Thursday, December 18, 2008

Santa and Other Christmas Traditions

My parents were not people of faith, so when we were growing up, Christmas was not at all a religious celebration. I don't remember a creche (nativity scene) in our home in England. We never read the story of Jesus' birth and we didn't go to church at Christmas. It was very much a happy, family time, though -- and it was always a magical time for me.

Most magical of all was the hanging of the Christmas stocking at the bottom of my bed. And this was no ordinary stocking; it was huge! As I think about it now, I guess it was my father's -- it was a knitted stocking that fishermen wear inside those huge, thigh-high waders.
It was so exciting to go to bed on Christmas eve and see it hanging limply there, waiting for Santa to come and fill it!

I don't remember a lot of fuss about Santa. Of course, he hadn't become an institution in the malls yet -- there were no malls! He was simply a mythical figure on Christmas cards and in children's stories. He did fly by night with his reindeer and his sack of toys, and he did land on the rooftop and descend down the chimney -- yes, we had lovely, sooty chimneys! But he only filled our stockings. We always knew the gifts under the tree were from our parents.
I would wake up long before dawn and look down to the bottom of the bed, and -- wonder of wonders! -- there would always be something so mysterious sticking up out of the now fat and very lumpy stocking! After having a good feel at the lumps to try and figure out what they were, it was very hard to go back to sleep. But now I knew that Father Christmas (as we called him in the UK) had come, I would lie contentedly until it was time to get up. A few hours later I would be bundled in a warm dressing gown by my mother (no central heating in those days -- it was co-o-ld) and then I got to dig into the stocking.
If you asked me what gifts were under the tree this Christmas in 1948, I would not be able to tell you. But I remember the gifts I found in my stocking. I was four years old - you can see the stocking off to the right of the photo (better picture coming up), and I distinctly remember the story book in the shape of a basket leaning up against the headboard. The balloon in front of it was in the shape of a penguin, with cardboard feet. I don't remember the name of the book in my hands, but that love of reading has become a life-long passion!

The handle sticking up, towards the bottom middle of the photo, was a brass bell; to the right of it a tiny pack of playing cards. I had learned how to play 'clock patience' or solitaire as it's now called, and played it for hours on end.

The book of Transfers was sort-of like today's 'tattoos' -- not real ones, but you would wet the back of your hand and then hold the transfer face down on it for a while until the picture transferred to your hand -- messy, but fun and carried around proudly till it got washed off.

Always in the toe of the stocking was an orange, some nuts. and sweets (candy).
This is 1952, I'm eight years old and Father Christmas had out-done himself. I had been begging my parents for a projector. This was a new phenomenon and it certainly wasn't moving pictures -- really just an apparatus in a box with a light bulb at the back, and a slit in the front through which you pulled the film strips. You could project the film strips -- cartoons -- onto a white wall and focus with a telescopic lens. No idea how Father Christmas knew I wanted one - but I sure was happy.

The books scattered across the bed were probably Enid Blyton (the 'Five' adventure series), or Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons) -- my favourites.
Still inside the stocking -- and now you can see its size! -- is a book of easily-removable plastic 'stickers' and some scenery on which to stick them. I remember a forest scene and you could make it daytime or night time, with stickers of a sun, birds and clouds, or stars and moon and an owl or two.

I believe this was the year in which there were also some indoor fireworks in the stocking. I thought Santa Claus was pretty clever to think of the kind you can use indoors -- I had only ever seen outdoor fireworks, like Catherine Wheels and rockets, which we set off on Guy Fawkes Day, every November 5th.
(click here for indoor fireworks today - this one's called The Cobra)

Later that Christmas Day, I brought out the fireworks and asked my dad if we could play with them. He set the first little firework 0n a saucer on the dining table and lit the end. It had just a little flame, and it twirled around and sent up spirals of pretty blue smoke. We had company that day -- funny the conversations one remembers. Someone said, "Those are really different, Fred!" To which my dad replied, "Yes, I found them in the corner shop down the road." I remember immediately thinking, "What? Father Christmas brought those!" And then I saw my mother shaking her head furiously at dad, and the penny dropped. It wasn't at all devastating to realize that FC wasn't real, and I expect it was a relief for the family not to have to keep up the charade.
Interesting, though, that I don't remember ever opening another stocking. I wonder if, because he was found out, Santa just stopped coming! Another interesting memory is of Christmas candles. We had tiny, metallic receptacles clipped to our Christmas tree with real candles in them. ( I don't think we ever lit them, but I know people did.) I can't think of anything more dangerous!

Then, of course, there were the Christmas crackers. Here's a photo of my grandmother, aunt and cousins wearing those silly paper hats that come out of them. To this day, in Canada, my family and I still have Christmas crackers. Nobody likes wearing the hats, but we do it and I think it's lots of fun!

One more memory. I couldn't stand not knowing what I was getting for Christmas. So whenever there was no-one else at home and I had opportunity, I would hunt down the gifts my mom had wrapped -- usually they were high up on a shelf in their bedroom cupboard. I would take them down one at a time until I found the ones labelled for me, then I would carefully open one end and peek in. I don't know WHY I did this -- it was always such a let-down on Christmas Day, and such a struggle to pretend to be so excited and happy about what I got.

You know, the gifts were always simple, and at the end of the day it wasn't the gifts that made the difference, it was the happy time together as a family. I don't ever remember an unhappy Christmas.
And now, years later, Christmas is still magical and but also very meaningful. Now I know the real meaning of Christmas and it makes all the difference in the world. I can celebrate the day simply or elaborately, with lots of people or just a few, as long as Jesus is the centre of the celebrations in my heart.

Friday, December 5, 2008

It's a Record!

We had our Christmas decorations up well before the end of November, this year -- first time ever!
DOTH (daughter of the house) and I had only one free weekend before Christmas to get it done, so we took advantage of it. And I must say, it's rather wonderful to think that we don't have to take it all down for at least another four weeks!
The display on the bay window is DOTH'S favourite -- especially the little village and skating pond (the snow is slightly overdone!). When it's turned on, the skaters waltz around the rink to Christmas carols.
The grandchildren are growing up quickly, so we may not have too many more years where we all enjoy the candy-cane snowmen. The miniature Christmas tree lights up and twirls around. (I'm dreaming of a white Christmas -- but not too white!)
The creche, the most important of all our decorations (the reason for the season), is over 30 years old, and I treasure it. One of the camels has his leg taped up, but still proudly holds his head up high. Every year when I take him out of the box, I think, "I must write a children's story about the camel with the broken leg, who faithfully watches over baby Jesus every year." Then in January, I put him away again, apologizing to him for not getting it done! The "Let there be Light" Christmas card was sent to us by my sister back in 1985 and has a place of honour every year beside the creche, announcing the arrival of the Light of the world.
The Christmas cactus is beginning to open up and should be in full bloom by Christmas Day!
Finally, although it really has nothing to do with Christmas, I did find this lovely bargain while Christmas shopping -- a cast-iron miniature bird-bath which cost me all of $4.00!