Wow! It is December already, and I have been making blog posts, since the end of August. With that said, it’s time to write about one of my favorite times of the year, Christmas. I’d like to explore Christmas, and the season from different lenses throughout my life.
Back when I was in elementary school, Christmas for me started with the beginning of school. The connection would be the cooler evenings of late summer, and the beginning of fall reminded me of the holiday. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, in third grade my first story of the school year was about Christmas.
In September is also when the toy catalogs would come. We would get them from Sears and J.C. Penney. When they came, my brother (after he was old enough) and I would spend a long time looking at them. Originally, they would both come in the mail, and then eventually the catalog from J.C. Penney would need to be picked up from the store, which meant a trip to the North Hanover Mall (which in those days was an exciting place to go in itself). Over all, I believe that the Sears catalog was my favorite. Through the years the products I spent time looking at may have changed, but I still enjoyed the catalogs. Currently I have a collection of Sears Wishbooks that I bought from E-Bay from my grade school years. Some people may be surprised to know that these catalogs have been saved from all these years ago, and that people want to buy them.
In October another sign of Christmas would hit. My grandparents had a booth for awhile at the Apple Harvest Festival, which is basically a large event held at the fairgrounds in my area where people make craft items, and sell food items related to apples. My grandfather would make some Christmas themed items to sell, such as Christmas Trees and stars that were made from soda cans, and then painted silver. Between the cans were mini lights that would light up when plugged in. Some were in a single color, and others in multi-colors. Other Christmas products were sold as well. My family bought a ceramic Christmas Tree there one year.
Thanksgiving night was the official start of the Christmas season. For many years during my childhood, on Thanksgiving we went to Lebanon, PA, to visit my dad’s side of the family for Thanksgiving. On the way back, I would look out the window at the Christmas lights that many people would turn on. In the earlier years of my childhood, we would put the tree up, over the Thanksgiving holiday. By fifth grade, we started doing our Christmas shopping during that time, and put the tree up later.
As for the tree, I remember watching it go up. The living room (the location it was in at the original house) started out looking normal and not festive and then all the sudden, there was an artificial pine tree in the room. The lights were stretched back the hallway to make sure they worked before putting them on the tree. I enjoyed that the end of the string would always end up in my bedroom. Besides burnt-out lights that needed to be replaced, sometimes light bulbs got loose and simply needed tightening to make the string work. My mom had a string of lights from college that the lights looked like flowers that she used, and we also had a string of blinking lights that looked like lanterns.
Once all the lights were on, we put up the ornaments. Traditionally, we put the balls on first, and then the other ornaments, and then an angel, was put at the top.
From fifth grade on we did a different tradition after Thanksgiving. My dad was in sales at the time, and The Embassy Suites Hotel in Hunt Valley, MD, was located across the road from one of my dad’s customers. He and a representative from his customer would eat lunch at the Embassy. They had a program where you got points for money spent there and after enough points, the person would earn a free stay. My family on Black Friday, would go down, and stay in the Embassy Suites overnight, and do Christmas shopping. The first night we always went to White Marsh Mall. On the second day the mall we went to varied over time and ranged from Hunt Valley Mall across from the hotel to Owings Mills, and eventually Towson Town Center. White Marsh was known to me as having the first Cajun restaurant in the food court that I went to, and I would like to get Bourbon Chicken there. They also had McCormick Cayenne Pepper, and Cajun Spices there that could be put on the food to make it spicier yet. I would think about what I had put on my Christmas list, or about what I wanted to buy other people during supper. Later in the evening we would do some shopping. A trick my dad would play would be to sit on a bench that happened to be outside Waldensbooks, where we wanted to go to shop for his gifts. He liked to put books on his Christmas list every year.
Other things we did at home from that period of time included making Party Mix (a mix of cereals, pretzels, crackers and nuts with seasoning) and Christmas cookies. At one time my mom baked a lot of cookies when she wasn’t working. My favorites were Jam Filled Cookies made in 1986. These cookies were shaped using cookie cutters, and filled with jelly and then baked. They tended to get larger than they started out. In addition, I liked the Candy Cane Cookies which were peppermint, and shaped like their namesake. Of course, we did Christmas shopping, and I remember how the Christmas cheer spread throughout the house. Beside various decorations on the main floor, we also had a shorter Christmas tree in the basement.
