Chocolate Can Kill (Emily Harris Mysteries) by Annie Acorn
Now that I’ve checked and determined that all of you who are reading this were not naughty, but nice, I will share some more details of Christmases when I was a child.
Looking back from over a half century away, three aspects come to mind – preparation and festivity, with a strong undercurrent of the true meaning of Christmas thrown in.
Advent was always an important part of our celebration, and to this day, I read a special Advent devotional each year.
Initially introduced to us girls in Sunday School , Mother always continued the countdown at home in the form of an advent calendar. Sometimes these were cardboard stand-ups designed to be used once before being discarded. One memorable year, there were bite-sized pieces of chocolate hidden behind each tiny window. Over the years, though, she produced versions in felt trimmed with sequins, which were passed along to her grandchildren (Christmas World).
These calendars and the four candles denoting the four Sundays of Advent that comprised the early centerpieces on our dining room table all served to help us girls track the passage of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Now that some of the basic baking was behind us, it was time to prepare for specific festivities. Mother belonged to a church circle and a card club, and one or the other of these groups was sure to meet at our house during December.
Bowls of walnuts and pecans still in the shell would appear with sterling nutcrackers and picks standing ready amongst them. A plastic gumdrop tree was assembled and given a place of honor atop the TV’s mahogany cabinet, but not before I had been put to work decorating it by sticking over-sized red and green gumdrops on the sharp protrusions along its spindly branches.
While I was busily eating one gumdrop for every two or three allowed for the tree, Mother took Three Musketeers bars, cut them into bite-sized pieces, and arranged them on a paper doily spread on one of her best crystal plates before covering all with waxed paper to keep it fresh. A log or two of cream cheese along with a bone-handled butter knife provided for spreading it on crackers or potato chips would be set on a similar plate.
You have to remember that these were simpler times. Grocery stores were much smaller, and both of these latter offerings were at that time rather exotic. To this day, I consider plain cream cheese scooped onto a potato chip to be quite a treat.
Just in time for my parent’s annual Christmas Open House my maternal grandmother’s care packages would arrive. One usually contained some last minute goodies, including the divinity each piece sporting a halved pecan like a tiny brown cap – Father’s favorite.
This grandmother worked for a publishing company, and the second box was stuffed with a year’s supply of different sized tablets made of odds and ends of paper left over in the printing process. With a fresh tablet of our choosing and a box of colored pencils, we would be sent over to the other side of the double before the adult’s party started.
The third and largest box always disappeared from view, and it wasn’t until years later that I discovered it and its contents – a doll from Santa for each of us – had proceeded us to the other side of the double, where it was safely stored in my great-aunt’s off-limits closet.
Between parties, the massive TV took on a new importance in our daily routine, as our strictly enforced bedtimes were stretched to one hour later. Before going further, I should explain that this technological miracle was almost all mahogany cabinet and glass tubes. Behind two large twin doors enhanced with decorative hardware, a tiny 10” screen was hidden. When revealed during early morning and evening hours, this screen became the stage upon which entertainers could be viewed in black and white only, although we were often warned to stay at least 5’ away from it. A tiny red light centered in the front molding along the floor lit up whenever the set was turned on. If you were brave enough to press your fingers on this tiny circle, its light would turn the entire tip of your finger red as it shone through it, providing for endless periods of forbidden fascination. Now what, I ask you IPad and 4G lovers, could have been any more wondrous than that?
Having listened to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and the new hit single I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus all day, we were well-primed for an evening of variety show entertainment. Crooners and dancers and comedians filled the long distance stages that were miraculously visible in our tiny living room.
Father would prepare popcorn, and Mother would pass out multi-colored aluminum glasses of Coke that were dressed in matching knit sleeves to contain the moisture dripping along their outsides. Each of us was allowed one small candy cane and a single piece of homemade candy from a china saucer.
Names like Ed Sullivan and Red Skelton and Dinah Shore rolled off our tongues. Even live stage plays such as Amahl and the Night Visitors became part of our experience, and if you watched closely, you might even catch sight of a stray cameraman, who had lost his way and inadvertently passed behind one of the stage set windows in full view of the spellbound TV audience.
Occasionally on Sunday evenings, my grandmother and great-aunt would join us, but normally, they spent the evenings on their own side of the double, where they knitted and crocheted countless brightly colored scarves and hats and mittens that would be used as stocking stuffers.
With all of this activity, December always flew by, and soon Christmas Eve was upon us. In those early days of my life, dinner was usually either meatloaf with roasted potatoes and onions tucked in around it or Marzetti, a hamburger, onion, tomato, and egg noodle casserole. The roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding would be served Christmas Day on my paternal grandmother’s side of the double.
After dinner, we would all don our coats, hats, scarves and, occasionally, boots as we watched Mother zip the baby into her pink quilted snow suit. Having clambered into the back seat of the Pontiac we usually made it to the church parking lot before warmth from the dashboard heater could reach us.
A large, lighted nativity filled the front of the dimly light sanctuary, and the choir looked resplendent in their wine-colored Christmas robes. Never have carols sounded better than those heard in my early childhood, falling as they were for the first few times on innocent ears. Their ebb and flow truly signified to me Heaven on Earth.
Then the lights would dim further, and each worshiper’s small candle would be lit – neighbor to neighbor. Slowly, in hushed tones, we would sing Silent Night, our voices growing in strength as the church’s bell rang out above us. It was a moment of high drama, and I carry the memory of its thrill with me still.
In these days of ready-made dips and high-tech, I sometimes find myself feeling that much of what was so wonderful is missing. Yes, all those preparations required much work, including the hand washing of a lot of dishes, but sharing the effort made it seem more like a pleasure. Each individual piece of candy or cookie was all the more precious because its quantity was limited, and TV that was only available once in the evening took on a special significance.
Even more important was the message behind the activity – a gift of time and care from one person to another – a reminder of the much bigger gift that was the season’s reason for being. This year, don’t miss out. Take some time for each other, go to Christmas Eve service, start a new family tradition. Most of all, keep your eyes on the ball, and remember the love and the giving that is the true meaning of Christmas.
Murder With My Darling (Bonnie Lou Mysteries) by Annie Acorn
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