In my childhood, we were still in a post-World War II mentality — everyone was poor and trying to be good. Christmas was a celebration of faith (that a baby born to poor people would save the world); food (roast turkey and stuffing, toasted almonds, pumpkin pie, Mom’s box of chocolates – a gift from Dad – and the flaming plum pudding and hard sauce that we kids just picked at); and family – brothers coming home from the army, aged second cousins who didn’t drive, whom my Dad and I picked up in the afternoon for the dinner feast, and my grandmother, who’d arrived days earlier by train.
The downtown stores NEVER put decorations up or hinted of Christmas until after Thanksgiving Day, and in fact, were closed on Sundays. At school, we lit the first of the four candles of the Advent wreath, sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and thought of preparing our hearts for the miracle of Christmas.
In the more recent olden days, when I was married to a commercial fisherman, and never knew if he would be home for Christmas Day or not, and had three little children at home, I started, early in December, to celebrate the joys of Christmas, so that if we were alone on Christmas Day, we would not be terribly disappointed (which of course we were when it did happen that he didn’t make it home for Christmas).
So we made Advent wreaths for the dining room table and lit candles every night, a simple gesture that brought hope and magic to our days of waiting. We put our shoes in front of the fire before St. Nicholas Day of December 6, when the kids would retrieve candy and a tangerine from their shoes. I started serving the kids breakfast in bed on St. Lucy’s Day on December 12, and in later years, they served me breakfast in bed (which on one occasion, was so dreadful I had to hide the plate under the bed before claiming “It was all delicious!”). We sent “brown paper packages wrapped up in string” through the Post Office to our relatives “Outside” Alaska. We signed, stamped with special stamps, and sealed with hot wax, our Christmas cards and displayed each new card that arrived in the mail.
We got our tree and slowly decorated it, first with lights, then ornaments. We made gingerbread men to hang on the tree, until the year the dog ate them off the tree. On Christmas Eve, we sang Christmas carols and watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on television.
On Christmas Day, we took down our stockings from the fireplace mantel, went to church, said a special prayer at the Manger Scene, came home and opened the presents under the tree before preparing our Christmas feast. While the kids napped, I’d put the turkey in the oven and played with their toys.
Having slowly “built up” to Christmas, I was loath to clap my hands together and have it vanish. I treasured the idea that the day after Christmas was Boxing Day, when we celebrated with extended family and friends – often playing in the snow, singing and eating, in addition to exchanging token gifts. In church, Dec. 27 was the Feast of the Holy Family, and it was comforting to believe that THE Holy Family had been homeless and uncertain on the first Christmas Day.
New Year’s Eve was a time to prepare to stay up late and welcome the New Year in by standing on the front porch and banging pots and pans and yelling, “Happy New Year!” to the long and dark night.
New Year’s Day always meant making a resolution. If you just made one, you were more likely to keep it. The idea that I would no longer bite my nails or swear was so uplifting.
And finally for the season, the 12th day of Christmas on January 6, we’d prepare to take down the tree, still hoping that the Three Wise Men would travel from the kitchen window to the mantelpiece where Jesus, Mary and Joseph await their gifts.