A few nights ago, I sat and watched the perennial Christmas TV Special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Not an unusual thing for one to do, except if you consider that I’m 64 years old, and I was alone! However, I was not about to break my viewing streak of 50 years! Since Rudolph was first aired on December 6, 1964, I have watched it every single year. This year marked the 51st consecutive year for me. Some people take on the Boston Marathon or Tour de France, but this little hunky tackled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!!
I believe my real reason for watching the show year after year is a simple one. I recall watching the program with my mom in 1964. We watched it on our black and white Zenith TV set. There was a light snowfall that evening, and the temperature was in the lower 20’s making for perfect Christmas special viewing weather. I remembered the details so vividly, as that was the one and only time I was able to enjoy the show with my mother. She passed away the following August at 45 years of age. Each year since ’64, that memory returns, and an emptiness is filled in my heart.
When you get right down to it, the holidays are all about those very unique and very personal snippets of memories that occurred throughout your life at Christmastime. There were the traditions which families had continued for decades on end; such as the cutting down the family Christmas tree, making holiday cookies together, the Christmas Eve Valeija or perhaps attending Midnight Mass together.
Our family’s tradition could be easily described as the cadence of Christmas visits that began on Christmas Eve and culminated on The Feast of the Epiphany. Every evening between the two days meant a visit to an aunt for uncle or a visit FROM the entire gang. Considering that I had a total of 21 aunts and uncles living in the immediate area then add in about 30 cousins, and each night was one crazy Hunky Hullabaloo!
When I think of MY Christmas memories, I certainly remember the visits and parties, but I also recall tidbits of memories that come together to mentally form my own sensory patchwork Christmas quilt.
- Among the multitude of the patches that are part of MY quilt, there would be one patch that helps me to remember the very distinctive aroma of yeast cubes being dissolved in milk on the stove. It seems that every home in the neighborhood began preparing their poppy seed and nut rolls during the same week. If I happened to be visiting a friend or a relative, I was also quick to pick out that aroma and knew that before the visit was over, I’d be enjoying a freshly baked slice of poppy seed roll.
- Another patch would represent another distinctive holiday smell. My parents purchased their first artificial Christmas tree in 1963. With that tree’s arrival, several sets of new multicolored mini-lights arrived as well. Sadly, that meant that the blue C7 lights we used on the live trees in years prior were retired and eventually discarded. Although we were all excited about the new tree and lights, it took years before I realized how the new tree impacted a piece of my memory.
Like most families in Duquesne, we chose our live Christmas tree from one of the many lots that would spring up throughout the area. Each one looked the same with strings of white lightbulbs illuminating the huge assortments of fresh pines, and an old oil drum with a toasty fire to stand next to and keep warm. Dad would pick out the best tree, get an ok from my brother and me, gather up a bundle of extra branches, tie the tree in the trunk and then head up Kennedy Avenue towards home.
Once we arrived at home, Dad would immediately show the tree to Mom and try to convince her that it would fit in the house AND he can add branches to make it the perfect shape. Once he had moved the tree into our garage, he’d begin to drill holes into the trunk and insert the extra branches around the tree until he created the “perfect tree.” As he drilled the holes into the fresh pine tree trunk, the garage was filled with the scent of pine from the sap that was released and the heat that was generated from the drill bit as it was doing its job.
After Dad had finished shaping the tree, he would move it into the house and the next step took place. Dad was in charge of stringing the blue Christmas lights onto the tree. He would meticulously clip each light onto the tree in a precise location. He said he wanted to be sure it looked nice and full, and bright. What followed the satisfactory blue light placement was yet another very distinctive smell that to me, only meant that it was Christmas. Each year, my father would flock the tree with can after can of spray snow. Aside from the toxic fumes that were released when he was spraying (he made us leave the room and go up to our rooms,) however, it was the smell of the spray snow as it dried on the hot C7 bulbs that I recall. The fact that my dad never tried to remove the snow from the bulbs resulted in years of residue on the bulbs, however it never caused an issue.
- A piece of my memory quilt would be reserved for Christmas cards. My recollection isn’t anything unusual except when compared to what occurs now. I remember the hours and hours Mom would spend at the dining room table addressing all of the cards. Typically, she would send out 100 or more cards as a result of our large family, my parent’s many friends, and my dad’s customers from his auto repair business. There were piles and piles of outgoing cards stacked on the table, each appropriately stamped with their 4 cent stamp, neatly addressed and bundled with twine according to where they were being sent. Approximately 2 weeks before Christmas, my dad would drop the bundles of cards off at the Duquesne Post Office on Second Street.
I always looked forward to the reciprocal nature of sending cards back then. In the weeks before Christmas, our mailbox would be overflowing with incoming holiday greetings. My job was to open them up with my mom. She in turn would check off the sender’s name in her red Christmas card ledger book and make sure the return address on the envelope was the same as the address she had sent hers to. We would stack all of the cards that we received into a small wooden sleigh that sat on our buffet during the Christmas season. By Christmas Day, it was overflowing!
What a contrast to today’s society, myself included. I probably send out a sum total of 20 cards. One box of cards is always enough. Of course, the cost of the postage for the 20 cards alone is more than double the cost of sending out 245 cards in the 50’s. I certainly miss receiving the cards. Opening an email with a Christmas greeting is great, but it isn’t the same as opening an envelope and getting a cascade of glitter in your lap!
There are so many other bits of sights, sounds and smells that add more and more substance to my quilt of Christmas memories including:
- The sound that the foil Christmas bell decorations made each time they hit the window when the wind blew.
- The whistling sound of the wind through our windows on snowy nights in spite of the storm windows that were hung each year.
- Watching my mom make some of the traditional food that we had for our visitors each year. Grinding beets, making stuffed cabbage, cooking and slicing a huge ham, peeling green onions and so on. Mom always found a way to allow me to help and always made me part of the fun, although I doubt she would have called it that!
- Driving past Holy Name School and seeing all of the classroom windows that had been decorated with poster paints in an array of Christmas themes.
- Attending children’s Christmas parties at the Duquesne Annex, the Slovak Club, the Croatian Club or the Moose and coming back with a bag of goodies.
- Listening intently to the radio each day for an occasional Christmas song to validate that the holiday was really coming.
- Watching Christmas cartoons while lying on the living room floor with my feet propped up on the wall over the heating vent. (This always irritated Mom.)
- The beautiful amber glow of snowfall when looking out our windows at night on Thomas Street.
What a wonderful time to think back to all of the special memories that make up your own Christmas Quilt. Share with us if you would like by commenting on this post. Perhaps the mention of your own special memory will trigger warm memories for someone else. Let’s keep the spirit of community alive!