If I had a Christmas wish this year, I’d wish that Christmas was still my favorite holiday.
When I was a kid, it absolutely was. As much as I liked Halloween, it didn’t compare with Christmas.
Of course, Christmas seemed more special then – for many reasons. For one thing, merchants didn’t dilute its magic stretching it over two months. Back in the day, Christmas was seldom mentioned before December.
With one exception. Mom and Dad had an annual tradition of photographing my sister and me for the hand-made cards they sent, by the hundreds, to family, friends and associates.
Starting when I was three – and Tuck was an absurdly cute infant – they’d take pictures of us in cute poses, usually in aid of a seasonal pun they planned to print on the card itself. Because it took time to develop a roll of film, choose a shot, and have prints made, the Christmas card photo was done in the fall.
The actual assembly process signalled the arrival of Christmas-time.
The cards were printed on triple panels of silver-flecked, green card-stock – with the message in red. In early December, Mom and Dad would sit at the kitchen table, night after night, making the cards.
First, they’d cut “windows” in the third pane of each card, using a razor blade and straight-edge. That done, a photo print would be placed in the “window” and the third panel was folded back and glued to the second, creating a regular-shaped card with a photo inset.
Then it was time to hand-address the envelopes and stuff them.
These cards required remarkable effort, but people loved them. They were always original, and – for those who cared – it was possible to watch us kids grow from infancy to adolescence. Looking back, I think of the sheer effort that went into those cards as symbolic of my parents’ remarkable teamwork.
Another sign of Christmas came when Mom and Dad took us downtown to Miller & Rhoads, to eat at a cafeteria – what joy! – and stand in line for an interview with “the real Santa.” In those less-entitled times, our requests to Santa were just that – requests – not non-negotiable demands. The rule was to ask for one modest, parentally pre-approved gift – plus candy and “a few surprises.”
In those days, downtown Richmond was magical – a virtual embodiment of the lyrics of “Silver Bells.” People were everywhere – bustling, but not frantic. Shopping was still a pleasure then – not a blood-sport.
The store windows offered animated magic – more to set a mood than to blazon the store’s wares. There was time enough for selling once the shoppers came inside.
There seemed to be time for everything.
At Miller & Rhoads, Tuck and I delighted in the elevator operators, with their shouts of “Op” – up – as their cars emptied, making room for new shoppers. We kids called Miller & Rhoads “The Op Store.” But if elevators were inviting, escalators were a thrill ride – and we always chose them.
At Thalhimers’, we gravitated to the first floor bakery and deli – home of the seven-layer chocolate cake. These holiday treats were always to be disassembled – layer by layer – and enjoyed a layer at a time.
In those days, Christmas also meant special events at church – seasonal music and the Christmas story, read aloud in the glorious prose of the King James Bible. For most of the year, church was church. At Advent, there was majesty.
There were even special doings at Enon Elementary School. Our monthly, school-wide sing-alongs in the auditorium – led by Mr. Craven, a balding, sixth-grade teacher – usually featured minstrel numbers from Stephen Foster songs and corny love-songs from Tin Pan Alley. But in December, we sang carols.
No one complained. In those days, we of the majority had not yet learned to share our schools with fellow Americans of other races – much less concern ourselves with the sensitivities of children of different religious traditions.
Things were simpler then, but not always kinder.
For Tuck and me – two country kids – a special highlight was the annual, Christmas Eve trip to find a tree and gather holly, pine and cedar.
We had access to the neighboring farm – a vast place, with substantial woods. On Christmas Eve, we’d put on rugged clothes and boots and set off with Dad – not exactly a woodsman – to find a shapely cedar between six- and seven-feet tall. Once we’d cut down the tree and dragged it back to the station wagon, we’d plunge in again to gather the boughs of holly, pine and cedar with which Mom would deck our halls.
Christmas Day involved a family feast. Mom would be up early, stuffing the turkey and getting it into the oven before we tumbled downstairs. When we did, we’d all open presents in the living-room. Then, after breakfast, Tuck and I would play under the tree – or, more often, outdoors – until time for the feast.
Sometimes, we’d welcome close relatives, but as often as not, it was just the four of us. I’ve enjoyed Christmas dinner with a large gathering crowded around the table – which can be great fun. But once the table is cleared and the dishes washed up, I find myself longing for the quiet that comes when all the guests have departed.
Peace, I think, lies at the heart of Christmas.
Our lives today – Christmas included – seem altogether too hectic and filled with self-inflicted stress.
In my childhood, no store would have opened on Thanksgiving – and if they had, few shoppers would have appeared. Even in December, we bought fewer gifts, but spent more time shopping – often as a family. Just looking and smelling and listening were such great fun.
In those days, nearly everyone – believer or skeptic – got to church at some time during the holidays. Religion was more about community then – less about creeds and factions.
I certainly can’t imagine anyone, in those days, arguing over how they greeted each other.
Not long ago – though few people took the creative pains my parents did – most found time to send hand-addressed Christmas cards to their distant loved-ones. An internet card – had such things existed – would have been deemed dismissive.
On the other hand, few felt the need to fly across the country to eat a meal with people they no longer knew all that well. We kept in touch with fewer people, but we did so through letters in the mail – which was, strangely, more intimate than today’s instant communication.
Because we knew the woods, many of us still cut down Christmas trees. And the woods were safe, because they weren’t full of deer hunters desperate to get away from the madness of home.
Today, if I had a Christmas wish, it would be that more of us might somehow find the unhurried simplicity – the rootedness – of those long-ago Christmases.
It would be nice if Christmas could be my favorite holiday again.