Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Memories of Christmas Past

This, being my 64th Christmas season, puts me in mind of all the Christmases I have experienced throughout the period of my existence on this Earth. Well, not "all" of my past Christmases mind you, the ones in the 1950s are but a hazy blur in my memory. Some of the dusty artifacts buried deep within my memory banks may, or may not, originate with that fine decade. Some may even be mislabeled as belonging to the '50s when in actuality they may actually belong to the 1960s. Which for me was an absolutely wonderful decade, for others, perhaps not so much. After all, the war in Vietnam was raging in the latter portions of that decade and then there was the unrest and civil disturbances in these here United States. But to a lad from Vermont that was all happening in the outside world and certainly did not intrude (near as I can remember) upon my family's Christmas celebrations.

For my first three Christmases I was an only child, The Olde Vermonter showed up in time for Christmas of 1956, The Musician followed in 1960, so I'm guessing that I was probably a spoiled brat for at least one of those Christmases. Of course, in '53 I was naught but a wee bairn and in '54 I was a toddler. So I would like to say that in '55 I got lots and lots of presents. But I doubt it. My parents were not wealthy and, as I recall, they were good parents who didn't believe in spoiling their progeny.

While certainly no rods* were spared in my upbringing, we were disciplined when necessary, actual thrashings were non-existent. My Dad having swatted me on the bare behind but once, and having seen the barely discernible red mark left by his hand immediately afterwards felt so bad that he never struck any of his children ever again. Mom never hit us, not that I can recall, instead she would give us the old "wait until your father gets home" admonishment when we were getting perhaps a bit too obstreperous. Much like having a "fleet in being" the threat of Dad coming home to wallop us was much more scary than the actual walloping which probably would not have occurred. (Thanks to me, yes I take credit for all of the stuff I went through so that my brothers would not have to. Generous to a fault I am. And humble as well.)

Anyhoo. So my memories of those 64 Christmas seasons are somewhat jumbled together and present a kaleidoscope of memories rather than a series of clear pictures of things that I can recall in great detail. Though to be honest, at my age recalling what I had for dinner a few days in the past is often beyond my ken. (By the way, I say "seasons" rather than "Christmases" because while I am approaching my 64th celebration of the birth of Christ, we ain't there yet, as I write this, and I am a big believer in not counting my chickens before they are hatched. No, we've never had chicken on Christmas Day to my knowledge, but I digress.)

With that being said...**

In the 18 odd years that I lived in my little town in Vermont with my parents, we lived in three places, oddly enough all three places were on streets whose names started with the letter "C," though in truth only two were streets, one was an avenue, but again, I digress. Commonwealth Avenue, Crescent Street, and (finally) Cooper Street, where the ancestral home still stands and is still owned and occupied by members of our far-flung clan. That would be The Olde Vermonter and his branch of the tribe.

As far as Christmases go, I think we only spent one (1953) Christmas at Comm Ave (as it's called in Bawstin). As I was only seven months old at the time, I don't remember any of it, though my parents told me that I was the perfect child - quiet, reserved, and always obedient. Now think the exact opposite. Then when I was still very small we moved to Crescent Street. We went from an apartment to essentially an entire house, though as I recall the landlady lived in what today we'd call an in-law suite. Maybe they called it that back then, I can't say.

One thing I remember about one Christmas on Crescent Street is that only the downstairs portion of the house was heated. Upstairs one wore parkas, mukluks, furs, large blankets, and lots and lots of underwear. Okay, maybe it wasn't that cold. But I distinctly remember one Christmas morning when I dashed downstairs more for the warmth that was there than the presents under the tree. I'm sure that once I stopped shivering I noticed the presents.

Now when we moved to Cooper Street the entire house was ours. (And there was heat throughout!) Alright, it wasn't a gigantic house, it was a split level with three bedrooms and one bath. Now picture that with two adults (the parental units) and three growing boys. I had my own bedroom, the younger siblings shared a room, which (when The Musician was a baby) I myself had shared with The Olde Vermonter. (One of my earliest memories is Dad yelling from downstairs, "You two shut up and go to sleep!" The Olde Vermonter was ever loquacious. I too could hold my own in conversation in those days.)

Now Christmas on Cooper Street was where some of my fondest memories of Christmas past were formed. We always had a real tree, which Dad had to always run twine all over the living room in order for it to stand straight, didn't look all that odd because Mom would hang Christmas cards from the twine. Lots of tinsel on the tree which we boys would "artistically" apply, think handfuls flung at the branches while Mom yelled in exasperation, "Don't put it on that way, watch. See? You drape it." We barbarians never got it right but we thought we did. For when we got up the morning after decorating the tree all the tinsel looked absolutely perfect. Little did we know that Mom would stay up half the night re-arranging all of the decorations and the tinsel. One constant, that my mother still has, and uses every year, was the star atop the tree -

Top of the tree in '15
Though the bracket to hold a light bulb is no longer functional (missing part of the bracket), it still holds its luster and its glory. (At least in my mind, of course, I look at it much the way I did when I was 10.)

