Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas past

Christmas 1956, that’s me on the right.  I was 6 years old.

I’ve been thinking about doing a Christmas post, but as I’ve mentioned, it’s not a holiday that I celebrate now and most of my memories of those days are not happy ones, but when I was a little girl I loved Christmas as all little children do, those who are raised up in a Christian religion.  I especially loved the Christmas tree and the outdoor lights.  Back then, people used the big colored lights.  They would line their roofs, outline the windows, fashion stars, put them in the trees.  Some people would go monochromatic...all red or green or all blue  but never did you see all white because those big outdoor lights didn’t come in white.  We would put up outdoor lights and my parents always covered the front door as if it were wrapped up like a present.

My favorite Christmas activity though, back in the 50s, was buying and putting up the Christmas tree.  When I was a kid, trees were not sold at the grocery store.  Vacant lots would all of a sudden become forests, with the trees of all sizes and shapes and kinds set out in rows supported by stakes.  Other trees would be wrapped in twine and piled up.  My dad would take us kids out to help pick a tree.  We would run up and down between the rows of trees looking for the perfect one.  My dad would always buy a big tree, often taller than the ceiling so that it had to be trimmed down.

We would look at dozens of trees, we would make the attendant unwrap and shake out trees, we would look for holes, make sure it was balanced because this was before the modern tree farm where the trees are shaped into a perfect cone from sapling to maturity.  Now they are too artificial, too perfectly shaped, not a hole or errant branch to be seen, all identical twins so it doesn’t matter which tree you pick.

Finally, though, the tree would be chosen and tied to the top of the station wagon and off we would go.  We weren’t allowed to put it up right away though.  When we got it home, my father would cut several inches off the bottom of the trunk and put it in a bucket of sugar water for a week.

The next week, the rituals of hauling stuff out of the attic, the untangling of the lights, the unwrapping of the ornaments would ensue and we would decorate the tree.  Finally, my mother’s foil star and my father’s foil garland (remnants of their first tree) were put on and the ‘placing’ of the tinsel (we were not allowed to throw it onto the tree) could begin.  In the days to come, I would often sneak into the living room after everyone was in bed and turn on the lights and just sit in the dark and look at the tree.

Christmas Eve would come and that is the night we had our Christmas dinner.  It was a formal affair at our house using the china and crystal and so we dressed accordingly, my father in his tux with his red cummerbund, bow-tie and socks; my mother in her evening gown and us kids dressed in our fanciest clothes.  I always thought my mother was so beautiful then.  One year when I was about 6 or 7 I asked as we sat down to dinner if it was Jesus’ birthday, why we didn’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’.  My mother thought this was so cute, she made us all sing Happy Birthday to Jesus.  And much to my later embarrassment, she did it every year thereafter.

Those were happy days then but they only lasted about a decade.  Somewhere around my 12th year, things changed and there was no more happiness in our house.  Seems the husband half of my parents' best friends was having an affair and when his wife found out, he named my mother as the other woman.  My mother, of course, claimed innocence, said he accused her because she had already known about the affair but no other woman, as far as I know, was ever named.  After that as the years went by, my father got angrier and bitter, my mother got depressed and totally self centered.  

Christmas would come but there was less and less joy in it.  Our family dinners morphed into some unreal expectation of simpering family togetherness.  No high spirited conversations allowed, no disagreements allowed, no loud voices allowed, no fun allowed.  As we got older, we kids began to dread Christmas Eve dinner.

Christmas Day was not always a whole lot better.  Of course we loved opening all our presents, would be excited about our gifts but after all was opened and my mother would be surrounded with gifts, 2 and 3 times the amount anyone else got, the inevitable depression would set in because she never got the one gift she wanted.  She would look at all that stuff and sigh because all she had wanted was a plain white slip and no one had got it for her.  My mother could squash happiness in our house faster than light.

I tried for many years to find the perfect gift for my mother, the one that would make her happy.  We all did, and we all failed.  I finally gave up.  Us kids grew up, married, had kids of our own.  I had grown away from Christian theology by the time I was 20 and left Christmas behind.  We still gathered as a family for Christmas Eve dinner every year but eventually both my brother and sister moved out of state and my sister’s grown kids followed her.  My parents were left with the non-Christian child and that was the end of Christmas Eve dinner.  

I didn’t miss it, had long ago stopped celebrating Christmas, but it was still a little strange, that first Christmas Eve that I spent at home, my own children grown, the first time in my life that I had not spent it with at least some members of my birth family.

PS...I’ve probably made this seem a bit more grim than it actually was.  Once we grew up and my mother no longer hosted the dinner, having passed the responsibility on to my older sister, there was a whole lot more fun.  And after I left home and had my family, I made lots of good and fun memories for this time of year, but Christmas was never a part of it at our house.  

