A StubbornThings Symposium December 2014
Latest: Red-Faced, Jolly, and Spiteful by Brad Nelson • Sometimes Christmas is best remembered by the calories you put on. They seem to be the substance of some permanence. But sprinkled amongst the eggnog and cookies are stories and events — large and small, heartwarming or just funny — that have decorated the season through the years. The stories become collected like old ornaments that you don’t have the heart to throw away. They remain stuffed in the attic in an old box.
Let this be the place, this year, for you to dust off a favorite story and share it. Submit it here and, if it passes minimum muster, it will be added to this collection, chain-letter style. (And as you’ll see with my initial entries, the standards are quite minimum.) Hanukkah stories are more than welcome as well from our Jewish brothers and sisters. But no Kwanzaa, please. We don’t do fake holidays.
— The Editor
The Real One
Upon some reflection, I realize I have only one bona fide Christmas story to tell. It was the night that my older brother (the religious one in the family…he’s a part-time minister) stopped by my place and asked if I wanted to join him for a midnight mass at the local Catholic Church.
That is, he was talking about a real Christ-Mass, the very derivation of the word, “Christmas.” I went. I was kind of bored, but it was an interesting experience, more so for having done something with my brother at that ungodly (well, Godly) hour of the night.
I didn’t see the ghost of Christmas past, present, or future. There weren’t a lot of warm-fuzzies crawling up and down my spine. But neither was it quite like pulling teeth, although I haven’t gone to one since. But for some reason it was a memorable experience, for I have indeed remembered it with some affection.
Call the Bomb Squad
This second story also is not likely to knock Dickens off of anyone’s favorite story list. Mine was a typical family, if not necessarily normal. My mother decorated the house wonderfully, and my father did the same outdoors with lights. We usually had more lights than anyone else on the block….shades of what was to come when nowadays there is the equivalent of a full moon hanging overhead from the combined glow of the plethora of cheap (but lovely) Christmas lights, thanks in large part to LED technology and such.
Otherwise the family was pretty normal, even boring. But we were not without our creative edge. We had a fireplace (no Christmas is ever a full Christmas without one, for it’s hard to have “hearth and home” without the hearth) and we would go out and cut our own wood. My father would thus always have his eye out for the perfect Monster Yule Log. I’m not sure from whence the tradition of the yule log stems, but we carried on the tradition in manly fashion. Our yule log was usually huge — so huge that it was often difficult to get burning, the outer thick bark being naturally fire-resistant.
Well, one can always kill two birds with one stone, although a munitions permit is probably a wise move if you choose to do so. One year my father had the idea to bore various deep 1/4″ holes into the yule log and stuff the holes with fireplace chemicals — the kind you add to fires in order to add color to the fire. Surely this technique would both add color to the fire and aid its combustion.
But there is theory and then there is reality. Would it work? Is packing chemicals into a log and then setting it alight a particularly good idea? Well, we weren’t raised to be girly-men. Risk involving fire, chemicals, and/or explosives is what real men do. So my father put the yule log on the fire. And he must have had a little Jim Carrey or Robin Williams in him for he spontaneously sung out to the tune of the Christmas classic, The First Noel:
“Noel, Noel . . . stand back, it’ll blow you to hell.”
It’s the unplanned moments like this that are the funniest. And my little brother and I were howling with laughter, more so because I had caught this moment on my new cassette recorder that I had received as a present that Christmas Eve. We played this moment back over and over again to my father’s eventual annoyance. And every once in a while (like now), I still replay that memory in my head.
The Fighting Lady
Sometimes my childhood resembled that of Ralphie’s in A Christmas Story. Mischievous, but never dangerously so. But rarely did we kids sow “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” We were rambunctious with a capital “bunc.”
Nor were we particularly kind to Christmas ornaments. My mother resembled Godzilla stomping on downtown Tokyo. When all the lights, tinsel, and Christmas ornaments were carefully laid out in preparation for adorning the tree, she couldn’t walk by without stepping on one. This is only a slight exaggeration and became a running joke (to this day).
There was also the time when, with the help of my dear sister, I decorated a small tree that I had in my own room. I would have been about five or six years old — the tree about four or five feet tall. The tree was a well-shaped Douglas fir that we had no doubt gathered ourselves (for free) from the woods out back of the house. I’m not sure why I had one in my room because we always had a grand one in the living room. But that year I did and it was the only year that I ever did.
I remember decorating it with some of the detritus and leftover ornaments — things that didn’t make the cut for the main tree in the living room. But along with these hand-me-downs from the Island of Misfit Ornaments, my sister and I made bona fide hand-made garlands of popcorn. We strung the popcorn on thread with a needle and it made for a truly charming tree. There may have even been a few dried cranberries interspersed.
And that tree did not last long. If you ever buy a dog, god bless them, don’t make it a Basset Hound. Some people swear by them, but I’ve found them to be the least intelligent breed of dog on the planet. But it wasn’t intelligence that was at issue with this dog but (no doubt) his good nose. It hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind that popcorn garland was anything but an ornament when placed on a tree. But the dog (Champ) thought differently. At some point I came back to my room and found my tree knocked over and being consumed by the dog.
