As we count down to the year’s final holiday, I am reminded of the song that counts upward through the Twelve Days of Christmas. I, too, have twelve things in mind, none of which have a thing to do with partridges, leaping lords – or any number of golden rings. My “twelve” are precious Christmas memories from my childhood on River Road.
My sisters and I started thinking about the holidays as soon as the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog appeared in the mailbox at the end of the lane. The pages of its toy section grew tattered and worn as we thumbed through them again and again, pointing out the doll babies and board games we hoped Santa would deliver. So many dreams dreamed and so many wishes wished…
I always loved another tradition that has been almost completely crowded out by modern social media: exchanging Christmas cards. Every year quite a pile of envelopes accumulated from addresses near and far. I was most fascinated by the cards with brief messages from old Army buddies and former nursing school classmates whose names we heard in stories told and retold around the supper table.
And then there was the year my mother allowed me to start helping with the traditional card task. My good handwriting qualified me to write addresses and return addresses on outgoing envelopes. Heady stuff – sitting at the official card table to copy addresses from the official list on to official Christmas card envelopes…
Most years my father set a small cedar tree from the woods on a table in the corner of the living room. We disguised its scrawniness with assorted ornaments collected over the years, including thin-glass balls and flattened foil icicles. We added decorations made at school to the tree that was often unevenly lit when one burned-out bulb darkened an entire string of lights.
Other Christmas decorations were also humble and definitely of the homemade variety. Early on, I learned to interlock strips of red and green construction paper. The resulting chains were joined a few years later by a paper plate Santa whose beard formed when I curled paper strips with the side of my scissors. Cotton ball snowmen and Christmas card scenes pasted in to tiny foil pie tins assured a youthful yuletide atmosphere.
I also remember the small, black three-ring notebook my mother carried year round in her pocketbook. Mother kept lots of Christmas information there, all jotted in her distinctively-precise handwriting. She also stashed paper slips containing our cousins’ names we drew for the next year’s family gift exchange. Eventually I discovered the notebook also contained pages exclusively reserved for lists of potential Christmas presents. So much secret Santa stuff…
Of course, I clearly recollect sweet holiday treats eagerly anticipated whenever Christmas rolled around. There was always the pink cut glass bowl filled with candied orange slices and hard tack next to the mixed nuts still in their shells. But it was the peanut clusters and chocolate-covered cherries I most closely associated with Christmas – confections enjoyed only in December that still evoke memories of long-ago Christmas mornings.
And I do so long for a bite of my mother’s Swedish Tea Ring… She first baked the elaborate yeast bread filled with cinnamon and sugar to enter at the Ohio State Fair. But the pecans and red and green cherries perched atop a glaze of powdered sugar icing made it an eventual Christmas tradition at home – and tasty gifts for some of our favorite teachers.
We all participated in each year’s Christmas program at school. I particularly remember the presentation during my fifth-grade year when I became a grandmother with gray hair, shawl, and spectacles pushed to the end of my nose. Seated in a rocking chair, I recited “Twas the Night Before Christmas” in its entirety to first graders seated on the floor in front of me. By the way, those kids called me Grandma for years thereafter!
I have always loved Christmas carols and over the years learned all the verses of old standards like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Joy to the World.” Predictably, I was thrilled to sing carols in other languages: “Adeste Fideles”, the Latin version of “O Come All Ye Faithful;” and “Stille Nacht,” the German version of “Silent Night,” are still my favorites. In high school I discovered “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” or “Un Flambeau, Jeanette Isabella,” in the original French – which I still consider the most beautiful Christmas carol of them all.
We also celebrated the day after Christmas – my mother’s birthday. Now I view her special day through a filter of sweet nostalgia. There she would sit – on her least favorite day of the year, surrounded by a pile of presents, each of which she opened slowly and methodically, followed by appreciative oohs and aahs. Lovely memories of a dear mother…
My twelfth memory today can immediately transport me to so many Christmas mornings on River Road. After our headlong rush downstairs, time seemed to stand still. As we entered the living room, tree lights dimly lit the scene at that early hour creating a magical atmosphere. When I somehow felt outside myself, it was not euphoria over toys or games but a perfect moment of warmth and family togetherness on the most special mornings of so many years – mornings I treasure still.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees inEnglishandGerman from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001shecoordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.