I don't usually remember all that stuff but this is the first year that I have had a blog, that I started reading blogs and all those postings about Christmas and memories sort of dredged it all up I suppose.  

It's not a happier time of year for me, in fact scrooge-like, I tend to find it a bit hypocritical.  But neither is it a sad time for me.  Mostly, all the obligations of the season just make it hard for me to get my work done.  I'm very happy for others, though, who get so much out of it.  And it is nice to know that I have family and friends who love me and want to include me in their lives and I want to have them in mine.


  1. Oh Ellen, such a pity that this time of year unlocks memories like this. I hope that, even if Christmas is no happier than any other day, it's also no longer any sadder.

  2. Um...happy 25th of December, then, my friend.

    This reads like a Russian novel. Then again, I like Russian novels!

  3. This is such a beautiful post. I love it when anyone can let go of fantasies, of the PR version of their family stories, and just tell the unvarnished truth.

    I love it that your story isn't sentimental or self pitying or the happy PR version. It's just real.

    I salute you! Bravo!! Happy Christmas friend. Thank you.

  4. We should talk. I think we had the same Mother. I love my Mom, no question, but I have more pictures in my photo albums of tear stained faces on holidays/birthdays than I can count.

    I said to her the other day "I am finally learning to love Christmas" and she replied "Really? We always gave you what you asked for." And I responded "No, you really didn't." She understood and actually apologized.

    So I understand. I do it mostly for my kids and Pooldad. It is worth it. It is such fun to see their happiness. Something we tiptoed around when I was a kid - my Mom was your Mom, I think. And Dad? Scrooge.

    I hope you have a peaceful and fun day, 'kay? And I am always around should you want to chat. I think we can relate. Nice post Ellen. Take care.

  5. Memories, precious memories. Holidays rarely live up to expectations. I learned after driving myself crazy (literally... in a locked room on a psych ward) to just let things happen. I care little for appearances and find it amusing when I see someone (my SIL) try so hard to fit that mold of the perfect family.

    I guess I am still a little miffed at her. Today is wonderful. I have talked to all my children and I am baking cookies and treats for my husband (at work) and tonight we will watch TV and enjoy the snow falling around us while the fire warms our toes (no chestnuts).

    Wishing you a peace filled day, a full tummy and a happy heart!

  6. Thank you for sharing this, it took a lot of intestinal fortitude.

    Every one's life is not singing Jingle Bells around a tree loaded with presents.

    You, perphaps, have shown the true meaning of Christmas, the feelings we have in our heart.

    All of our joys and our sorrows add up to what we are today. You, my dear, are one incredible lady.

    Thank you for allowing me to get to know you.

  7. I second what Gail said. And Mr, London's last line.
    I am glad you wrote the post, I think it's good to get that stuff "on the page" so to speak.

    I am wondering, since you have kids and grandkids, what happens, if anything at this time of year.

    Sending warm thoughts your way... it's chilly here.

  8. Reya, yes there's not a whole lot of emotion attached to those memories any more. It's just part of what formed me. And where it wasn't stellar, it was a good deal better than many people have. And it it was a lifetime ago.

    Kathy, it's great letting go isn't it? Very freeing. And thank you for your blessings. Life is good.

    And Mr. London Street, not sad, done with sad.

  9. I appreciate your honesty, even though I come from a different place. I actually sort of envy where you are right now (well, I still believe in the reason for the season & all LOL). But Christmas is a BIG DEAL around here. Unfortunately, my mother was the heart & soul of it (not the baby Jesus, sadly), so when she died it took the wind out of our sails. I have wished many times since then that Dr. M & I could just say home & go to our own church & just absorb the true meaning of the holiday - & then come visit our families in March or something when things aren't so insane. Not gonna happen anytime soon. Sigh.

  10. Thanks for sharing your story. It's a shame that something so lovely took such a turn. Once we become parents we are responsible for our kids' memories. All of this helps shape what kind of memories those will be. I suspect your kids have mostly good ones.

    Wishing you all the best for the New Year.

  11. It takes a lot of courage to walk to the beat of a different drummer - I applaud you for sticking to what is right for you. I don't celebrate Christmas as a religious observance - it is totally a secular one for us. A way of creating special family time and memories and pleasing all the little ones in the family.

    I have a friend who refuses to get caught up in Christmas and either goes to the Caribbean or skiing. Thank goodness for the freedom to choose our own way!

  12. Miss Ellen! 1st I LOVE the photo! Dejevu!
    2nd although my life and beliefs are different I appauld you for writing about your memories & sharing such a part of you. Blogging is very healing. I hope you find it as validating as I do. Love to you & Happy New Year!

  13. Well, I can certainly understand why this time of year would dredge up unhappy and uncomfortable feelings.

    I have to say though, I love the picture. So cute!


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