So ornaments and our family have somewhat of a history. And that includes the time I got a spiffy new toy one Christmas called “Fighting Lady.” As you can see from the photo, it had a front-mounted gun, a rear-mounted catapult launcher, and (although not so easily spotted in the photo) spring-loaded little plastic canister depth-charges it could hurl over the side at pretend submarines. It could float in the bathtub but it also had wheels on the bottom. It was one of my most cherished and memorable toys. I wonder whatever happened to it? I’m tempted to get one on eBay for the sake of nostalgia.
By I digress. One night my older brother and I (he was, in truth, usually the instigator of any Christmas-Story-like mischief) thought it would be fun to shoot the Fighting Lady’s catapult plane at the Christmas tree, in general, and at some of the glass ball ornaments, in particular. And darned if our aim wasn’t good enough to bring a couple of them down from about ten to twelve feet downrange. Usually it would just glance off them or knock them off the tree. But we eventually shattered a glass ball or two. Who ever could have seen that coming?
The coverup wasn’t half as competent as Watergate for we got busted pretty quickly. I wouldn’t doubt that my older sister ratted on us, but I have to confess that that is only speculation (although it holds to a pattern). The memory is an old one. But we did get into some trouble over that.
The poor Christmas trees in our family rarely got much respect. And when the mischief wasn’t intentional, sometimes it was accidental. One night I was home alone with my older sister (the parents having gone out) and I was on a chair trying to adjust one of the ornaments on the tree that I thought was askew. Likely it was the star at the top, for leaning over, I lost my balance and grabbed a branch of the tree to steady myself…and brought the tree completely over and tipped horizontal onto myself backward. For a tree with just lights and a few ornaments on it, there would have been little bother to set it straight. But we normally put tons of tinsel (the real lead tinsel that you can’t get anymore) on the tree. And after having been tipped over, the tinsel was a tangled mess that had to be disentangled and re-hung.
Why my sister helped me put it right, I’ll never know. But we must have spent an hour and a half putting the tree right so that the parents would never notice what happened. We put it back in such pristine shape that I believe we told them what happened since we figured (correctly) that they couldn’t possibly get mad. All’s well that ends well.
And then there was my father’s experiment with a real old-fashioned tree with real old-fashioned candles for lights. But given that we have two retired fire fighters in the family, I’d better stay mum on that.
Mouse Droppings Make It Better
In a perfect world, every father would have a son and every mother would have a daughter. It’s not that fathers can’t appreciate daughters and mothers their sons. But there is a natural affinity and camaraderie between like-and-like.
Still, rules are made to be broken. And I remember one Christmas where mother and I had a real “mother/daughter” moment (and this was long before the term, “metrosexual,” was ever heard).
But, really, this is probably more of a little-boy/candy story. This is why there is the running joke of “Candy, little boy?” as a way to kidnap a kid and tempt him into the car, no matter how many times the kid has been told by his parents to beware of strangers. Candy is the universal solvent for letting go of one’s senses and inhibitions (and perhaps we now understand Libertarians’ affinity for pot…the adult candy or sorts).
My mother is/was a good baker. And her sugar cookies, and other fare, could be stacked up with anyone’s. Her “snowballs” are amongst the best I’ve ever had. But she had her difficulties with the fudge. Most great artists are not conversant in all mediums. They must specialize.
But she would still try to branch out from time to time. Christmas is about tradition, but those traditions must get started in some time and place. And thus began (and ended) the tradition of hand-dipped chocolates.
My mother, for reasons that remain a mystery, veered wildly outside the conservative tradition of sugar cookies, snowballs, and nuts-and-bolts (as is called her “party mix”) and decided one year, long ago, that she wanted to make hand-dipped chocolates. And this was long before Martha Stewart was ever a gleam in pop-culture’s eye. These candies would have a white coconut/vanilla filling. The outer protective and scrumptious shield would be the relatively thin layer of milk chocolate.
And it worked! The recipe and newly-mastered techniques were a success. And my part in the candy-making enterprise was to help dip the centers into the chocolate. As you can imagine, I had to be whipped and hog-tied before I would consent to being left semi-unsupervised with a bowl of luscious liquid chocolate all to myself.
All went well. We packaged the chocolates in individual paper cupcake-like holders (so that they wouldn’t stick together…you see the great care involved in this venture). We then placed them in round metal containers similar to those that Royal Dansk Danish Butter Cookies come in. After all, these precious and time-consuming cookies must not only be presented well but be protected.
And so the candies were packaged and set out in the connected garage to congeal properly. The garage was natural cold-storage for all types of things. And had that been all that occurred, this story of candies would have had no place in anyone’s Christmas lore. But something occurred the very first time we (mother and I) went out to grab a tin to sample them for ourselves.
