Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

(I thought this had been posted on New Year’s Eve, but somehow it wasn’t….and it’s another meander through my memories, a leftover Christmas decoration, so enter at your peril….)

If I don’t take down the holly wreath on my door before midnight, does that scupper my lottery win?

I really need a lottery win now as I’m in dire straits, though I realise I only have a marginally greater chance of winning if I bother to buy a ticket than if I don’t. But in America, we believe that if you leave your Christmas decorations up after New Year’s Day, it’s bad luck. We don’t—at least on the East Coast where I lived—observe the 12 days of Christmas and wait until 6 January as you do here in the UK.

I say 6 January, as that seems to be what’s observed, but when you actually count the days, making what I think is a safe assumption that 25 December is the first day of Christmas when the partridge in a pear tree arrives, then surely your last gift of 12 drummers drumming would arrive on 5 January. …But a bit of quick research says that the focus is really 12 days after Christmas, generally considered to begin on Boxing Day (26 December), the feast day of St. Stephen, with the festivities lasting until the day before Epiphany on 6 January, although others start counting from sunset on 24 December, as in centuries past. Then churches add to the confusion by sometimes leaving their decorations up until the following Sunday so they have the crib out for their Epiphany service.

Anyway, growing up in America, the 12 days of Christmas were merely lyrics in a carol. So as soon as Christmas day was over, we’d be keen to get the decorations down and feel as though we never wanted to hear another carol. As we didn’t celebrate Boxing Day, many of us were back at work on 26 December.

One reason we were keen to put Christmas away was we’d be sick of it all by then. We in the States tend to put up our decorations sooner than you do in the UK. The day after Thanksgiving, which is also a ‘bank holiday’, is the biggest shopping day of the year because most people are off work and then realise that, with Thanksgiving out of the way, it’s time to start thinking of Christmas, so they go out and shop like mad in a world full of sales. If someone came home with a Christmas tree on that fourth Friday in November, it would not be absurd, although waiting another week might be more practical needles-wise.

Going to a Christmas tree lot—sizeable ventures that would turn up on designated land each year, with all sizes and types of beautiful Christmas trees—is a regular, exciting part of the Christmas season. Rather different from grabbing a tiny, dead-looking tree fit for a table from the Asda car park, wrapped tightly in netting so you’re basically buying a surprise package, nailed to wooden planks. Everyone I knew always got real trees, the truly noble getting trees you could re-plant.

Indeed, my Grandmother had a whole row of evergreens of varying heights lining the hill behind her house, years of Christmas trees past. And she would have more than one Christmas tree each year, in addition to the the trees out front and all along the deck that were decorated with lights. She had a main Christmas tree in one of the living rooms and another on the screened-in porch (which isn’t like the 4x4 tiny porch I have in London where I can just about shelter from the rain whilst searching for my door keys, but something bigger than my bedroom, with a great view of the gardens on two sides of the house). Her trees would have different themes, and they were stunning yet somewhat Spartan affairs, certainly not the hodge-podges of random decorations collected over the years that my trees were. And never, ever would they have that tacky (as I was brought up to see it) tinsel or strands of silver ‘icicles’. As a result of my upbringing, I find myself allergic to the purple and silver foil decorations that were draped across my office every year.

But my grandmother was the queen of decoration creation, and with a friend developed ‘critters, angels and stars’, even writing a book on how to make them. They were wonderful critters such as reindeer, owls, mice, mini Santa Clauses (celosia for the suit) and angels and stars made only of natural materials that she generally gathered from the road side: teasels, Queen Anne’s Lace, berries, pods. Her decorations were amazing, and my only motivation for getting a Christmas tree in past years when I certainly didn’t have the space or money was to display the many critters my grandmother had sent me, which I will cherish until they crumble.

Critters created by my grandmother, her friend and many volunteers decorated a White House Christmas tree one year when Ronald Reagan was president, and my grandmother appeared on American breakfast television showing Maria Shriver (a Kennedy and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ex-wife) how to make them. They also appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, something of which she was very proud.

