Chocolate Can Kill (Emily Harris Mysteries) by Annie Acorn
How does one capture the essence of a child’s Christmas? As I begin to write this, my third post referencing Little Annie’s Christmas [Part I] [Part II], I wonder if the task is indeed beyond the reach of a mere keyboard. So many sights, sounds, and scents remain just as clear in my memory today as they were over half a century ago.
Although most of my memories carry me back to The Double as we referred to the duplex in which our young family lived, my paternal grandmother and great-aunt residing in the other half, other venues had their place as well.
First and foremost was Lazarus Department Store located in downtown Columbus, Ohio. Having begun as a purveyor of men’s clothing, Lazarus had morphed during the Civil War into a major provider of uniforms for Union soldiers. By the time, my small feet passed through its welcoming doors, it was a full-fledged department store and covered a city block.
Involving as they did so many homemade items, Christmas gift preparations began early. As the leaves dropped from the trees, I would be called into service to accompany my paternal grandmother on her fall shopping spree. This, of course, involved a walk of several blocks to the bus stop, where we caught a ride to our destination.
Whole new worlds passed by our dusty windows as we traveled downtown, including the forbidding gray stone walls of the Ohio Penitentiary, where I was told the inmates were busy making license plates. My childish imagination quickly formed a picture in which these men happily sang as they worked in much the same way as the elves that I knew were busily turning out toys for Santa.
Arriving at Lazarus, we would inevitably head for the sewing and notions department, where my grandmother would first rummage through the remnant tables – never willing to pay full price for anything she could purchase on sale. Early on, I had been trained to distinguish flannel, organdy, and polished cotton, and Grandma counted on me to ferret out appropriate samples for her to consider.
The flannel, I knew, would be used to fashion nightgowns and pajamas for me and my sisters. Polished cotton formed the basis of the puffed-sleeved dresses we wore on a daily basis, even when playing, and the organdy was sewn into pinafores to be worn over them. Rickrack and zippers, lace and ribbons, buttons and thread would also be added to our stack. Once my grandmother had paid for her purchases, I would be handed the bag of notions as my special charge – heavy responsibility for a five year old.
Now it was time to buy the yarn and crochet thread that would be turned into hats and scarfs and mittens we would find in our stockings, as well as collars to wear over sweaters and doilies for our table. At this point, I would be handed a second bag to tote, now feeling more balanced.
By now, it was lunch time, and if I had been good, we would head for the store’s famous Tea Room. Here I would be treated to chicken salad on a lettuce leaf with Waldorf salad on the side if I was especially lucky. A fluffy yeast roll took up residence on my bread plate with a molded pat of butter that was almost, but not quite, too pretty to cut into with my butter knife. My grandmother had a sweet tooth, and each of us enjoyed a large slice of Lazarus chocolate layer cake to complete our meal.
Donning our coats and gathering our packages, we were now ready to return home. Used to taking an afternoon nap, I inevitably slept on the bus during the return trip, my head snuggled against my grandmother’s arm. Approaching our stop, I would be awakened and told to be ready to disembark into the cold afternoon wind for our walk home, where we would be greeted like returning world travelers with mugs of hot chocolate or tea.
A few weeks later, Thanksgiving now behind us, I would again make the trip downtown, this time accompanying my parents and sister. During the intervening weeks, Lazarus had been transformed into a Christmas wonderland. The store’s huge windows were filled with moving displays and flocked with fake snow. Inside, colored lights glittered on columns and hung from the ceiling. Christmas trees graced the sales floor, and large ornaments decorated our trip up the escalators. In the toy department, an entire miniature town now resided in a glass case, complete with several moving trains, their signals and stations lit with tiny lights, and we would wait in line for some time just for the opportunity to make one turn around this wonder-filled living scene.
Our shopping completed, we now needed a tree, and I would generally be called upon to accompany Father to the tiny strip of stores across from my grade school, where a temporary tree lot had been erected. Warmed by a fire, boy scouts manned the cash box. Father took his time over the selection of just the right tree, measuring each one against his own 6’4” height and testing their needles for freshness.
Once selected the tree would be tied into the trunk of our ’51 two-tone blue Pontiac for the ride home, where we would once again be greeted like conquering heroes, usually with mugs of hot chocolate or cider. By this time, I was feeling quite special, and decorating the tree became one of my favorite activities.
With great care, Father spread each string of lights across the living room floor, checking to make sure they still worked, these being the days when one bad bulb would take out a whole strand. Once we were assured that everything was in working order, he attached the strands to the tree, taking great care to place the different colored lights in a pleasing display, some in and some out on the branches. Finally, he would screw in our special bubble lights that provided hours of fascinated pleasure for my sisters and me.
Next came the garland, which was Mother’s responsibility as she wove it in and out of the branches in a way that wasn’t too overwhelming. Each strand was a different color – red, green, silver and gold – for ours was not a high style tree, but rather a reflection of years after Christmas ornament sales.
Now we girls were allowed to help, placement of the ornaments being all that was left. Father would first hang his own childhood favorite, a gold acorn that now graces Son #2’s tree. I had a favorite Santa Claus ornament, and I made sure it held pride of place at my eye level. Nonbreakable snowmen and reindeer were given to my sisters to hang on the lower branches.
Finally, the silver icicles were removed from their slender boxes. At this point, my father would suddenly morph into a fanatic, there being a right and a wrong way to put such splendid additions on a tree. Each icicle must be placed, not tossed, individually into position.