To this day, no one is sure what happened. Perhaps as in A Christmas Story, an icicle fell from somewhere and disrupted my mother’s arm, for when she reached for one of the tins of candies, something slipped and the entire batch of tins fell to the floor, exploded opened beyond the confines of the lid and — as we were to discover — intermixed with the contents of the garage floor, including quite a few mouse droppings.
There’s a general rule regarding floors and food. It the food falls and rests there but a second, it can be picked up and consumed immediately. But if it remains there any longer, you have to throw it away. This is the second law of food gastro-dynamics, the first being that buttered bread will always fall buttered-side down.
Too much work went into the making of that candy for us to throw it out. And because we were the only ones who witnessed this event — mother and me — we decided that what the customer doesn’t see, the cook gets away with. So we carefully picked up the candies, brought them inside to the kitchen (everyone else was out of the house at the moment), and painstakingly cleaned the chocolate-covered candies of all the little bits of gunk, dust, and mouse droppings that had adhered to the surface.
After much careful effort, we succeeded, returning the candies to like-new condition. But the story eventually leaked out, as such stories do (perhaps driven by a bit of our own braggadocio). The side effect is that these chocolate wonders were henceforth dubbed “Garage Floor Candy.” And it was some of the best candy I have ever eaten, then or since.
Have Yourself a Grinchless Christmas
Who can forget that great rendition of Burl Ives of the holiday classic, “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”? Apparently many people can forget. And I’m going to mea culpa this myself. Having done a bit of holiday shopping, I’m burnt out on the holidays. It’s Grumpy People 10, Christmas Spirit zero.
And it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve got all kinds of lights up around the office — something I hadn’t done in twenty years. And they have indeed stoked a festive mood, by and large. But the “large” is giving way to the “by.” I ran into a sad-sack yesterday at the eye doctor’s office who was the proverbial ornamental Grinch on top of the tree of sourpuss.
Yesterday I was obeying the Fifth Commandment and driving my mother to and from her regular eye checkup appointment. I dropped her off, did a little shopping, and came back at the expected time. I was a little early. The waiting room was completely empty except for me and a couple lovely middle-aged (or younger) ladies behind the front desk. So eventually I got into some “Boy, this weather” light chatting. (And the weather outside was indeed quite un-delightful. The wind and rain were double-plus-heavy.)
One of the ladies was nice. The other was going out of her way to be unhappy. Every little cheery remark I offered was parried with some sarcastic or gruff snark. She was like a character from a movie. I remained, of course, polite. And I couldn’t help thinking, “Thank god I’m not her.” And yet I know that I’m an awful lot like her at times, especially this season.
But not quite as bad as the guy who called the office about an hour ago. Long story short, I explained to this man (who was mildly belligerent throughout the conversation) that I’d be glad to print his stuff, but that I had a five dollar minimum charge. Now, truth be told, I don’t usually have a five dollar minimum charge for people who aren’t assholes. I will typically print out their ten copies and do it for free, handing them a business card and asking only that they keep us in mind for any larger jobs they might have. It’s just not worth my time billing a dollar or so for some copies.
But I wasn’t going to do this guy any favors. He was being rude. If another cheek needed turning, I just was not prepared to do so.
Well, he did not at all like the idea of a minimum charge when all he wanted was 20 copies or so. I told him that the best alternative would be one of those self-serve copiers that you typically find at a grocery store. And then he said, and I quote, “That makes no sense at all. You’re a **cking idiot.”
And I said in reply, and I quote, “Okay.” And then I hung up, more than glad to have gotten rid of him and no worse for having dealt with such a character. Stuff like this is becoming more common these days and I refuse to let some a-hole bring me down.
And yet it is almost inevitable, for no man is an island, even at Christmas time. And then I got to thinking about how I’m a conservative, not a thug in Ferguson who is supposedly little more than an impulse — a mere product of his environment — who can’t help him or herself. Being a conservative, I realize that I can make conscious choices. Oh, that doesn’t mean one isn’t affected by the morons that one occasionally meets. But one can at least make an effort to be other than a moron.
So I’m trying. Having rubbed elbows recently with a couple Scrooges, I am vowing not to be a Scrooge — while keeping things in proportion, of course. Personally I think it would be just as offensive and distasteful to go around with an overly optimistic and chirpy disposition, especially if it wasn’t real. Therefore through good moods or bad, I will try to take them all with the same equanimity while finding (or trying to find) some deep meaning in this Christmas season. Wish me some effin luck. I said “elfin”…I think.
I need a little Christmas, right this very minute.
Haul out the holly,
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
Ahhhh……thank you, Johnny. And I’ve personally found that if you can’t make it or fake it, you might be able to bake it. I’ve played Suzy Homemaker this Christmas, filling the family role of cookie maker. I’d done snowballs (simple) and just yesterday completed a batch of sugar cookies (intermediate). I’ll include recipes for both below. If I can do it, you can do it.