Christmas morning was always the same, The Olde Vermonter was always up before anyone else and trying to sneak downstairs for a peek at the presents. I would, in the true spirit of the season, always threaten to crush his skull if he did so. If he told me what he saw, then I would do it slowly. Mom always told me not to talk to my brother that way. As I got older, I learned to say it more quietly, still she always managed to hear it.

Eventually Mom and Dad would give up on their quest to sleep past seven and grudgingly get up and "release the hounds." That is, let us boys head down to the living room to see what treasures lay under the tree. For The Olde Vermonter and I it was two players trying to get at the puck in a corner of the rink. (Hockey reference for you southerners. Oh wait, they play hockey in Florida now don't they?)

We boys would spend the next 30 seconds opening everything which had our name on it, leaving my mother to wonder why she stayed up half the night wrapping presents. Okay, it took longer than that, Mom would make us go slow, to savor and enjoy it. When everything was opened, the next hour or so... Well, I remember it as being a lot like this, before Ralphie opens his special gift at any rate.

One thing we always did was done for our cat. Before all of the wrapping paper was picked up and disposed of, Tommy got his catnip. One sheet of discarded wrapping paper, one 15-pound black cat, and perhaps a tablespoon of catnip and we'd nearly forget all about the gifts we had just opened. It was time to watch our cat get his Christmas buzz on.

He'd sniff at it, then sneeze, then sniff a little more, then plop right down in it. Imagine, if you will, the human equivalent, one sniffs the wine, then swirls it about the glass, then sniffs it again, then you pour it on the floor and roll about in it until you've got a good buzz.

Okay, wine doesn't work like that, but for some reason most members of the feline persuasion won't just sniff it, lick it, and eat it. No, they have to roll around in it, get it everywhere, for that (apparently) is the only way to get the full effect from catnip. Truth be told, not all cats enjoy catnip. My Mom's two cats get no kick from it at all. Barely pay any attention to it. Now our current members of the feline staff here at Chez Sarge do indeed enjoy catnip. Though in truth, Sasha is a bit of a mean drunk, she gets bombed and wants to pick a fight with her sister Anya, who just wants to snooze after a bit o' the nip.

But Tommy back in the day would get his buzz on then go sleep it off. At least until the turkey was ready.

After all was put away, and after we'd hauled all our gifts up to our rooms, it was time to get washed up and dressed for breakfast and the furthering of the day's activities. Though as boys we should have been content to stay unwashed and in our PJs all day, we consented to all this "getting ready" stuff because Act II of Christmas Day would come fairly quickly. For around noon the grandparents, all four of them, would show up bearing, you guessed it, more presents.

We were a bit more sedate when opening the presents from our grandparents. For one thing we were more awake and the initial rush of Christmas Morn was past. For another thing, our grandparents made a point of spoiling us the year round, so gifts from them, while always special, were more the norm than the exception. There was some youthful anticipation though because as the paternal and maternal grandparents lived in different towns in New Hampshire, and they almost never synchronized their watches to arrive on target at the same time, one set would show up first, more presents would go under the tree, then my brothers and I would bounce from window to window to see if the other set of grandparents were coming up the street yet. All to the tune of my Dad yelling at us to "Settle down!" If our paternal grandparents showed up first, Dad's "settle downs" would be accompanied by our Scottish grandmother saying, "It's alright Bobby, it's Christmas, they're a wee bit excited is all."

Eventually the other grandparents would show, there would be more presents and then food. Lots and lots of food. Food enough to feed a small army, food enough that even with everyone taking home leftovers, Mom wouldn't have to cook for a couple of days after Christmas.

And when all the grandparents went home, and as the sun settled below the snow covered hills, my brothers and I would set up a new game at the foot of my parents bed, where there was this really neat and old-fashioned woven rug. We would play the new game while dining on turkey sandwiches, pickles, olives, and stuffed celery. It was a blast. I remember it so well.

Playing a game Christmas Day? It's something we still do when we're with our kids at Christmas, they inherited the tradition. I have a number of stories about those games which I shall have to tell you. Especially the great Monopoly Controversy of '04 (I think it was). Let's just say this, The Nuke is fiercely competitive when it comes to Monopoly. (Well, in anything for that matter.) She and her uncle The Musician almost "had words" that year. My brother restrained himself, though he did mention to me privately that The Nuke had swindled him on a deal concerning Park Avenue.

