Volume XI, Issue 51 ~ December 18-24, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Fond Memories of Christmas Past

I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.
— A Christmas Carol, 1843

Don’t let the ghosts get you, be they of Christmas Past, Present or Future. ’Tis the season to be jolly. Certainly not all need be like Ebenezer Scrooge, dreading a look back at the big holiday.

We’re getting closer to Christmas Present, and those of us who have more Christmases Past to look back on upon a history that makes this Yuletide more fulfilling. There are few memories that can match for satisfaction and pleasure those of Christmases Past.

New Twist on an Old Favorite
First, I must report that the holiday standby of yore has not vanished from the shelves of merchants. At several stores I have found traditional ribbon candy, and at CVS I discovered a few packages of what I figure is a new twist on that old favorite.

Next week will be my 77th Christmas, and not in one of them have I ever seen this version of ribbon candy. It’s crimp-ribbon candy. A miniature copycat of the traditional, each piece is only an inch long and a half-inch wide, but the unique curl of the sweet stuff remains, along with the overwhelming peppermint flavor.

It’s whipped up by Brach’s, a Woodbridge, Illinois, confectionery house that had been creating holiday goodies since 22 years before my first Noel. It’s as sticky and crunchy as ever. Also as sweet as ever, seeing that just one of those tiny ribbons carries 30 calories. But, hey, this is Christmas, and who worries about such things? New Year’s resolutions, if fulfilled, can reverse the dietary neglect so prevalent this time of year.

A Season too Plentiful
Miniature ribbon candy: Who’d have thought? But it’s like much else these days, another way to percolate business for a holiday, whether Valentines Day, Halloween, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, New Year’s Eve, birthdays, graduations, you name it. Cash registers no longer ring, but the new-fangled ones must be kept busy.

Since the day after the nighttime observance of witches, goblins, black cats and ghosts, and all the tricks or treat’n, Christmas merchandise has inundated the shelves of shops. Every year a multitude of new items attracts the attention of youngsters, who of course must have them. And not infrequently they do have them, seeing the Christmas shopping season has been stretched to eight weeks to accommodate budgets.

I’d say that’s pushing things more than a bit, but it’s building Christmas memories for the kids of today. Frugal as this Scrooge is, I can’t count the times in this season alone I’ve whipped out the wallet to purchase something like a battery-motivated stuffed Santa that sings carols and walks, or an electric train for granddaughter Grumpy, whose second Christmas is coming up.

Undoubtedly, Grumps, the other 11 grandchildren and great-granddaughter Brianna someday will look back on these Christmases as my generation reminiscence about its own. But how different those memories will be. Mine are holidays during the Great Depression; theirs are originating in a time of extravagance and plenty.

Trees Then and Now
I thought of that the other day when wife Lois and I yielded to the temptation of a pre-lit Christmas tree, artificial, of course (made in China, of course), at a tab of better than $150. Why when I was a kid, that much moola would have supplied a holiday tree to half the people in the village. But truth is, very few bought their trees. Most everyone found and cut their own, for the money saved would have put another present or two under the tree.

One of my earliest memories of Christmas is when younger sister Ruth and I went into the woods behind our New England home, and I with an ax too big for a child to swing properly cut down a white pine to surprise Mother, who was in the house caring for our three younger siblings. We knew times were tough, but Christmas is Christmas — even if the tree was scraggly and uneven. White pines are ordinarily not considered prime Yule tree material.

But Ruth and I were a proud pair, and Mother was a proud mother. In today’s times, a mother would probably have shelved a white pine and hurried to a tree lot and bought a $50 blue spruce. Maybe even do as we did this year and picked out an artificial tree. But our mother wasn’t like that.

She helped us fashion a stand to support our lopsided tree. Then the fun began. From the attic came the boxes of garland and balls and two strings of electric bulbs, perhaps 30 lights in all. And they were the old-fashioned kind, big, and if one bulb went out, they all did.

Then there was the hunt for paper, which Ruth and I cut into strips and colored with crayon while Mother dipped into a bag of flour to get enough to make a paste by adding water. Ruth and I pasted the strips together to make long chains that circled that sad pine in the parlor. By the time the traditional star was added to its peak, it was a glorious tree, as magnificent as any in the village. And to this day, it’s the tree I remember and treasure most.

Customs of Yore
During the Great Depression, there weren’t many presents under most trees; several at best for each youngster. But we didn’t expect more, for that was the norm. We knew the stockings would have one orange, one tangerine, a few nuts and candy canes — and of course some ribbon candy.

The stockings were the real thing, the kind that come in pairs made to wear. They came from Daddy’s dresser drawer, freshly washed to be hung on a door, for we had no fireplace. Perhaps Mother could have scrimped to buy something akin to the fancy Christmas stockings in stores of today, but she told us that the dollar saved would mean a dollar for Christmas seals to fight tuberculosis.

Each evening as Christmas approached, we’d gather around the lit tree and sing. In our hands we held small booklets of carols passed out by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Then we’d all tell for the umpteenth time what we wanted Santa to bring us on the big night. Next came a cup of hot cocoa, and off to bed, where we prayed jolly Old Saint Nick would find not too many black marks on our resumes as he filled his sack for his midnight ride with eight tiny reindeer.

By today’s standards, there wasn’t much under the tree on Christmas morning, but in those days it didn’t take much to reinforce our belief in Santa. Stockings were always filled. Mother played Santa and passed out the gifts, one at a time. Each had to be opened and shown all around before the bright holiday paper could be taken off the next.

In the Christmas of the scraggly white pine, Mother and Santa had seen to it that there was a fancy toy or two (wind-ups, no batteries needed) and some much-needed clothing. But there was enough that it took several reprimands to tear us from our gifts for the holiday dinner of stuffed chicken. Then came the wait for Aunt Caroline to arrive with her gifts and those from Grandma, Uncle Jack and Aunt Marjorie.

And that was Christmas back in the ’30s in the midst of the Great Depression. Like all our neighbors, we were poor — though we didn’t know it. When times are tough, it doesn’t take much to make Christmas Christmas.

Grumps and the other grandchildren — and great-granddaughter Brianna — some day will have memories of more gifts and festivities on the big holiday. But their memories will be no sweeter than those of my generation, which didn’t expect more and was thankful for what we got.

Merry Christmas …

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Last updated December 18, 2003 @ 2:59am.