Usually slapping a piece of meat and cheese on bread is the extent of my Chefwork. I only slightly exaggerate. But the family will be getting together (some of us, anyway) this Christmas and I’ve volunteered to create many of the things we cherished as kids, including the yet-to-be-made Chex party mix (aka “nuts and bolts”). As my younger brother quipped, keep going like this and you may find a husband yet. (But just to avoid all this getting too sissy, I did bake a pair of small testicles onto one of the sugar-cookie snowmen.)
So I’ve baked a little Christmas, just this very minute. And not a moment too soon. Every time I go to the supermarket or mall, I get just a bit more down on people. I’m sort of the opposite of a liberal — the kind who profess great love for “humanity” but hate people. I tend to hate humanity while loving individual people, picking and choosing amongst them.
And one of the guys who made the tune “We Need a Little Christmas” jump into my head was this mousy little fellow, age about 25, who I found cutting the stems off of the broccoli in the supermarket. I was standing near him buying some carrots and other veggies. He must have felt guilt pangs (which is somewhat to his credit) because he turned to me and said, “Why buy what you don’t use?”
He cut the stems off of three or four bunches of broccoli and threw the stems back into the broccoli pile. Did the people of Rome get the same vibe when the Vandals looted the city? It’s such a fine line between civilization and the mob. Broccoli stems are not in themselves a big deal. But a guy who brings his own knife to what is already a discount supermarket in order to save a few cents on broccoli by cutting off the stems is surely the harbinger of something not good.
So why should viewing humanity in all its petty stupidity and vulgarity bother me? All this kind of stuff is nothing new. Just ignore it and move on. Let it slide off. Don’t let it stick to you (and I’ve learned from rolling cookie dough, a little flour is usually good for that).
But words are cheap. Actually sloughing off the many petty slings and arrows of contagious slobbery is not so easy. So I need a little Christmas, right this very minute before I do something like Rudolph did in that hilarious cartoon. And if you can’t fake it, bake it. Here’s a recipe or two:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups finely chopped walnuts (can go half and half with pecans, but pecans are a little rich for these cookies)
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup softened butter (may substitute 1/2 margarine)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Heat oven to 320 degrees F.
Combine all ingredients (except powdered sugar) in a large bowl. Get down and dirty and mix with your hands. Electric mixers (in this case) are for losers.
Shape dough into balls the size of small walnuts. Look down for guidance. Place 1 inch apart (not 7/8" of an inch, and not 1-1/8" inch…use a ruler if you need to) on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for about 35 minutes or until the tops or sides are lightly browned (the bottoms will brown a little faster…you can check the bottoms to make sure you're not burning anything).
Cool for 5 minutes then roll in powdered sugar. Let cool and then roll in the powdered sugar again. Ask your spouse if he or she would like the same treatment. If you freeze these, be sure to roll in powdered sugar again before serving. For the first roll, you can also use regular sugar, alone or in combination with the powdered sugar.
Calories: none. Christmas cookies don't count.
2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten or molested
1 tablespoon milk
1-1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. Place butter and sugar in large bowl of electric stand mixer and beat (or harass) until light in color.
Add egg, milk, and vanilla and beat (or castigate) to combine. Put electric mixer (not for losers, in this case) on low speed, gradually add flour, and beat (or batter) until mixture pulls away from the side of the bowl. Divide the dough in half or thirds, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate for 2 hours. (I also stuck the rolling pin and cutting board in the freezer…but I'm sure many modern Suzy Homemakers have Teflon rolling pins and bread boards.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Sprinkle surface where you will roll out dough with flour. Remove 1 wrapped pack of dough from refrigerator at a time, sprinkle rolling pin with dough, and roll out dough to 1/4-inch thick. Move the dough around and check underneath frequently to make sure it is not sticking.
Cut into desired shapes, place at least 1-inch apart on greased baking sheet, parchment, or silicone baking mat, and bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until cookies are just beginning to turn brown around the edges, rotating cookie sheet halfway through baking time. Let sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes after removal from oven and then move to complete cooling on wire rack. Serve as is or ice as desired. Store in airtight container for up to 1 week.
Red-Faced, Jolly, and Spiteful
As well as the two cookies mentioned above, I also went on to make three others (including gingerbread cookies). All were hailed as not only being adequate but ranging far into “good.” I was asked by one person if I assembled my own dough (that is, whether or not I used the pre-made Pillsbury junk that comes in a plastic roll). And with adequately reserved indignity I said, “Of course not. I made it from scratch…minus milking the cows.”
Of all the cookies, the gingerbread were my favorite. I simply Googled a good-looking recipe, read a few user comments for hints, and went forth to the mixing bowl and oven. The dough is particularly difficult to work with. But the results were marvelous. I made a gingerbread that used 1/2 the ginger, as recommended by one reader. And I made them soft, not hard. Both opposites are why I have always tended to want to like gingerbread, but never have until now. The gingerbread I’ve typically sampled has either been too hard or too spicy…or often both, and thus (to my taste) inedible. My gingerbread had everyone raving, if I do say so myself.
