Each of us have so many Christmas stories, many of which are worthy of a spot on the Hallmark movie channel. One of my favorite yuletide tales came from author Truman Capote who shared memories of one holiday that he spent with his aunts in Alabama. It was a lovely vignette that spoke volumes of his love for his relatives and their love for him. There is much beauty in the humblest of celebrations and my own childhood is filled with them.
After my father died we were always on a tight budget, but my mother was a very creative soul who had a way of making virtually everything fun. We’d make dozens of cookies while Christmas music played on our Victrola. We loved to sing along while we worked which gave Mama the idea of teaching us how to sing The Little Drummer Boy in four part harmony. First she listened to the song just enough to transcribe all of the words. Then she assigned our various parts and showed us how to put all of them together. It was a great deal of fun, much like it was for the boys who sang with Bing Crosby in the movie Going My Way. It took us quite some time to perfect our routine, but when we finally achieved perfection we felt like singing angels.
Mama was somewhat mischievous when it came to searching for a Christmas tree. She always seemed to choose the day with the most horrible weather for that adventure. She would even laugh when the temperature became lower and lower and the rain began to fall by declaring, “It’s the perfect day for getting our tree.” I think that somehow she thought that the weather outside had to be frightful for us to fully appreciate the experience. We’d inspect the ones in our price range as though we were judges in a beauty pageant until we all agreed on the perfect candidate. Our mother always insisted on sawing off the bottom of the trunk and storing the tree in a bucket of water overnight before setting it in the center of the picture window in our living room. Then the decorating would begin complete with some of those cookies we had made and maybe even some hot chocolate that she prepared with real cocoa and milk. She had particular rules about how each step of the process should be done and the results were always glorious. What I loved the most was the scent of the needles filling the house with the perfume of the season.
Mama loved to go out looking at the Christmas lights on people’s houses. One of the best places in the city back then was near the cemetery where our father was buried. I’m not quite sure how she worked her magic but she managed to make the ritual of putting flowers on his grave less sad by ending the task with ice cream and a drive along the enchanting streets. The best of the displays was a Nativity scene complete with the music of Silent Night. Of course that always inspired Mama to suggest that we sing our way back home. I always thought that my mother had missed her calling. She should have been a Broadway star. She was an extraordinary dancer and had a knack for music that was uncanny. She seriously had enough skill to be a professional even though she was completely self taught.
Because Mama so loved Christmas music we always attended the concert at our church put on by the members of the choir. It was one of the highlights of the season featuring all of the religious classics. My favorite was always “O Holy Night.” One of my best friend’s mom both accompanied the performers on the piano as well as singing in the most beautiful soprano voice. Our mother’s alto voice might have been a lovely addition to the choir, but for some reason she never thought to join.
Most children discover that their parents are Santa Claus by coming upon their gifts before Christmas Eve. I have no clue how our mom hid our presents, but there was never even a hint of what we would receive until we awoke on Christmas morning and discovered the magic that had occurred while we were sleeping. She even managed to put together bicycles without our ever noticing. She kept us thinking that Santa was real far longer that most kids today do. I don’t know that she ever really told us the truth, but at some point we figured it out on our own.
Of course the very best part of Christmas for us was going to our grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve. Every single aunt, uncle and cousin was present on that evening and the tiny living room was bursting at the seams. Mama and her siblings competed with one another to see who would select Grandma’s favorite gift. It was fun watching their expressions as their mother opened each package. Many of them attempted to buy her dresses and shoes even though they knew that she would still walk around in her bare feet and would always cut the sleeves off of the bodice for comfort. She delighted all of us with her reactions, and watching her open the gifts was the highlight of Christmas.
There was a TG&Y store near our home when we were children. One Christmas we were shopping there when we saw a magnificent Nativity set. The figures were about a foot tall and they stood inside a wooden manger. We thought it was the most beautiful thing that we had ever seen but it cost about twenty dollars and that was a huge amount of money, Mama wasn’t sure that we should be so frivolous as to even think of purchasing it. Still we wanted that lovely creche so much. Even after we had gone home we kept speaking of it and wishing that we might display it in our living room. After dinner Mama got a strange look in her eyes and announced that if we gave up a little bit of this and that we might be able to afford the luxury. We cheered with glee and jumped into the car as excited as if we were going to buy bars of gold. When we set up the lovely statues on our formal dining table we thought that they were wonderful. We never once regretted our decision to throw caution to the wind because Mama would display that set every Christmas for the remainder of her life.
My brothers agreed to let me have what remained of the Nativity after our mother had died. By then all three of the kings were missing and Baby Jesus had lost an arm, but I am as proud of it as I am of anything that I own. Nobody will ever understand what that little display meant to us back in the long ago. Even though I could replace it with a much finer looking one from Costco I don’t have the heart to do so. I think that Jesus looks glorious just as He is.
The Christmas memories that we make with our children and grandchildren will last a lifetime no matter how simple they are. It’s about love and sharing and having fun. It’s making cookies, decorating the tree, singing and visiting with family and friends. It doesn’t take much to bring magic into our lives, just a bit of time and imagination.