Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Memories

I have only wonderful memories of Christmas from my childhood, for which I am so grateful! My parents made the decision early on to spend Christmas at home, and not try to travel for the holiday. (I’m sure the Montana winters played a part in the decision!) So we were always home, all five of us – Mom, Dad, my older sister Robin, my older brother Allen, and I.

For our family, Christmas really started with Advent, the season of preparation for Christ’s coming at Christmas. Dad made a large Advent wreath that he hung from the ceiling on a pulley, so it could easily be lowered to light the candles. Each night at dinner, we’d light the appropriate number of candles for the week, say the prayer for the day, and sing a hymn, accompanied by Robin on the piano.

Dad stressed that it was NOT Christmas until the 25th, so we didn’t put up the tree until the 24th. And that was a glorious day! So exciting! We always had a real tree, usually a Douglas fir. We would put it up in one corner of the dining room, often tying it to the wall, because of rambunctious cats. Decorations were a mixture of store-bought and homemade, many of which I now use on my own tree. As we decorated the tree, we’d play records of Christmas carols – not ‘holiday songs’! No Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Perry Como! No “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”! My Christmas soundtrack was the Robert Shaw chorale (here’s a sample), the Kingston Trio (here’s a sample), and medieval Christmas madrigals from England. All of us kids would decorate the tree, taking great care to put the tinsel up one strand at a time, for the best effect! The tree would then stay up for the twelve days of Christmas, coming down on the 6th, the first day of Epiphany.

One year, my dad made a ‘stained glass window’ manger scene on a large sheet of plastic. He sized it just right to fill the large picture window in the living room at the front of the house.  Lit up by a lamp, it looked just like a real stained glass window from outside. We continued to put that up for many, many years, until it became too torn up. I sure wish we had kept it, though!

We would get the tree up and the stockings hung by early afternoon. We usually then headed to church for the children’s Christmas pageant, where my brother played his trumpet, and my sister and I sang in the choir. When this was over, we’d come home and have some of Mom’s wonderful chili for dinner, which had been simmering all day. At this point, Mom and Dad would try to take a nap, because we had to go to church at 11:00pm for Midnight Mass. I was so excited when I was finally old enough to be allowed to go!

Midnight Mass was heavenly (pardon the pun.) The church was decorated with greens and large red bows on every pew, and in every window. There were always more than the usual number of candles, which added to the ambience. We would sing wonderful Christmas hymns and carols, and the choir always had a special Christmas piece. And at the end of the service, we’d sing “Silent Night” as the altar boys slowly extinguished all the candles. It felt like such a holy moment. And then it was after midnight – it was the 25th! It’s CHRISTMAS!!As we left church, everyone would wish one another “Merry Christmas” and there was such joy! Then we’d hop in the car to head home. Pulling up in front of the house, we could see the ‘stained glass window’ illuminated from within, shining out onto the street. What a lovely sight!

Then we kids would have to go to bed, right away. Mom and Dad had to stay up and play Santa – stuffing our stockings and leaving each child an unwrapped toy ‘from Santa’. Allen would sleep in my room, on this night, so we could get up together in the morning. But we were given STRICT instructions not to stir before 8am, as Mom and Dad would be tired from their Santa activities. Allen and I would wake well before 8, and watch the clock – moving at an agonizingly slow pace – and at 8am on the dot, we’d scoot out my bedroom door, and rush downstairs to wake Robin. But we’d have to shield our eyes with our hands, so we wouldn’t spoil the surprise of Santa’s unwrapped gifts, as we passed the living room! We’d get Robin, and scamper back upstairs (shielding our eyes, once again) and into Mom and Dad’s room to wake them. We would then say a Christmas prayer, with us kids fidgeting to get to the presents. Finally it would be time to go open presents!

We’d rush out into the living room, to see what Santa had left us. First, we’d see that Santa had eaten some of the cookies we’d leave out for him. He would always leave a thank you note, too. I still remember the Christmas when I looked at the note and thought, “Wow, Santa’s handwriting sure looks like Mom’s – hey, wait a minute!!” And then I knew for certain who Santa really was! But we’d still leave milk and cookies for him, every year, anyway. It’s good to believe, even when you know the truth.

Santa’s gifts were usually large (hence the lack of wrapping – Mom & Dad were clever!), and something that we really wanted. I remember getting a double holster with cap pistols one year. I still have a picture of me wearing it, with my red cowboy hat!

After discovering our Santa gift, we’d check our stockings. I would always get a box of chocolate covered cherries – my favorite! There were also a lot of little things, such as plastic horses (I was totally into horses as a little girl), a LifeSavers book, a Matchbook car, and other toys.

And then on to the wrapped presents! Grandma Biffle would always knit each of us a matching sweater, mittens and scarf set, which were very necessary for Montana winters! I would often get a book, as well – no surprise. ;-) I also remember getting some ice skates, one year. Just what I wanted – no more hand-me-down skates! As for giving gifts, I’d always get Robin some Jergen’s hand lotion, and I’d often get mom some perfume (both items purchased at Woolworth’s). I don’t remember what I’d give Allen – probably a Matchbook car, or a model. Dad also liked to put together models, so that was always a good gift for him.

Once the presents were opened, we’d have breakfast – usually pull-apart cinnamon rolls. Then Mom would get busy with Christmas dinner preparations. We’d set the table with our fancy china and silverware, with the ‘good’ tablecloth, and Mom always had a pretty centerpiece, as well. Dinner was always delicious!

Christmas day was spent playing with our new toys, or reading our new books, and eating yummy food and treats. In my memory, that day is one of joy and love. It was a day that we looked forward to, every year, and every year it would be as wonderful as we’d hoped it would be. I am so grateful to Mom and Dad for making Advent and Christmas such wonderful seasons. I still observe Advent (though not with singing before diner ;-), and I still wait until the 24th to put up the Christmas tree, using many of the decorations we used growing up (including a clay baby Jesus in the manger that I made in Sunday school when I was 5). I still listen to Robert Shaw and the Kingston trio while decorating – but they’re on my iPod now. And, of course, we leave the tree up for the 12 days of Christmas.

It’s so wonderful to keep these memories alive! The Advent and Christmas seasons are a time for me to wrap myself in all these good memories, which, in turn, help me remember to keep Christ as the focus. And though Mom and Dad are gone now, and my brother lives clear across the country, during this season we are all together still, just like when we were kids. These memories are a precious gift that my parents gave us! May the Peace, Love and Joy of the season be yours, as well. Merry Christmas!!!