A summing up of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the whole season thus far would be: We ate a lot, listened to much festive music (the true trinity, I insist, is Bing, Frank, and Deano), splurged on presents, and fretted over the various annoyances of life. Counting blessings sounds good, in theory, but is somewhat rare in practice.
I got into the Christmas spirit as much as one can hope to given the realities of how Christmas is typically celebrated. This is why my liturgy is centered on the trinity (Bing, Frank, and Deano . . . and the blessed Elvis), holiday classic movies, and some silent contemplation (aka, doing a couple jigsaw puzzles). If you go to church, good for you, but there’s no guarantee of finding the Christmas Spirit there. Seek and ye shall find…and who knows where?
But man’s fate in this universe was brought home in crystal-clear FM on Christmas Eve. My older brother’s foster child was experiencing his first real Christmas (unless hanging around drug-addled biological parents can be called a Christmas). He enjoyed the toys and the food. And we all were laughing in resplendent chords watching him play with his Hot Wheels cars, taking them out of and back into the car carrier we had gotten him, all while singing some kind of festive tune to himself. It was the cutest thing you can imagine.
But human nature is a double-edged sword. Whether he got tired, or if there was some other influence (possibly from his rough upbringing), he began to have a temper. He started throwing his toys, stomping on things that just moments before were his favorites, and being an all-around butt-head.
And it occurred to me that this is humanity, stripped bare of pretense. Most children will grow out of such displays, but most will not to some degree, although we will dress them up and make them look like something other than a full-throated temper tantrum. But seeing a child so suddenly dissatisfied with all the blessings around him was a deep look into human nature and an unexpected and quite eloquent (in its own way) commentary on the true meaning of the season: outgrowing our childish natures and fostering a sense of gratitude.
No, I don’t want to talk about socialism. I don’t want to talk about Obama. I don’t want to talk about RINOs and Establishment Republicans. If we can’t find something to be grateful for this one time of year, then who are we? Who are we to lead and say that there is a better way?
All this and more I found in a full-throated, red-faced childish disgusted with everything and everyone despite being surrounded by a plenty and a love that this child had never known before. Thus are we.
OH! Christmas Tree
I have a fascination with Christmas Trees. For me, they are a symbol of peace and goodness, mystery and fun, joy and love. I have an acquaintance who keeps a small potted fir tree bedecked with a string of little multi-colored Christmas lights in the greenhouse. Plugged-in, of course. I remember the joy it brought to my heart when I first saw it on a September night across the yard and through the plastic wall. A Christmas Tree! I stood transfixed, filled with the same awe I felt many (many) years ago when I would sneak downstairs in the dark morning hours to light the family Christmas Tree and admire its tinseled splendor.
My mother always put up multiple Christmas Trees (and thankfully, at 78 she is still able). Where I grew up, in the old farmhouse by the water (where each year Santa would go by in the Christmas ship parade and wish us all Merry Christmas by name over the loudspeaker), special trees were designated traditional stations within our home. In the kitchen, a small tree displayed a whimsical collection of cookie cutters. In the dining room was a 4 foot metallic silver tree comprised of aluminum fir needles attached to metal branches which plugged into little holes on the silver-painted wooden trunk. Even without lights it was quite impressive. The tree in the living room, decorated in white and pink with doves and lace and all things things stately and beautiful, then dusted with a never-melting kiss of plastic snow, was the essence of peace and goodwill.[pullquote]In later years after we all grew up my Mom recalled that the tree resembled a street-walker! But its garishness was also its appeal…[/pullquote]
Then there was The Christmas Tree in the family room – the tree that drew me to itself at fourinthemorning. Unlike the other (artificial) trees, we would go as a family to the woods to find and harvest the tree. When we were little kids we were friends with a wonderful family who had a big farm with meadows, streams and forests. Every year they would invite all their friends over to cut Christmas Trees and sing Christmas carols and enjoy cookies and cocoa. What a great time! I looked forward to it all year long. After several years the kids and the remaining trees all grew up, so we went as a family to property my parents owned. This was such a fun family tradition, but after we all got jobs it was hard to find a time we could go out together to find a tree. So one year my Dad announced that on a certain night we would meet at 11:00 pm and go get our tree. When we arrived at my parent’s home Mom had thermoses of hot cocoa prepared and Dad had gathered up flashlights and lanterns. We went next door and tapped on Gramma’s window. She was always game for adventure. She came to the window in her nightie and we said, “Gramma, we’re going to the woods to get a Christmas tree. Come with us!” My Grandpa rolled over and asked what was going on. Gramma said, “Go back to sleep!”, which he promptly did. Grandpa was a practical man from the old country. Gramma joined us, and we drove for 45 minutes through a light snow, then tramped in circles through a forest of scraggly trees for another hour laughing and drinking cocoa to stay warm until we found the perfect tree.
