Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve: A Recollection

My parents put a lot of effort into Christmas, making it quite magical, particularly when I was very young, 4, 5 years old. They had a feel for tradition & theater. Fans of Norman Rockwell or Doctor Spock, read on.

Christmas Season started when dad stapled up the strings of colored lights around the front porch. A some point he added two funky giant candles he'd constructed out of cardboard cylinders, cellophane, & light fixtures. Everything he designed looked designed by a dad.. There were lots of decorations tacked or taped inside the house, & our one classy display, a beautiful creche set probably purchased at Woolworth's in the 1930's. When dad knocked an opening between the living room & a narrow "playroom" addition he built on the side of the house replacing a wraparound porch, it became a kind of stage complete with draw curtains, spotlights, cotton snow, figurines, & the nativity scene. It looked like we had family puppet shows. Over time, the Holy Family & Three Kings were joined by small wind up robots, plastic dinosaurs, & various H-O size train accessories. Mom was into baking Christmas cookies, some of them flavored with ashes from her Raleigh cigarettes. In my earliest years, the tree wasn't put up until late Christmas Eve after the four children were in bed. So Christmas Eve was more about anticipation & mystery. It's supposed to be about those things.

Mom made spaghetti for Christmas Eve supper, was fast & easy, & she'd be pretty busy for the next 24 hours. One of my brothers wanted his wife to continue this "tradition" which she justifiably rejected as too peculiar if not cultish. After supper, we were put in the care of "Nana," our resident gramma, & mom & dad went to  "visit" Phil & Gertrude Sprague, an older couple with a teenage daughter who lived next to the high school. Mrs. Sprague was a piano teacher & none of us became good pianists. In fact, all our presents were stashed at the Spragues; it was futile to try to hide them anywhere in our house. I'm sure mom & dad loaded up on a few drinks before they loaded up the car.

Meanwhile, back home, we put out cookies & milk for Santa & hung stockings in the playroom. My parents came home after we were in bed & supposedly asleep. They carried in the presents & dad brought in a Tree, probably kept in a neighbor's garage. No doubt this was a romantic moment when they had only one child, but it was high-pressure time for them later, working against the clock. Furniture had to be moved; the tree set up in a stand; lights tested & burnt bulbs replaced; the tree decorated with the many old ornaments we stored in the attic. Certainly, some presents had to be wrapped. Every year one of us got a bike or some piece of child machinery that had to be assembled & tested. Then they filled the stockings. I have no idea what time my parents got to bed, but at 5 am they were yelling at us to to go BACK to bed for another hour. For the first few conscious years of my life, I really had no clue how it was all done, or who did it, & don't recall caring if I knew. It was magic; or as I would call it now, amateur shamanism.

One year, my sister Jean & I encountered each other in the hallway outside our rooms, propped up each other's nerve with whispers, & crept through the murky predawn shadows, down to the landing where one could lean over & peek through the bannister into the living room. I lost my balance & tumbled halfway down the steps. I wasn't hurt, but I was so alarmed, afraid not only of being caught but of actually SEEING the presents & somehow ruining the magic for everyone else, that I scrambled back upstairs in a panic, vowing never again to break the Immutable Law Against Peeking, for which I'd been obviously & instantly reprimanded by Santa Claus (probably tipped off by Baby Jesus in the creche). But the living room was dark, as if nothing actually existed there yet.
Although I later suspected sneaky oldest brother Joe of giving me a push then dashing back to bed. Eventually, mom & dad got up, put on their robes, went downstairs, cranked up the heat - in the early 50s this meant a coal furnace, turned on all the lights, & called the four excited kids downstairs.

(reposted from 12/24/07)

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