Could be. The Nuke seldom takes prisoners...

*  Proverbs 13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. (NIV)


  1. Dad never asked if I wanted to help him with projects. One rainy day, he said, "Get in here!" So I went! And we cut some wood in the kitchen. I was having a ball... We shaped a curve on the end, and then a... handle?? What is this thing!?! Holy buckets! It's a paddle!!! My dad made me help him build a stupid paddle. Some rainy day project.

    He broke it on my backside a few months later. That's when I found out that large knots in wood compromise the integrity of the board. It wasn't even a loose knot either. I contemplated that after I could sit down again.

    But for all the spankings I got, he never beat me like he got from his dad. Crawled under a bush after a beating to recover enough to walk... Yeah, he NEVER did that me. I can't imagine the pressures on a farmer during the dust bowl. But grandpa was mean before that so......

    I'm glad you turned out okay, I probably wouldn't have done as well if I'd skipped getting my shorts dusted.

    1. I have ever been amenable to reason.

      I also learned early on that you always "honor the threat." In other words, don't poke the bear.

  2. Great tale, Sarge.
    We never made it to Christmas morning.
    The ol' guy in the fur lined red suit always arrived and departed as my kid sisters were just getting ready for bed after their baths.
    Nobody ever saw him, but he made a heck of a racket.
    Yup, fond memories.

  3. My favorite Christmas memories are from the 1960s when we owned a small lodge in Red River, NM. The lodge had a large lobby area with a huge fireplace and lots of comfy old couches and chairs. Dad would put up a big tree in the corner of the lobby. We kids would go caroling and then come back to the lodge for hot chocolate and games in the lobby. My brothers and I slept upstairs - and you are right - it was much colder upstairs. My brothers and I would start down the stairs and then stop on the step just a few feet below the first-floor ceiling. It was warm and toasting near the ceiling. As far as cats and Christmas, I have a memory burned into my mind of the cat with a string of tinsel hanging out of its bottom.

    1. I too remember occasions where the family feline was trailing tinsel.

      Good memories Lou, I can almost picture that big lobby with the fireplace and all the comfy chairs. Put a Christmas tree in there, snow outside, a crackling fire and wow, we're talking awesome.

  4. In our house growing up, the forbidden game was "Risk". Oh my! When I was dating the future Mrs Juvat I brought her home for Christmas to "meet the parents". After dinner, the family decided to play it. At one point during the game, I looked across at the lady I loved and would marry and gained a true understanding of the word "Horror" from the look in her eyes. Fortunately, she still married me and NO, that was the last time I've played the game.

    1. The Missus Herself without a shred of military training, having never read Clausewitz, Jomini, or Sun Tzu, is a vicious Risk player. If you even blink you'll find her armies marching up the Main Street of your capital and most of your territories surrendered.

      I don't know how she does it. I won't play against her, no way, no how.

  5. I like the image of your cat getting drunk and wanting to fight the other. Reminds me of some of my high school classmates.

    1. I think we all had high school classmates like that. Apparently there are West Pointers with at least one classmate like that.

    2. The Cadet's father said "He said he wants to know why a male officer felt he needed to strike a small female cadet "square in the face, in the jaw, with a full-fledged punch." How about equal opportunity? ;)

    3. Sounds like she learned her common sense from Dad. Attack a cop, get punched. Seems straightforward to me.

      Play stupid games, win stupid prizes...

  6. Ah yes, the infamous Christmas Monopoly game... sigh... :-)

  7. In the two houses of my growing up, 106 North Clinton, in Clintonville, WI, and 515 Martin, Mauston, WI, my memories were of being warm and loved, which are the best memories to have.

    The BadgerDad's idea of a Christmas Tree was really more of a Christmas Bush. He wanted it almost as full at the ceiling, as at the base, a huge Balsam, of Great Fullness. Which is probably why our Toms, in their trips up and down the tree, never disturbed any of the ornaments. Lazarus, our Norwegian Forest Cat, believed in a daily round trip. He was the cat who insisted on sleeping on my bed. I would be in bed reading, and he would come to bed, hop up, curl up next to my head, and drop off. Man, he smelled great in December!

    1. Tommy tried climbing the tree once, when it came down on top of him, he decided not to do that anymore.

      I guess the BadgerDad went with the Christmas bush because he knew the Norwegian Forest Cat was going to want to climb it. As you've mentioned before. Lazarus was a big boy.

      "Great Fullness" - Heh, a term like that does need to be capitalized!


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