The ceiling in the old farmhouse was quite high, so the family tree was usually over seven feet tall. We kids would often help Mom decorate it, and we had such a great time each year rediscovering the beautiful and fragile old glittered ornaments of delicate glass that my parents bought during their first years of marriage. Our favorite was the red ball with “Merry Christmas” spelled out in glittered silver script. We sisters allowed our brother the honor of hanging it on the tree. Of course, every homemade ornament found its special place on the branches as well. We strung so many lights on the tree it was a challenge to get them all plugged in without blowing a fuse. Then, after the balls were hung (and if Mom wasn’t around) we would stand back and throw wads of tinsel at the tree and each other. And I, being the youngest, had the honor of placing the star on the top after Dad came home to lift me up there. In later years after we all grew up my Mom recalled that the tree resembled a street-walker! But its garishness was also its appeal, and in those wee hours of the many-years-ago I would sit on the sofa or lay under the tree basking in the glow and breathing in the aroma of toasted fir until I fell asleep.
Lionel Trains Every Christmas
I loved our Christmas Tree and the smells of Christmas, but most of all I loved that there was always a new Lionel Train piece to add to the railroad village going in a ring around the tree. My brothers thought the trains were theirs, but in reality they were our father’s. He never got over his days as a hobo and loved those trains.
He bought one new engine or car each year, and there were new switch tracks and transformers too. I got to put down the artificial snow, made from whipped Ivory Snow flakes. We had ponds made of mirrors, bridges, water towers, houses, trees, animals, and we even had a little model Christmas tree and ice skaters on the ponds. There were old engines and coal tenders from the time my elder brother was born, and modern engines that made their own smoke from pellets. I remember one year when dad brought home a lumber flat car with sides that tilted out and dumped the lumber. It had a special track piece to unload on and Lincoln logs just fit on the car.[pullquote]I loved grandpa’s smell of Copenhagen blended with Christmas.[/pullquote]
Dad worked his way up to passenger trains with Pullman cars and little brakemen and conductors. Getting a model dome car was a really exciting year. He finally added another round of tracks so the trains could be switched between them, and then he got to a large figure 8. I seem to even remember a Roundhouse with a turntable.
With all the tracks out, walking through the living room at Christmas time took skill and dexterity, but how we loved those trains. When our blind grandfather came to visit he had to be led carefully, and our mom made sure the cuspidor for his snoose was close at hand so he didn’t hit the tracks.
I loved grandpa’s smell of Copenhagen blended with Christmas.
Carefully packing the trains up on New Year’s was hard and we almost cried. Even though we knew the trains would be back again, the next Christmas seemed so far away.
A Christmas Carol is Born
This is a story of one man’s pain that led to sublime beauty.
The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine in 1807. He was a very precocious child with an early bent for languages. He studied great literature and linguistics in Europe, but was deeply concerned with America, its history and traditions. His first wife, Mary, died in childbirth shortly after he had became a professor at Harvard. Then in 1843, after 7 years of rejection, he married his great love, Frances (Fannie) Appleton. They had 6 children together, one of whom died as an infant.
In 1861 Fannie’s clothing caught fire in a freak accident and she was burned over most of her body. Henry himself was burned horribly on his face, chest and hands while trying to save her. She died within a day and his grief was almost more than he could bear, but he still had 5 children to rear.
Added to his grief over His wife’s death, the Civil War began shortly after and in 1863, Longfellow’s eldest son, Charles, ran away from home to join the Union forces, much to his father’s dismay. Charley was only 17 years old.
Over the next few years Longfellow’s journal records his great despair over Fannie’s death and the horror of the war. As each Christmas passed he tried to believe again, but his Christmas Day entries show that he found no solace nor peace. He was famous and surrounded by loving a family and friends, but could no longer care for much beyond the well being of his children, especially Charley.
Toward the end of the war, at the battle of New Hope Church, Charles Appleton Longfellow was shot through the neck and the bullet lodged near his spine. Miraculously he survived the wound without being crippled. Henry went to Washington D. C. and nursed his son back to health. In this service to his son, his joy in life began to return.
On Christmas Day, 1864, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, buoyed to new hope by his son’s recovery, sat down and penned the poem he called “Christmas Bells,” which included two stanzas about the Civil war which are virtually unknown today. Those stanza’s are:
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.
In 1872 the full text of the poem was published in Great Britain, where a composer and choir director named John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905) read the poem and set the words to music he had previously written. To make the song more universal in its reach, he removed the two martial stanzas, and reordered the other stanzas. Within two years the song had spread to all Christian countries. Calkin’s arrangement is still the favored rendition of the beloved Christmas Carol we now call I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
Th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and
Mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Till, ringing, singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”
Maybe this carol deserves to be sung all year long as a reminder that out of sorrow great beauty can be born, and truly “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.”
Have a Merry, Merry Christmas!
