This picture recently resurrected itself. I thought it had been lost but in cleaning out a drawer, I found it in an unmarked envelope. It is 1953 – my first Christmas – and I am sitting beside my older sister. I do not actually have a memory of this particular Christmas and yet everything in that photo strikes a familiar chord.
I can almost convince myself that I remember that toy monkey and how when you wound it up it clapped the cymbals together. We do not actually remember things from such an early age. Perhaps we have memories from age three but more likely, our earliest memories come from the age of five or six years of age. Many of our first memories are fictional and based on photographs and family stories.
What is more important to me is that this photo, like many photos I have kept, brings happy memories. I have always loved Christmas and growing up in a Catholic family meant many traditions held in holy reverence and based in what my mother always told us was, “the real meaning of Christmas.”
My earliest memories of Christmas are the excitement of hauling out the Christmas ornaments from the attic and my father setting up the live Christmas tree in our small living room. We had the same decorations for all of our years growing up so every tree looked the same each year. Hanging tinsel on the tree was a precise art my mother had perfected. We would hang the tinsel but I always knew she moved in after and fixed the messes we created.
The truly special finishing touch to the tree was assembling the Crib. Dad built a wooden manger upon which he anchored the tree with wires. The cast of the Nativity scene appeared and we would rearrange them frequently. The three wise men were not allowed into the stable until after January 6, marking the Epiphany but we would keep them off to the side to keep them hopeful. (By the time the Epiphany rolled around there was not usually a needle left on that Christmas tree.)
Our Catholic school celebrated with Christmas plays and religious holiday songs. Every week of Advent meant lighting the Advent candle and counting off the days to Christmas. We would be the recipients of some religious memento along with a candy cane.
Our religious upbringing did put a special influence onto Christmas. I have always been grateful for the simplicity of our time during the holiday season. The memories that were created are not materialistic as a result. We did not expect a lot and for all the families I knew, it was not a holiday that revolved around the frantic shopping, wrapping, decorating, cleaning, baking, cooking, and entertaining that sadly sometimes in these days we can all get bogged down by.
Do not get me wrong. I was a huge fan of Christmas wish lists. It is a magical time as a child. Gifts under a tree brought in the middle of the night by a guy in a red suit? Could there ever be a reason to not fall asleep while waiting to hear those reindeer clatter on your roof. (Not having a fireplace threw me into a mild alarm at the thought of how Santa would enter our house. I was assured the door would be left unlocked and there would be no doubt Santa would figure it out.)
The arrival of the Sears annual Wish Book catalog would make my heart palpitate for excitement – page after page of highly desirable toys that you knew nothing about other than for that catalog. You knew you had to be selective because as much as you may have wanted several things, somehow you just knew it was not what Santa was able to do. There were too many kids to serve and many homes waiting for delivery of those gifts.
Growing up in Ontario, Canada always meant a white Christmas. Often times the gifts were those that celebrated winter. The six-foot wooden toboggan we found under a tree was an all-time favorite for years to come.
We would wake up at ungodly hours to sneak down stairs to find out whether Santa had visited our house yet. Usually we would be chased back to bed but sleep would not come. In the morning, we could only drool over the anticipation of opening gifts. We chose one gift to open before heading out for Christmas Mass. We would come home and have a full family breakfast, again before any gift opening. It was rather torturous but now serves as part of the warm memories of celebrating our traditions.
Between Christmas and New Year’s, there would be drop-ins of relatives and neighbors. There was no planning. You did not worry about a host gift. There were not days of preparation for the drop-ins. It all simply happened. There were always plenty of home baked cookies, fruitcake, mincemeat pie, mixed nuts, and ribbon candy to satisfy any visitor.
It was a time spent with family and friends. I am certain my parents never had a To Do list. It was a blissfully joyous time. We are a week away from Christmas and probably that thought is sending some of you into a touch of panic. Your kids, your family, your friends do not need more stuff….they need you present and peaceful. They need the memories. They are yours to make.
North Shore Elder Services wishes all our friends a joyous holiday season and Merry Christmas.