Every year, these critters decorated several trees spanning three levels in the excellent Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, which houses a spectacular collection of work by Andrew Wyeth, his son Jamie Wyeth and his father illustrator N C Wyeth, Howard Pyle and a few others. At Christmas, the museum was transformed. Apart from the magnificent critter-decorated trees, one floor of the museum had thigh-high Victorian dolls posing in different wintry scenes, wearing blue velvet coats with big ribbons in their hair. It was charming and Christmassy even if you’re not into dolls.

Even better, the next floor was turned over to model trains at Christmastime. Dozens of model trains traversed the massive round floorplan, through tunnels, past model stations, watched by miniature people and real people, constantly travelling around…it was utterly delightful. At a young age, I decided that once I had a house with a basement (or spare storey lying around), I would also somehow dedicate it to many different model trains, running all the time. Sadly, I’ve not managed it yet; life is unfulfilled.

But the pleasure of seeing these trains, the Christmassy Victorian dolls and the critter trees at the Brandywine River Museum was a big part of my childhood Christmases. Another tradition was to go to an evening church service on Christmas Eve--an earlier Anglican equivalent of midnight mass—and en route, the family would drive its convoy of cars through the Longwood Gardens car park. Longwood, created by a DuPont on farmland once owned by William Penn, was gorgeous by day at Christmas, but at night, outside, the many dozens of trees scattered amidst their ginormous car park were decorated with 500,000 Christmas lights. A parade of cars cruise through each night filled with occupants spellbound by the spectacle, which seems better than fireworks. As a child, I found it particular fun to approach a tree that looked like a Christmas-tree-shaped fir from a distance only to find that it was perhaps an Oak, but with the lights strung in such a way to create an optical illusion. I dearly miss this important tradition of my youth, but it is still there for anyone in the Brandywine River Valley (Pennsylvania/Delaware) to enjoy.

We’d return to my Grandmother’s house for the Christmas Eve celebrations, which for my family were the main sha-bang. Christmas Eve is, after all, full of that magical feeling, that tingly, tangible anticipation, such tremendous excitement that you’d almost reached the most important day of the year. And, when you’re a young kid, you can’t wait to see what Santa brought you.

We de-glamourised things in a hugely consumerist way, in that we grandchildren were tasked with distributing the many, many presents to everyone’s assigned station, mine being a sofa generally bestowed with a huge stack of gifts as I was “easy to buy for”. My grandfather had a certain high-backed chair, my mother a nearby ottoman…..the same places every year. If we came across a gift addressed to “mom” in unfamiliar handwriting (sometimes the gifts were from pets), we’d choose the mom with the fewest gifts, although that often led to bafflement at an inappropriate gift until things were sorted out.

The distribution mission accomplished, with exciting piles of gifts on every chair, we children were then allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. We would scrutinise our piles and try to select what might be the most exciting gift. It was tremendously disappointing if you wasted your Christmas Eve gift on, say, a summer top or indeed any clothing.

We’d then play Twister, which can only really be played at such a big gathering. No charades for us; I think that’s just an English tradition. It’s odd that there seem to be no photographs of our regular Twister games, relatives stretching oddly across each other to reach certain colourful dots, but then back when film was expensive and one might have to buy separate flash cubes for cameras, then not know ‘til the photos were developed when you finished your film months later if the pictures turned out….well, people took far fewer photographs.

During this family Christmas Eve party, we’d have the main Christmas meal. No turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce for us, as we’d have just had that at the end of November for Thanksgiving. My grandmother would put out a buffet of her various marvellous dishes, the main feature always being tender thick slices of roast beef, which doesn’t interest me as a veggie, but always went down well with the others. For dessert, there were pumpkin and pecan pies—not mincemeat, a description I always took literally so I welcomed its absence. Perhaps this Christmas Eve tradition followed that belief that Christmas began at sunset, but no one ever mentioned why we did things that way.