Faux Christmas Tree
We always had a real tree. Back then we believed, much like Charlie Brown, that an artificial tree was a terrible assault on Christianity, truth, justice, and the American Way! They were tolerated in the department stores because, after all, they had to concentrate on stocking the shelves and waiting on customers, not watering the trees and sweeping up the daily shower of needles. But not in the home! After many decades I got used to the idea of faux Christmas trees, acknowledged the convenience for many people (especially with the pre-application of lights), the ability to safely keep a tree up for a longer period because it wouldn’t dry out – but not for us!
Growing up we would always get our tree late, a few days before Christmas, when the trees would by then all be picked over and we had to choose the best from a sorry lot of leftovers. I only know of this because I remember my mother talking about the funny looking tree we had that year, the one we got with the crooked trunk that year, the one with no branches on one side (the side that went up against the wall.) I don’t really remember those trees because once the lights, the ornaments, and the tinsel (the good, lead kind!) were on, and the crèche was placed underneath, I always thought it was beautiful![pullquote]I have this deeply held conviction that if you have a fake tree it should be a real, genuine fake tree.[/pullquote]
When I got married, my husband and I kept with the tradition of a real tree. It was his job to put it in the stand and put on the lights and we would both decorate. When our son was old enough he voluntarily took over the job of putting the tree in the stand and putting on the lights and he and his sister would do most of the decorating. When our son went off to college my husband and I went back to our old routine, he putting it in the stand and putting on the lights, both of us decorating. It was always my job to take it all down, pack away the ornaments and lights in an organized way, and have what remained of the tree ready to go out with the first trash pickup after Epiphany, Twelfth Night.
The change came one year when my husband had some boxes of papers and books and stuff piled where the Christmas tree would normally go. I had asked him to please remove them but he never got around to it. I nagged some until, finally, playing my trump card, I warned him that if they weren’t moved I wouldn’t get a Christmas tree! Perhaps my husband was thinking, “Great! Now I won’t have to put any lights on!” Or maybe he just had too much other stuff to do. Or maybe he just didn’t like being nagged! But three days before Christmas the boxes were still there and it was beginning to dawn on me that perhaps a Christmas tree wasn’t all that high on his priority list. But I wanted a tree!
So I went out to find a tree and considering my options at that late date I decided to get a little tabletop, faux tree – one of those fiber optic ones. I have this deeply held conviction that if you have a fake tree it should be a real, genuine fake tree. Not one of those so-called realistic ones – they fool no one! With a tabletop model I wouldn’t be totally committing myself, and those fiber optic ones, I had to admit, were really kinda cool! Surely, by next year the pile of boxes would be gone and we could go back to the real thing. But I couldn’t find a fiber optic tree. Why? They were all over the place the previous year! Where did they go? I looked and looked and looked but to no avail! Finally there was only one place left to go. It was a swimming pool business that did Christmas in the off-season.
And There It Was!
My tree! My faux tree! And boy was it ever faux! It was called a White Cedar Tree. The white, cedar branches had glitter on them and hundreds of tiny white lights. The branches were not thick. They were rather sparsely spaced so that ornaments would actually hang down. It was sparkly and lacy and looked like it came from Fairy Land! I brought it home, and because at six feet it was not a tabletop model, my husband gladly moved his boxes and we put it up. It was beautiful! I was committed to faux!
And it was cheap! First of all it was cheap because it was 50% off – sixty bucks! Secondly it was cheap because, well, quality wise it was really a piece of junk. By year four it began to fail. The lights were odd in that the normal replacement bulbs wouldn’t fit and the strands were the kind that if one or two lights failed the entire strand will fail. The branches were of flimsy plastic “cedar” attached to metal rods attached to the trunk and a few of those weren’t quite what they used to be. We used it two more years, but when the last strand of lights finally went out I had to come to grips with the fact that it was time to throw it away. I loved that tree and looked and looked and looked for a replacement, but alas, there was not one to be found anywhere.
I didn’t buy a tree that year. Instead, I decorated a banana plant from the deck that was wintering over in the living room. I thought it really was rather fetching myself, but the children were not amused and I didn’t try that again! I finally found another faux tree. Not a beautiful fairy tree and not a white one. Those fluffy white jobs just don’t do it for me – not when I’ve experience the magic of Lothlórien! But this one will do. It has three different kinds of “needles” so it is not trying to fool anyone. Some are fluffed a bit to give it a frosty look and it has pinecones. I like pinecones. It is pre-lit so it makes my husband happy.
So for now it will do, but every year I search anew to see if anyone out there has a white cedar tree for sale.
I Fell Out of a Christmas Tree
Editor’s note: This site’s good friend and benefactor, Pat Tarzwell, told me a story yesterday on Christmas Eve. He had dropped by the office on his way north for a mad dash to the mall for a last-minute present. (Being a conservative, it wasn’t a “mad dash” but more of a methodical search, but the result was much the same.)
The story he told me was about how his wife was born on Christmas Day and how a certain bad song (good to her ears though, and to mine now that I have heard it and the story) became her song, just as “Thanks for the Memories” became Bob Hope’s song and “White Christmas” became Bing Crosby’s song.
