Thursday, December 22, 2011

Oh, Hear the Angel’s Voices!

By Cathy

Our Christmas tree was always a live one decorated with ornaments that almost all looked alike, lights and lots of tinsel (put it on one piece at time, don’t clump it) we trailed all over the house for months after the tree was gone. Some years we would pop popcorn (heat oil in pot on stove, add a few tbsp. of popcorn, put lid on pot, shake pot over flame until popping stops) and if we didn’t eat all the popcorn we would take heavy needle and thread through a piece of popcorn, then a cranberry, then a popcorn, then a cranberry until the garland was long enough to at least make a little loop around a few branches on the front of the tree or until the thread broke. After school or on the weekends all five of us kids would lie on the floor, fighting to have our feet nearest the hot air register (because the house with the coal fired furnace was always cold) and play “I Spy” with the baubles on the Christmas tree. I know several times if anyone guessed the ornament I was thinking of I would quickly change it to another of the same color that hadn’t been guessed yet to make my turn last longer.

Snickerdoodles and molasses sugar cookies are all I remember we made around Christmas time. Those pages are marked with grease in the old falling apart Betty Crocker Cooky Cookbook we used that now can be found on my kitchen shelf. The page with the dried apricot and coconut ball recipe mom made for gift giving is missing from the book and I haven’t been able to find it elsewhere although I have tried several different ones. Dried apricots were too expensive for cookies for us kids to eat but my apricot-loving brother and I usually snuck a couple of them. Uncle Leo wasn’t as stingy with his dried apricots. About a week before Christmas a package would arrive in the mail from him. Inside, amidst the popcorn he usually used as packing material would be a roll of apricot candy wrapped in waxed paper and some homemade fudge in a coffee can. We each got a slice of the apricot candy roll and then I think Dad confiscated the rest for himself because he was allergic to chocolate and so he wouldn’t eat any fudge. That apricot candy is another recipe I would like to find.

Sometimes we would go over to Aunt Clara and Uncle Cecil’s house to pick up cookies they had baked for us. Uncle Cecil was my maternal grandma’s brother and we called him mole-head when he wasn’t around because he was bald and his head was polka-dotted with what we thought were moles but now that I think of it they were probably just age spots. Mom usually made us wait in the car while she went into their house to get the cookies because she said us kids (five of us) made Uncle Cecil nervous (and we probably did). Aunt Clara made all kinds of delectable goodies but my favorite were the green spritz cookies in the shape of a wreath with red hots that looked like little holly berries.
There usually weren’t very many wrapped presents under the tree but we always knew we would get to open one on Christmas eve that contained new clothes to wear to midnight mass. We also knew that pajamas and underwear were probably in the gifts that were left under the tree to open on Christmas morning.

I always stayed awake until it was time to leave for midnight mass and most times so did my sister Debbie. Dad would carry the other three sleeping kids to the car. Sometimes they slept sprawled out in the pew for the entire mass and I was embarrassed and thought that they were committing a sin by sleeping in church. I couldn’t wait to hear the choir sing “Oh Holy Night” because I thought that was the most beautiful song in the world and when they sang “Oh, hear the angel’s voices…” I could swear I did. It was indeed a “night divine”. Midnight mass was the only time I can say I enjoyed going to church.

I don’t remember that we ever really wanted anything special for Christmas. We didn’t watch much TV or tag along on shopping trips so didn’t see what things there were to want. A couple of years in a row my sister Debbie and I received matching dolls only hers was blond and mine was brunette. I thought Debbie always received the prettier doll so after that I did tell my parents I didn’t want any dolls but didn’t tell them why. Thereafter I received crafty items for Christmas. I loved the paint by number pictures and soon they piled up under my bed because I thought some day I would be able to frame them and hang them but they all disappeared when I went away to college. One year I received a red loom to weave potholders and after I used up the cloth loops that came with it I had no use for the loom because I didn’t know I could buy more loops. Another year I received a real loom (belt sized) and made a few belts I wore for years. The loom is in the closet up by the computer. Another year after I learned how to sew I received yards of bright green suede fabric and I made a jacket and skirt.

I remember gifts of books too – Black Beauty, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Toby Tyler, Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew. I kept them in my bookcase headboard and they too disappeared when I went away to college. One year my brother received Beautiful Joe. He pronounced the J sound like a V and we kidded him about Beautiful Voe for years. He told me a few years ago he bought a book with the cover like he remembered on Ebay.

I don’t remember where or even if we hung our stockings or even if we had them every year but I do remember a few years we received a big apple or a big orange and some wrapped hard candies in a stocking. That’s the only fresh fruit I remember eating except for raspberries we might pick from the woods when camping or a lug of peaches dad would sometimes buy in the summer.

The family present was usually a new game. The first game I remember playing was Hi Ho Cherrio and that was one of the first games I bought for the grandkids. Other games I remember were Candyland, Monopoly, Life and Coupe Ferre. We always played games on Christmas day.

The first present I bought with my own babysitting money was a bottle of Chanel No. 5 for my mom. I rode the bus downtown to Parker’s department store and rode up in an elevator that dinged and announced what could be found on each floor on the way up. I smells from the perfume counter free samples that hung in the air made me feel sick and I felt even sicker when I found out how much I would have to spend to obtain a very small bottle. Years later my husband told me that was the same first gift he purchased for his mom.

And so it was until mom and dad divorced, I went away to college, my sister got married, the rest of the family moved to Florida. Then each Christmas was celebrated in a different way, in a different place and with different people. The only constant was mom’s phone call to each of us to tell us “a check is in the mail”. Year after year we joked about those thieving postmen who stole our checks.