Looking at Christmas Lights was another important part of the season for me. I enjoyed looking at the colored lights on various houses that I would regularly see when we were taking our trips, but my parents would prefer looking in the housing developments. Three noteworthy examples of Christmas lights included a white deciduous tree lit with a red spotlight, four pine trees strung with blue lights, and a house that had a spectacular display of lights near Boiling Springs, PA. The people decorated their house, roof, and all their trees. They had a pine tree with solid red lights, blue lights, and orange lights. They played Christmas music. People would stop to look at the display. Another notable favorite of the time was a house on Fairgrounds Road where the family put lights on their house, and a string of colored Christmas Lights on their wooden fence. Oh, and did I forget, my grandparents always had a nice display of lights on the railing and on their porch. The lights originally were the larger ones (now back in style) and eventually became the smaller lights.
On Christmas Eve, we had various traditions during my childhood years. My brother and I originally would watch Christmas videos in the afternoon. During the earlier years of this tradition, the movie was Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, which contained a song “True Blue Miracle” that I enjoyed. I figured out it was written special for the show since I heard it no other place. In later years we would watch the Berenstain Bears and Flintstones Christmas movies, which we received as a Christmas gift one year. Starting in later years we would go out to eat at a nice restaurant for supper. Before going to bed for the night, we would read Christmas stories including The Night Before Christmas where we each took turns reading a page. We also hung up the stockings. We would get our gifts from Mom and Dad that evening, which were mostly practical items like clothes, but occasionally included something small and exciting like the two videos I mentioned or a Christmas book. The gifts from Santa were received the next day. My grandparents on my mom’s side always came for Christmas dinner so my brother and I could play with our new toys. My grandmother would bring several home-made pumpkin pies.
During my teenage years the traditions changed to some degree. We still went to the malls and stayed overnight, but by then Christmas started after Thanksgiving like it does today. The places we went to look at lights have changed over the years. The great Christmas display in Boiling Springs stopped. The people who put the lights on the fence stopped doing so, and eventually moved away. Other places became the Christmas Light hot spots, but for me, never housing developments or white lights. Fewer Christmas cookies were also made over time as my mom was very busy at work. The Flintstones Video was watched some, but mostly a Super Mario Bros. Christmas video was watched. Going to the Christmas Eve Mass was fun. The priest had a yearly re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s going to Bethlehem, and trying to find room in the inn. I always liked the production. Because of needing to get to church early to find a seat, I also enjoyed that they would play and sing Christmas carols before Mass started. All the gifts were opened on Christmas Day.
My adult years so far have been subject to quite a few changes. At some point the Embassy Suites stopped their point systems so rooms weren’t free, and it was discovered that the trips to Maryland weren’t particularly productive. Now we would typically go one day down to White Marsh Mall, and then go somewhere else another day. We did not stay overnight anymore. A few years other events happened, and we didn’t even go out to the stores on Black Friday. Eventually eating supper out on Christmas Eve stopped, as we couldn’t find an open restaurant that night that had good service. A new tradition I started on Christmas Eve was listening to Christmas music while wrapping all the gifts that I had bought people, and then taking them downstairs and putting them under the tree. New video game systems and/or games became the big rage of what my brother and I were excited to get. Eventually my brother went to live and work in Taiwan, and I started to take care of the tree myself (this is the family room tree, and the tree that at one time everyone helped put up). I would take my time, and sometimes it would take multiple days to get everything up. My mom would put up an elegant-looking tree in the living room, with white lights and ornaments that matched the room’s color scheme. This tree was originally put up in 1995 after moving to our current house. A few times since my brother moved to Taiwan, we watched the Flintstones Christmas movie. Once through Skype when he first moved over, and once when he invited some Taiwanese friends home to give them a taste of American Culture at Christmas Time. They laughed and were tickled to recognize The Flintstones!
Christmas is one of my two favorite “holidays” the other being my birthday (the “national holiday”) that I will talk about in a later blog. Although I have enjoyed Christmas most years, my favorite years for the holiday were when I was a child, and I plan to remember them for a long time.
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