Having heard the gist of the story from Pat, I told him that I didn’t care how busy he was this Christmas Eve, he had to write it down for me. In fact, he was very busy. Not finding what he needed at one mall, he had to drive 30 miles south to another crowded mall to find a particular type of See’s candy. (I hope you found it, Pat, and kept to your promise.)
Luckily his wife had already done much of the work, having written down the story in a form of a speech for Toastmasters. I present it her with only minor editing. The actual song, of which Pat made an mp3, is linked to below.
If you surveyed my kids about my scoldings as they were growing up, TURN IT DOWN would surely be in the top 3. So imagine their surprise at being awoken for school early one morning by the stereo blaring full blast and then finding Mom the cause of it. There I danced, listening excitedly to a cassette tape.
The audio was not particularly good quality. It had been dubbed from a 35 year old record. The lyrics were sung by a 9 year old child – and corny. To my kids-it was just Mom being weird. To me it was a dream come true. The reason — because it happened to be my second favorite Christmas song. It is about being born on Christmas, which I am. As a child I connected with that song called “I Fell Out of a Christmas Tree”, and it was definitely a part of me. So when it was lost in a childhood move, I knew I had lost a piece of myself. But the amazing part of this story is how that song came back to me.
Just a couple of weeks before, I received a post card in the mail. The printing on the card was small and crammed. I had to read it twice to comprehend its message and discovered that it was sent by a Sherlock Holmes. (Some people have a Fairy Godmother. I have a Sherlock Holmes.) You see, months before while reading the newspaper I came across a column much like the syndicated Dear Abby. It was called Dear Mr Music Man. Someone had written to him for help with a song about which they could only remember a short phrase. Mr Music Man replied with everything you could want to know about that song — the year it was recorded, the label, the artist and the rest of the lyrics. I immediately penned a letter with all the lyrics I remembered from my obscure little Christmas song, certain it would be printed in time for the Christmas season.
Christmas came and went and my letter never appeared in the paper. Disappointed, my life moved on.
Many months later, the mailman brought me a funny little handwritten postcard. I did not know the sender of the card and the lettering was difficult to read and was confusing. After pouring over it a second time I began to understand — the sender subscribed to a music magazine that also carried the syndicated Mr Music Man. He had seen my letter and Mr Music Man’s reply. In a later edition he noticed another reader’s letter who stated he had the record and if I sent him a cassette tape he would record it for me. My Sherlock Holmes used his great powers of deductive reasoning, connected all these pieces of the puzzle and guessed I was not a subscriber and therefore would never know of the other gentleman’s offer. He mailed a postcard to me, connecting me with the record’s owner. I rushed to mail an audio tape as soon as possible.
Early one morning after taking Pat to work I checked the mailbox for yesterday’s mail and to my enthusiastic amazement, I discovered a brown envelope with my audio tape in it and my obscure little song recorded on it. I dashed back to the house, darted inside, put the tape in the stereo and cranked the volume all the way up.
And that’s what woke the kids! I played that silly song repeatedly. The kids had to endure my song as they showered, dressed, ate breakfast, packed lunch, and again in the car as we drove to school. After all these years I wanted to imprint that song on my brain. Thus began a series of correspondences with a fellow who turned out to be an avid Christmas song collector. By the time the next Christmas rolled around, two more audio tapes arrived filled with titles like: Something Barked on Christmas Morning, 17 Million Bicycles, Dancer, Prancer and Nervous, Have a Gluey Christmas, Santa and the Purple People Eater and of course, my song – I Fell out of a Christmas Tree.
The Christmas song collector, and my Sherlock Holmes, gave the little girl in me the best present ever — a tangible piece of childhood. So if you are around me at Christmas time and my song plays, just hold that thought and bear with me for a couple of minutes while I turn up the volume. Later I’ll TURN IT DOWN.
I Fell Out of a Christmas Tree
By Little Rita Faye (1953)
I arrived one Christmas morn,
That’s the day that I was born.
Other kids are not like me,
I fell out of a Christmas Tree.
They didn’t find me in the park,
I wasn’t bro’t here by the stork
I’m a Personality,
I fell out of a Christmas Tree.
I spilled about the highest limb and tumbled to the floor
No one was there to pick me up, my folks were all next door
When my birthday rolls around,
They close up all the stores in town
And have a holiday for me
I fell out of a Christmas tree.
Every Year on Christmas day,
they all let me have my way
I’m not like most kids you see
I fell out of a Christmas tree.
When my Mama thinks I’m bad
And turns me over to my Dad,
He never takes me ‘cross his knee
I Fell out of a Christmas tree.
Now Christmas birthdays may be nice
but I’ll give you a clue
I have a party once a year,
the other kids have two
But still I want it understood,
I wouldn’t change it if I could
Cause it’s plain as plain can be,
If it wasn’t for Christmas there wouldn’t be no me.
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