Christmas at the Eldwoods
written Dec. 1961
Dear Nephew Ray,
Christmas is here. The shoppers are glowing with excitement as they come home from Main Street, their arms laden with bundles. In our spare room is a pile of beautifully wrapped gifts for the children next door. Their mother couldn't think of any place at home that would be safe from curious seekers. And in the sideboard, I am hiding her gift from the children which they were afraid -she- might find.
Evergreen trees are piled in heaps and lean disconsolately against ropes at gas stations, in front of stores, and in vacant lots. They march in lighted ranks down every main street in the country. Children visualize them decorated, lit, and heaped with gifts while mothers anticipate drifts of pine needles on the carpet. But few of us elect to spend Christmas without some sort of tree.
When the children were small and we lived on the farm, we always cut our own tree. We took a walk through the woods on Thanksgiving afternoon and selected the most shapely pine we could find. A red ribbon was tied to its trunk so Josiah could find it easily when he came back to cut it a few days before Christmas.
After selecting the tree, the walk back home was spent discussing plans for decorating it. We always decided we hadn't enough ornaments and work on new ones was begun as soon as we got home. Last years Christmas cards, which were of the postcard variety, framed in tinsel and fitted with red ribbon hangers made lovely ornaments. Endless chains of red and green paper strips would be manufactured before the tree was brought in. Carefully saved tinfoil was made into stars and wrapped around walnuts. Stringing popcorn and cranberries filled many an hour as the great day drew near. Cornucopias were made of wallpaper or lacy paper doilies. These would be filled with popcorn, molasses candy, or fudge and hung on the tree.
We had s tore ornaments, too, lovely blown glass bells frim Germany, bead necklaces, and brass candle holders. When our tree was decked in all of these and the candles lit, it was a lovely sight. Of course our tree could not be illuminated for hours at a time as happens now, so we all stood in awe when it was lit, a pail of water ready at hand in case of acciednt, and everyone said "Ohhh" and "Ahhh" in wonder at the beauty we had wrought.
Not only were many of our decorations home made but most of our gifts were also. Busy hands knit, sewed, carved, and otherwise manufactured presents for family and friends. Even the children worked for weeks making handkerchefs, pomander balls, sachet bags, covers for wooden clothes hangers, pen wipers, and trinket boxes. A great deal of the joy of Christmas is in getting ready for it.
There was much cooking to be done for the holiday too. Soon after Thanksgiving we began with fruit-cakes. These rich, highly indigestable concoctions of candied fruit, nuts, and spices were made late in November and then put, well wrapped, into a stone crock to season. There had always been great rivalry in my family over fruit-cake and every year Ma and her sisters tried to our-do each other but Grandma always came out ahead. Grandpa was the judge and that may have had something to do with it.
Cookies, too, had to be baked by the tens of dozens. Not only must there be enough to satisfy my own family's appitite but each year we packed many boxes to give to friends. There were special Christmas cookies cut in Santa, tree, star, wreath, and camel shapes to be frosted and decorated by the children as they grew older. There must be brownies, and date-nut bars, too, as well as ginger-bread boys to hang on the tree and give to classmates.
Christmas dinner would not be complete without homemade rolls and delicious date nut bread any more than without a huge tom turkey. There must be mince pies and Josiah favored plum pudding served in a ring of holly and flaming sugar-cubes. It was work. But I loved it and had lots of help cracking nuts, stiring and particularly tasting the finished products.
As Christmas neared we began reading in the evening from favorite Christmas stories. Dickens "Christmas Carol" and the lovely, tho sad, "Bird's Christmas Carol", the first chapter of "Little Women" where Jo says "Christmas won't be Christmas without presents." This is not exactly true but a perfect reflection of the feelings of children everywhere. As the children grew older they delighted in finding new and different stories to add to our reading. There are so many tales about Christmas that you can read a different one every evening for the whole month.
On Christmas eve Josiah always read "A Visit from St Nicholas" while we all sat around the tree. When he was finished each of us in turn took a string of sleigh-bells over our shoulder and departed for where ever our gifts were hidden. As those in the parlor heard the bells returning, they closed their eyes until everything had been placed unther the tree. Then everyone was supposed to "Oh' and "Ah" before the next "Santa" went on his journey. Of course Santa, the -real- Santa, came late at night and filled stockings and put all those wonderful, exciting gifts you were sure you wouldn't get under the tree.
As dawn broke and often before, out bedroom would be invaded by small, nightgown clad figures carrying bulging stockings. The oil lamp would be lit and in its golden glow the bed would rapidly be covered with candy, nuts, ruddy apples, tiny dolls, jackknives, mittens, and all the wonders to be found in a well-packed Christmas stocking.
When it was no longer possible to restrain the children, we dressed and went to the kitchen for a sketchy breakfast. The children dressed before the warm range, the boys then going with Jos to do barn chores while I stuffed the turkey and put him in the oven to brown.
Finally we could enter the parlor which became a veritable snow-storm of wrapping paper, a symphony of shreaks of delight and thank yous, the one hour in the whole year when everybody was happy. Once in a while Santa didn't ferrit out the heart's dearest wish of one of the children and then there would be woe in one pair of eyes but never for long for he is a wise old fellow and always finds something just as good.
When the excitement had abated slightly and the drifts of paper cleared away, company began arriving. Grandma and Grandpa, aunts, uncles, friends, comeone, everyone coming for Christmas. This is not a day to be alone but one to join in as large a merry group as you can find or make. You want to be with children, your own or those of a loved friend, to see the joy and wonder in a little girl's eyes when she sees her Christmas doll, to see the pride of a young boy in his first high boots.
And then ther is dinner. turkey, huge and brown as his brother was at Thanksgiving, cranberries like rubies in their ruddy jelled syrup, stuffing pungent with sage, steaming mashed potatoes and golden squash with pools of melted butter. Tea, both green and black, tall glasses of that morning's milk washed down more food than you would believe possible. when the pies appeared even Josiah groaned and then in came the blazing pudding. The excitement of its flaming appearence gave new strength to our forks and we ate until only the valient women could stir enough to do the massive clearing away of food and washing up of dishes.
What was left of the afternoon was spent in playing new games, dipping into new books, cuddling dolls and trying on skates. Shortly, careless fingers began dipping into the candy bowls. Cheeks bulged with hickory-nut candy, teeth stuck together with molasses taffy, and the baby dribbled her best white serve dress with fudge. Popcorn and nuts spilled all over the floor and crept into the most remote corners only to come to light when spring cleaning removed the last of the pine needles and that spring of holly that disappeared from the mantle.
As night fell, light snow began and the men made their way to the barn to hitch up. Blasts of cold air freshened the house as group after group left for home, laden with gifts and full of rich food. The house became quiet again and the children settled around the kitchen table for milk and cold turkey sandwiches. Then wearily then went off to bed, clutching their favorite gift, to dream of the wonderful day they had spent. Sometimes I was called in the night to tend to a small stomach which had over indulged in sweets when I wasn't looking but usually they were tired enough to sleep till dawn woke them again.
We have great grandchildren now but the excitement is the same. So is the joy and love that glows so much brighter at this time of year when we have the example of God's gift of love to us so clearly in our thoughts.
Uncle Jos sends a Merry Christmas as do I,
Your Aunt Katy