted to open, so it became a matter of which one looked the most appealing – sometimes it was a new pair of pajamas, and sometimes, if you chose wisely and well, it was the very one you most wanted from Santa. After getting some sleep, my brother, my sister and I awakened on Christmas morning to find stockings chock full of games and books, carefully chosen to keep us busy and give our parents a few more minutes of sleep before the even bigger event. We attended Mass, came home for breakfast and then descended on all of those packages we’d been keeping a very close watch over. More often than not, Santa had lived up to his promise and rewarded us for being reasonably good children. The only time I thought that there had been a mistake was the year I tore open some wrapping paper and found my first bra. The box clearly stated it was a training bra, and, to this day, I have no idea what this girly undergarment was supposed to train. Nevertheless, I took it as a betrayal, perpetrated by my own mother, who, from the perspective of my 12-year-old mind, obviously wanted nothing more than to humiliate me in front of my Dad and older brother. It didn’t occur to me until much later that I drew more attention to it, and myself, with all of my junior high school girl histrionics and caterwauling. Perhaps, in retrospect, a simple “thank you” would have been a better course of action.
Now, a half century later, my siblings and I, together with our spouses, have become the elders of the family. Our children aren’t children any more, and they’re raising families of their own, pursuing careers and going to college. Three generations are spread over six States, making family gatherings around one giant table next to impossible. We celebrate the traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah, and new memories are being made. We gather together on cell phones and through the magic of Skype, watching grandchildren open gifts, hundreds of miles away. It’s not the most perfect way to celebrate the holidays, but the smiles and stories we share seem to make up for the distance. We’re still a family, and we’re still bound together by all of the memories – old and new.
In this Season of miracles, may all of your holiday wishes come true and all of your memories be good ones.
Now, don’t wake the little ones – visions of Beggin’ Strips are dancin’ through their heads.
Merry Christmas, from all of us here at The Farm,