My mother adored Christmas. She set up in the rec room in December, wrapping presents that I suppose you’d hate to open if you were older and less greedy than I, hungry for gifts as if they were proof of love. Beautiful papers and ribbons, festooned with all kinds of charms and tiny ornaments. We each got a small gift from Neiman Marcus, bought only for their fancy wrapping and toys attached to the ribbons. You had five choices in those days. I looked at the catalogue, lusting after each attached wooden toy.
Christmas Eve was our big night and my favorite moment of the year. I lived in a sea of indulgences, counting the presents under the tree over and over. Had to be sure my siblings got no more than I did. But I longed for the promise the Christmas story imparted. Baby Jesus’ birth, looked over by parents, lowing cows, shepherds, the Three Wise Men, and, best of all, the star in the East. Anything could happen, the world was at peace, we were at song, and all was well. Star of wonder indeed.
It was a raucous Christmas Eve. I hated champagne, but we were allowed to drink, so I had to sip it. Salted pecans and black olives were my favorite snacks, set out in silver scallop-shell dishes, one of which I still have. Best of all, the bayberry candle, a pillar. Letting it burn to the end gave you a year of good luck; the reverse if you blew it out. Years later, I learned that it was blown out behind my back and that the rest of the family was in on that. On this day, I do not let the bayberry go out, putting it in the bathtub for the night. I heard that was unwise, so now I buy votive size.
We all opened stockings on Christmas Eve. I still have mine, knitted by Aunt Jan, covered in charms, the most striking a tiny pack of Camel cigarettes. If a real party was in progress, the grownups got jokes in theirs. Mother made a special trip to Johnson Smith Company, sort of an early Archie McPhee specializing in “dirty” jokes. A little viewer featuring a peep show and a smudgy black eye when you were done. Oh, we laughed.
Dinner was always a giant turkey with stuffing, giblet gravy, and the rest. Dessert was often plum pudding with hard sauce. I loved the hard sauce and left the pudding.
Once we went to bed and all was quiet, the parents, pretty drunk by then, brought down all the ornaments from the attic and spent half the night trimming the tree with giant globes and other treasures. Mother made trips to Chicago (from Detroit) to buy them at Marshall Field. They also hauled out the 20-foot board with train tracks, used only at Christmas. We were forbidden to come downstairs until the train tooted as it rounded the bend.
It was all downhill from there. On Christmas Day, the parents were sleep-deprived and hung over, bravely sipping more champagne. I opened my presents until there were no more, and wondered: Is that all there is?
Photo by iampeas via Flickr.