Friday, December 26, 2008

Sugar Plums-Memories of Christmas Past

One of the things our family enjoyed talking about this year, if all too briefly, was the things from our childhood Christmases that we still love to remember. The top three topics were: Stockings and the stocking stuffers, Christmas smells, and the anticipation.

As children, we had no idea we were essentially poor. Yet our family had a tradition every year for the things Santa would put in our stockings.

But before I get into that, let me first say my stocking was made by my Grandmother Elsie, out of bright red flannel. It was abnormally large since she used a pattern from her volunteer work at church which was making stockings for Baylor Hospital for the babies born close to or on Christmas Day. This was the early 196os and I was born in October 1960.The pattern was large enough to hold a baby, which it did, but not me. My brother and I were almost two years apart, so we both had similar designs; a felt snow man, a felt Santa, a sleigh or reindeer, also in felt and glued to the flannel, instead of sewn. Our names were embroidered on her sewing machine in Christmas green. It was the very best thing to hold a baby; even better for all the stuff. My sister came 5 years later and was not as fortunate; her stocking was red artificial fur, store bought, smaller and her name was glued on. She still got cool stuff though.

Here's the ususal "stuff" we got for years, even as teenagers: hazelnuts, Hershey kisses, smoked oysters, peppermints, butter scotches, a few oranges and apples, Life Savers books (remember those?), M&Ms, Butterfingers or some other candy bar, small toys such as string tops or Whizzers™ by Mattel (gyro-tops which seem to spin for hours), Pez, View Master reels, candy canes, small wrapped gifts for fun, kaleidoscopes, sometimes, but rarely, a banana and last but not least little Hickory Farms™ kid size cheeses and sausages...I love typing "option 2" for the "™" it adds so much.

Now take all those things together and stick your whole head into the stocking. Go ahead. You know you want to. Now, breathe all that aroma. Do it again. The flannel, the candy, the fruit....all of it. This is what Christmas morning smelled like for us for many years.

Then we grew up.

The end.

Crap. I hate growing up. So for all intents and purposes, I'm still 19...Got it??

Oh wait....not so fast.....there were other Christmas smells too, I almost forgot. At my grandparents house, that is my father's parents (who were not divorced) we had a cool Grandmother making fudge, divinity and brownies and there were always peanuts around, especially during Xmas. At this house another favorite scent was the smell of the 8mm movie projector running while we watched family home movies. I suppose the modern day equivalent would be watching VHS tapes of holidays past, but can you smell those?

At grandparent's house number two; this would be Mom's father C.M. and his wife Nina, our very first and only Step Grandparent, Nina made holiday popcorn balls, all buttery and sweet but in a specific kitchen drawer (if we found it) was a stash of Juicy Fruit™ gum or Wrigley's Spearmint™ gum. Both smells were prominent as you pulled the drawer open. But Grandy (C.M. to the adults) kept his Hersheys™ bars stashed and well hidden from us kids. The last smell I can remember from this house was Grandy's cigar, which we didn't seem to mind at the time. He quit later and that favorite smell was almost lost forever, until now.

The last of the Christmas smells takes me to my Grandmother Vivian's house. Even though we ate plenty of Holiday meals at all the grandparents' homes, this one had a magical smell during Christmas. Grandmother Vivian loved to cook but certain foods were always over done; other foods were barely recognizeable as what they used to be. Yet the smells still linger in my mind and among those would be the ham and green beans with bacon (they were cooked to almost mush by the time she took them off the stove....the GAS stove I'll add which wafted through the entire house since the pilot lights always stayed on, even in the Summer. Something about gas heating always makes me think of her house at Christmas. Another great smell were her famous sugar cookies. I say famous because she would often leave out the sugar. We always wondered what in God's name was she thinking, but we faked liking them anyway. She could never figure out what she had done to make them taste so "yummy." One time, we think she accidentally substituted too much baking soda, but the mystery of her special recipe was never solved from year to year. They made a fantastic Christmas smell, however, and it will always be a cherished memory. The last of these is an obvious smell, but I can't top it: Wood burning in a fireplace on a cold night. I'll stop there.

The last of these memories could only be summed up by the greatest of all intangible Christmas brain candies: anticipation.

What I believe made us grow feel this thing begins first with the holiday specials. My top favorites which are Charlie Brown's Christmas, The Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph. These TV elements combine to make us REALLY believe in Santa and all the stuff that is Christmas. A long time ago, these animated specials were doled out one or two at a time during the three weeks before Christmas beginning Thanksgiving night. By the time Christmas was here, we were ready to literally bust. I think my great nephew who is 3, still gets as wound up, but I know his world is greatly different from mine, yet we put all the same crap in his stocking just because we had it too.

All these old "files" have been stored away for years and I chose to let them out again and live them as this year comes to a close. We grow up; I grew up. Our grandparents and even our parents eventually pass. My mother and one great aunt still live. All my grandparents and my father are gone. They leave us a thing that becomes their legacy, the things we preserve if we carry it on. Hopefully it's full of the same innocent wonderment and happiness they created, whether amidst the usual family dramas or not. They carried forward their old traditions too and gave them to us without giving it too much thought, I suppose. But the candy, the gifts, the times I recall with my family were always so planned where everything was wrapped individually, and gift bags didn't exist.

This is the colorful, smell-filled Christmas that lives on in a parallel world, somewhere in my head.

May it always be so.

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