Looking Back to Christmas Long Ago
Knowing I was loved and especially at Christmas, has carried me through some hard times. I thank the two people who gave me life and that wonderful gift of love
Memories are what make Christmas special....for all of us.
Our memories carry us back to our childhoods when going to bed on Christmas Eve was the single, hardest thing we did all year. There was only one other night of the year that I can remember being so excited that I couldnt sleep and that was the night before the first day of school every September.
Remember that? When school didnt start until after Labor Day? And we actually had 3 whole months of summer vacation?
Christmas Eve excitement was almost more than I could bear. It was always filled with family and friends and the house was hot and cigarette smoke hung in the air (dont judge! It was the 50s!) and the smell of food and my Mom's fruitcakes permeated every corner. (more on the dreaded fruitcakes later)
I always had a new dress and patent leather shoes and lacy, white anklets to wear on Christmas Eve. When I got a bit older, I ditched the anklets and went bare-legged with the hope that people would think I was wearing stockings and that I was all grown up.I was a silly little girl and actually thought that wearing stockings signified adulthood.
There was something so special about opening the front door on Christmas Eve and seeing cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents standing there with gifts in their arms and hugs and kisses and even tho I saw them all every week at Church...this was Christmas Eve and it was different and special.
Christmas Eve meant midnight Mass and as I type these words, I get a lump in my throat remembering sitting in Church on Christmas Eve with candles blazing everywhere and my parents and Aunt Sarah and Grandpa all dressed to the nines surrounding me, a little girl, with love and that unmistakable feeling of belonging.
Midnight Mass meant Silent Night and The First Noel and God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman and Away in the Manger and I sang my little heart out feeling love for everyone and especially for the Christ Child who made it all possible.
I mentioned my Mom's fruitcakes. Before I go any further, let me say that I detested them and to this day, still DO detest them. But my Mother's fruitcakes were legendary and family and friends expected one every year and my Mom never disappointed.
As a child, I knew that the middle of September signaled the beginning of "fruitcake season". What this meant for those of you not in the know about fruitcake lore, is that the mixing and baking began in earnest in September. Why so early? Because, those jewel-studded masterpieces had to "age".
The actual prep and baking took days. But before that, the shopping for ingredients probably took weeks. Back in those days, grocery stores didnt stock citron and green and red candied cherries and nuts and all the (ugh!) gooey, chewy dried fruits that went into making an original fruitcake, as early as September. But my ingenious mother found a small store that carried those items year round and since she didnt drive (did anyone's mother drive in the 50s?) she and my Dad would make this annual pilgrimage to go buy the stuff for her fruitcakes. The kitchen table was laden with flour and sugar and fruits and nuts and for a week or so, we would have to eat on "TV trays" set up in the living room. I didnt mind that part of the fruitcake odyssey at all since that meant I could watch television and kitchen cleanup was much easier.
Once all the ingredients were bought it was down to the serious business of chopping the nuts and candied fruits and mixing the batters and then baking the actual cakes. The house did smell good for that week with all of those cakes baking everyday. Once the cakes were baked they were wrapped in Mogen David wine soaked cheesecloth and put into tins, covered and stored in the butler pantry. We didnt have a butler, so I never understood the name, but thats what my Mom called it and so I did too.
Those cakes were stored in the butler pantry from mid September until just before Christmas and every 2 weeks or so, out they would come and the cheesecloth would get drenched in Mogen David wine again and re-wrapped around the cakes and then put back into their tins and stored until the next dousing of wine.
How anyone managed to eat even one slice of that cake and walk a straight line...I'll never know.
On Christmas Eve..when those relatives and friends who were "fruitcake worthy" came to our house, they were presented with a bejeweled, wine-soaked fruitcake, courtesy of my Mom. We kept 2 for us. Or rather for my Mom and Dad since I would have rather eaten sardines than a piece of fruitcake.
Looking back though, all these many years later, I distinctly remember the smell of the kitchen and especially the butler pantry, heavy with the smell of wine and while I wasnt then, and am not now, a fan of fruitcake....I am a fan of the idea that my Mom's labor of love was something that so many people looked forward to and were happy to receive, every year.
My Dad wanted to instill in me that Christmas wasnt as good for everyone as it was for us and that giving to others is the real meaning of Christmas and so every year, he would take me with him when he went to deliver fruit baskets and toys to needy children thru the Knights of Columbus and every year, I would go thru my old toys and find ones I no longer played with and I would wrap them and give them to the needy kids.
I can also remember Dad going to an aunts house and taking her groceries and giving her money because her husband had left her with 10 kids and nothing for them for Christmas.
You cant grow up with that kind of selflessness and generosity and not have it rub off on you a little bit.
We all have those special Christmas memories. You know the ones..the days of our parents making Christmas the special time it was and the lying in bed hoping to hear the jingle of sleigh bells and hooves on the roof and even hoping we might tiptoe into the living room and catch a glimpse of the big, jolly old elf himself.
My Mom and Dad are both long gone now. However, they made Christmas special for me and I think, for themselves as well. My Dad came from a big, Lebanese family and Christmas was always a big deal. My Mom picked up many of the traditions and habits of my Dad's family and when I look back into my memory..I see blurry, colored lights and tinsel and people everywhere, all talking and laughing and singing. I smell clove studded ham and the dreaded fruitcakes and that unmistakable tangy smell of pine. I see candles on the mantel and the manger set under the Christmas tree. I remember the live Nativity scene where lambs and cows and Mary and Joseph surrounded the Baby Jesus while Silent Night played softly in the dark night that was Lytle Park in Cincinnati.
I remember my Dad singing Adeste Fidelis and teaching me the time honored Latin words and harmonizing with me. And when it was the right time...out would come his Nat King Cole records and the "Christmas Song" would play on the old "hi fi".
To this day, hearing that song can bring me to tears. There is probably nothing that reminds me more of him than anything sung by Nat King Cole. I loved singing with my Daddy and never more than at Christmas.
I look back and see a little girl excited to find the doll she wanted under the Christmas tree and I see her disappointment at not finding the bicycle she had begged for but going to the basement later that day, on an "errand" for her Mom, to find her Dad standing next to a brand new bike.
Yes..they are both gone, but the memories I have of all those Christmases so long ago, keep both of them alive every, single year and I smile when I remember and I look to heaven and hope they know how very much I loved them