I never cared to go Christmas tree hunting. We have never had a fake tree and it has been my husband’s job, along with the kids when they were old enough, to go in search of the perfect one. My daughter Amber loved the places in the country that would allow you to cut your own tree and still drags her family out on the day after Thanksgiving to cut one down.

We could not afford to buy many ornaments for our first tree as a family so it was mostly laced with strings of popcorn and some ornaments that Helen, an elderly lady we worked with, gave us. Her husband had died and she didn’t decorate for Christmas. I still hang the surviving ornaments on the tree every year and think of Helen. I see some of the same ornaments on Ebay being sold as vintage or antique.

Our tree is now covered with ornaments made of macaroni, yarn, cross-stitch, ceramic, paper mache, wood, cookie dough, egg shells, stained glass (really plastic) and felt. Ever since the kids were little we have made some type of ornament every year and now the grandkids carry on the tradition. Also hanging on the tree along side our handmades are ornaments given to us over the years or ones we’ve picked up in our travels. We listen to Christmas music (I especially like Manheim Steamrollers) and drink hot chocolate and I think about each ornament as I hang it or tell the grandkids about the ones their parents made. And each year I think I am going to catalog the ornaments with a picture and a story for future generations but never get it done.

We’ve baked a lot of cookies at Christmas over the years. We always made sugar cookies the kids would heavily decorate with frosting, sugars and other decorations. (Some probably weighed a pound or so after they were done with them.) Sometimes we’d splurge on some chocolate chips for seven layer bars or chocolate chip cookies and a couple of times I tried to make fudge like Uncle Leo’s (do not use that marshmallow crème stuff) but it got so hard I couldn’t even get it into the pan so I gave up trying. I remember the year we had a bunch of cookies cooling on newspapers on the dining room table and one of the kids spilled their glass of lemonade over half of them and we let the ones that weren’t too drenched dry out and ate them anyway. Another year Sean, my oldest son, snuck some seven layer bars and stashed them on the windowsill in his room behind a curtain for later eating. I found them before he managed to eat them all and thereafter we referred to seven layer bars as “windowsill hider” cookies. A few weeks ago the grandkids, even Jacob who is only two and stood on a stool, made sugar cookies that probably weighed a pound each after being frosted and decorated. I ate several and so did they. (Grandma allows homemade cookies for breakfast).

For years we used to celebrate on Christmas Eve with my in-laws. My husband John is one of eight kids and each of them married and had between two and five children so there was quite a houseful in those days. Ham sandwiches and oyster stew (a giant pot of it with about five oysters total) and pickled herring were always served for supper then most everyone went into a room other than the one with the Christmas tree and sang Christmas carols until we heard a bell ring which meant Santa had come and gone and left presents under the tree -all while we were singing. (John’s youngest sister Suzy inherited the bell after the in-laws died). After opening the presents the adults usually drank beer and played euchre and the kids amused themselves. One year a couple of siblings saved all the free things they could acquire in a year and boxed them up for a gift exchange and a tradition of freebie giving was borne. Everyone looked forward to Christmas eve to see who would find the best freebie gift and what it would be.

One year I found a recipe for overnight cinnamon pecan rolls (they raise in the refrigerator overnight and you pop them in the oven in the morning) to use up fresh pecans my aunt Betty from Georgia sent us. The leftover pecans went into the freezer and I dug them out and used them again the following year for pecan rolls. And so a tradition of rolls and juice for breakfast on Christmas morning was borne.

I say every year that I’m going to make everyone a Christmas stocking like the ones my step mom made the two oldest kids after they were born but I’ve not done so yet. Everyone does have a stocking, though, and my husband and I fill the adult stockings with freebies we acquire all year, lottery tickets and other weird items like fart bombs, glow sticks, thrift store jewelry and duct tape with weird designs.

For years my sister Debbie who lives close and family have come out on Christmas day and we play games and gobble down hors d’oeuvres (and now drink homemade wine) before dinner. When the kids and their cousins were older they liked to compete at Trivial Pursuit but the last several years with the addition of a new generation we have played Outburst so a whole room full of people can play (boys against the girls) including the littlest of kids who shout out answers that sometimes make no sense but other times actually win a point for the team.

The Christmas tree has been beautifully decorated by my 7 year old grand-daughters, the patio door is gaudily decorated with Christmas cling-ons, a new quilt and pillowcases (handmade by me) for every family member is wrapped and under the tree, the cookies have been baked and all eaten, the Outburst game has been dusted off, the recipe for pecan rolls is on the kitchen counter, my brother is to arrive from Florida later today, the box of stocking stuffers is ready for stocking stuffing and the grandkids are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa.
Oh, hear the angel’s voices!

By Cathy


  1. Cathy,
    I really enjoyed reading your memoir of Christmases past and present. You reminded me of many things from my past - the tinsel, which had to be put on one stand at a time, the candy (my uncle always sent us kids a box of assorted life savers from his drug store - and Elizabeth Arden perfume for my mother. We always got a robe or nightie for Christmas and of course books. I remember Black Beauty, the Landmark biography books, and of course my beloved Nancy Drew. Loved your "windowsill hider cookies"! Great piece of writing -made me very nostalgic for the past! Thanks for sharing it all with us!

  2. Hi Cathy, I got caught up in the time line and could feel the healing happening and launching of new family traditions. Family members who want to be together. I remember the apple, orange and walnuts kind of Santa. Your Christmas of today and mine have more love for the children around us today. Enjoy every minute. Thanks, lovely writing. Sharon