When it got late, my brother and I would go to our room and try to sleep, although we could hear the grown-ups upstairs still enjoying the party. We would normally wake about 5.30am, and we were allowed to go upstairs to the main part of the house to get our stockings, which we could take back to our rooms and play with whatever we discovered there, leaving the tired grown-ups undisturbed for many hours. As we retrieved out stockings, now leaning against the side of the fireplace as they would be so laden, we could also see what Santa had left. We knew the presents we’d distributed the night before were from family, but obviously, Santa Clause would have come in the night and left the big presents, such as the longed-for electric organ I got once, or skis.

We’d take our stockings downstairs and find them filled with little pocket games and puzzles that we could play with until everyone else woke up, plus maybe magazines or small books, and always candy, particularly an unusual tradition of jewel-coloured hard candy in the shape of boots, which we always had in our stockings, the only time we ate it. Why they were boots, I’ve no idea, and never thought to ask.

Eventually, the adults would wake, and we would begin opening our piles of gifts, carefully recording each one on a notepad so we could write a proper thank you note later. We’d all progress through our piles at the same time as though in a race, but sometimes calling out ‘Oh, I love this! Thank you, Grandmommy!’, or if it was something awful, you could just quietly put it down without offence and move onto the next item. My Grandmother would usually wander around, salvaging any pretty wrapping paper that she might want to reuse (as a pioneer of recycling, she’d also use the front of Christmas cards as gift cards the following year. Mind you, Christmas cards were nothing like as popular over here, and the people who bothered to send them would often just have a photograph taken of the family and let a SnappySnaps equivalent send out the photo postcard with a generic ‘Marry Christmas’ message to everyone they know. Rather cold and too easy, I always thought, although it’s interesting to see how distant people look these days if you don’t often see them.)

We’d then have a subdued brunch, I think with eggs benedict and scrambled eggs, English Muffins—that sort of thing. Friends of my grandmother would pop in to say Merry Christmas and perhaps have some (ugh) egg nog before going on their way, and some years we’d be joined by our cousins, who would have already had a Christmas present extravaganza at my aunt’s house.

And then it was pretty much over. We had no big family meal, all sitting around the table. No, we’d collect our haul and try to jam it into our suitcases. Then my brother and I would head to our father’s house for a more subtle Christmas (with an artsier stocking that might include a Portuguese phrase dictionary and tinned frogs’ legs) with a few more gifts to open, whilst my mother, Grandmother, and Aunt would usually go out for a Chinese meal, as they were the only restaurants open on Christmas, and often catch a film in the afternoon. In the cinema, not on television.

Television played absolutely no part in our Christmases. I remember once going to a pre-Christmas party where my grandmother’s friends put all the kids in a room to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the telly, but that was the only time I can ever remember seeing any of the goggle box at Christmas. That would explain why, when watching the Andy Williams Christmas Show on BBC4 recently, it was unfamiliar to me although it wasn’t cancelled until I was 8. Telly had no place in our lives during the holidays. Nor did anyone give a thought as to what song topped the charts that week. Why would you?

At my father’s house, we’d sit and read and read in the peace of the day by a roaring fire and gorgeous tree, waiting for the evening meal, which still was not turkey. My step-mother was an artist so the long dining room table was always impeccably, creatively decorated, with baubles, holly, pine cones and even teddy bears featuring in the centrepiece. Everything was beautiful and calm.

After that, we’d return to our lives in North Carolina, and you’d not want to see anything Christmassy again. The decorations would come down, the trees be discarded or replanted. We would not celebrate Boxing Day, although there were still often sales. I remember from my days in retail management that the stores would open early, painfully for the staff on the day after Christmas, and there would often people queuing outside to return unwanted Christmas gifts. Before 8am on 26 December! They were the ultimate Scrooges….

So whilst I can look back and feel a bit disgusted by the consumerist attitude with such a focus on so many, many presents, I mainly feel warm and fuzzy inside when remembering my childhood Christmases. The piney, spicy scents, gorgeous decorations, the warmth and safety of family, the joy of anticipation and the delight when dreams are fulfilled—it was all so stunningly beautiful and stoked my happy Christmas memories for many years. One day, although my grandmother sadly died in April so it will never be the same, but one day, I shall have to go back to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, just to see Longwood and the Brandywine River Museum at Christmas. They always will be a huge part of Christmas for me, even from so far away in distance and time.

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