Several hours later, we would pause for a light supper before watching our normal Saturday evening line-up on our 10” TV screen. The lights in the room would be turned down, and the tree would be turned on, a thing of beauty in our small living room, although my responsibility for it was not yet done. As the oldest child, I knew I would be counted on throughout the season to check and refill if necessary the water in the tree stand, my being small enough to do so without shaking the tree.
An evening or two before Christmas, my grandmother and great-aunt would join us in the car, and Father would take us on an evening tour of Arlington, a richer suburb that backed onto ours. Here the large homes on their sizeable lots were decked out in fine fashion, as the owners competed for a silver tray engraved with their name.
Thousands of blue lights flickered from the yard of one home, each tree and shrub having been covered in them. A working train circled another house, while another sported one of the new-fangled silver trees that received mixed reviews from our numbers. Snowflakes swirled beyond our car’s window, further enhancing the magical world around us.
One year, when it was snowing particularly hard, we had a flat tire, and Father sought shelter for my pregnant mother and the rest of us, while he took care of the matter. Once inside, Mother fell in love with this home’s tree, which had been completely decorated with white lights, gold garland and ornaments and shielded masses of gifts that had all been wrapped in gold paper with green ribbon.
Back home, Father would read us a pared down version of The Christmas Carol as we sipped on mugs of hot chocolate and shared a plate of Christmas cookies before being tucked into bed.
Christmas Eve, of course, saw us in church, followed by a ride home, usually in snow. Grandmother and our great-aunt would now join us on our side of The Double, where we would open the family gifts that had been waiting patiently beneath the tree, my sister having proven herself unable to handle the excitement of these gifts plus Santa Claus’s leavings all in one session.
These were the practical gifts with perhaps a book or a 45 rpm record thrown in. One memorable year my uncle sent us girls a set of classical music recordings, which laid the groundwork for my love of classical music in adulthood. Once the used gift wrap and ribbon had been carefully folded and put away for reuse, we gathered around Father, who now read us The Night Before Christmas to calm us down before we were tucked into bed.
Having sworn to stay awake until Santa arrived and dispensed with the milk and cookies we had left for him, I would immediately fall asleep, awakening the next morning to find his gifts left beneath the tree. These were the fun presents that always included dolls – the original “walking” dolls one year, Ginny dolls complete with mahogany bedroom furniture the next year, Revlon dolls another year. Games and puzzles and color books abounded, as did picture books and easy readers. Tinker toys and Lincoln logs found their way into our home, as did jump ropes and jacks. Stockings had been hung along the mantle throughout the season, and these were now filled with candy and small hand held games that required dexterity to place four balls into their spaces or arrange numbers or letters of the alphabet in the correct order.
Our gifts having been opened and breakfast having been consumed, Father would read us the Christmas story from Luke, before we all made our way upstairs to dress for our trip over to the other side of The Double, where we would enjoy Christmas dinner.
My grandmother and great-aunt having been born in Victorian England, this meal followed their traditions. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were a given, usually accompanied by mashed potatoes, green beans, and homemade cranberry sauce. The meal not containing enough carbohydrates already, homemade yeast rolls and real butter also found a place on our table. A plum pudding was always brought in for dessert, although mincemeat and cherry pies were also available.
Once we had consumed our Christmas feast and the dishes had been washed and put away, we would adjourn to our side of The Double. Here we would play with our newly received games, such as word bingo, Snap, Go Fish, and Monopoly, the adults entering into the fun as well as we girls. When naptime arrived, I as the eldest was usually allowed to stay up as I was needed to help sort out the edge pieces from one of the new puzzles.
Supper would be sandwiches, popcorn, apples, eggnog, Christmas cookies and fudge as friends would stop by, sometimes staying to watch a show on our still somewhat rare miniature TV screen that was housed in an oversized cabinet. At the end of a day filled with excitement, rich food, and lots of activity, we went easily to bed, secure in the knowledge that we had proven ourselves to have been good for yet another year.
Times have changed dramatically since those simple days. Sales of live Christmas trees continue to go down, and bubble lights are rarely if ever found. Family members now watch TV throughout Christmas Day in different rooms. Gifts have frequently been purchased off the internet and often require batteries to operate. But still…
This year, I challenge you to spend Christmas as a family together in one room. Share a story, play a game, and work a new puzzle. Welcome family and friends into your home. Create Christmas memories for your children and grandchildren throughout the season that are as special as mine are to me a half century later.
Remember that bigger, brighter, and more razzle-dazzle doesn’t necessarily mean better. For what I remember most about the Christmases of my childhood aren’t the toys or the decorations or even the food, but rather the time spent in a meaningful way with the adults that filled my small world.
Murder With My Darling (Bonnie Lou Mysteries) by Annie Acorn
Also available for NOOK!
A Tired Older Woman: Loses Weight and Keeps It Off! by Annie Acorn
Annie Acorn’s 2012 Christmas Treasury (Annie Acorn’s Christmas Anthologies) edited by and stories by Annie Acorn
The Young Executive (Annie Acorn’s Kindle Short Mysteries) by Annie Acorn
Also available for NOOK!
Also available for NOOK!
When to Remain Silent (Annie Acorn’s Kindle Short Mysteries) by Annie Acorn
Also available for NOOK!