Monday, November 24, 2014

Christmas Stories

I went to a show at UCB the other day where people gathered to tell holiday stories.  Now, actually, not all the stories were holiday stories, but some were.

And I was thinking, well, I can’t consider participating in a show like that, because nothing interesting ever happened at Christmas in my house.

But then I thought, well, even if it wasn’t interesting I could still tell Christmas stories.  I’m sort of doing this with the idea that it might be interesting for my kids some day, if I’m not around to tell them.

The Tree & decorations

The first thing that happened for Christmas, as I recall, was the selection of the Christmas tree.  

Our living room was about 8 feet high.  My father was 6’ 2 1/2”.  He figured out that, if he raised his arm up over his head, the tips of his fingers should reach the top of the tree.  If the tree was just this high it would be the right size for our living room.

We kids would go out with him and select the tree from a lot where there were many trees.  It was cold in Wisconsin — making speed of the essence — and my father wasn’t much of one for discussion, so he pretty much picked the tree himself. He would measure the height with his fingers and then he would spin it around to make sure there were no gaps in the branches that would be unsightly.

Then we would put it in the station wagon and bring it home.

We didn’t put it up immediately after purchasing it.  We put it out on the screen porch in a tub of water that typically froze solid around the base.  Then we would bring it in only a couple of days before Christmas.  I think this process was supposed to minimize the period of time during which the tree would be dropping needles on the carpet.

My mom seemed to disapprove, also, of the idea of having the tree up for all of advent. Somehow I got the feeling that there was something socially inferior in that practice. Yet, we did not either follow the practice of having the tree brought by Santa on Christmas eve.  It went up 2 or 3 days before Christmas.

We had ornaments and lights in the basement that we used over and over every year.  We used tinsel also.  I wonder if it contained lead. I don’t use tinsel any more now.  I have sparkly garlands that seem to be of some kind of plastic.  I wonder if that isn't just as toxic in its own way.

There was a particular star that we put on top of the tree every year, and we used the same stand every year as well.  Crawling under the tree to fill the water in the stand was a child task, made trickier by the presence of lots of presents.

We had to get the tree down by 12th night, according to my mother, because her Irish nanny had told her when she was a child that Christmas decorations (especially berries) could turn to gremlins if left up after 12th night.

There were lights on the bushes out front.  

One time, when I was older, maybe college age, my father sent me out after sunset on an especially cold night to put up lights.  Now my father was one of those “When I say jump, you say ‘How high?’” type of men, so I was not about to say no — totally unlike my kids.  So I went out even though it was very cold out.  My mittens were too bulky to manipulate the lights over the little nails around the door frame, so I took them off. But then my fingers when numb, so I still couldn’t manipulate the lights.  I did get them up, more or less, tho a number of bulbs were broken in the process.

I’ve never liked to put up outdoor decorations since then, even tho it’s often much warmer here in New York than it was in Wisconsin when I was a kid.

It might have been easier to wait until noon of the next day, when it would have been warmer and easier to see, but like I said I always felt compelled to do things immediately when my father asked.

My parents' wedding anniversary
My parents were married two days before Christmas.  Therefore their anniversary became part of Christmas.  Every year, after my brother and I were old enough to be presentable at restaurants, we went out as a family to eat.

There was one year, when we went to a place called the Jamison House outside of Madison, WI.  It was an old Victorian mansion that had been converted into a restaurant.  It felt very elegant.

The waitress came out and started playing with my father’s hair, while we were all sitting there at the table.  it was an odd thing for a waitress to do, especially with my father, who was a very standoffish, severe person who tended not to like to be touched.  He did have nice hair, though, still fairly thick in advanced age, wavy, and white.  

She said “I love curly hair.”

He replied “My whole family has curly hair.”

She looked around the table, and saw that, in fact, we all had curly hair.

“I hate you,” she exclaimed.  And rushed off.

I guess that was the weirdest thing that happened around Christmas time for us.

We did somehow manage to get food, though, so she must have come back.

I remember wandering around and looking at interesting antique furniture there, including a player piano.

Religious services
My mother was raised Protestant.  She had us baptized Presbyterian, but then we moved to the Episcopal Church, when the church we had been going to was converted into a parking lot and moved father away.  The Presbyterian Church that was only two blocks from our house had a preacher who was too conservative for my mother’s taste.

My father’s ancestry was Jewish, but he had been raised as Lutheran in Germany, before being forced to flee.  I don’t know what his beliefs were exactly, because he generally forbade the discussion of religion, philosophy, or politics in his presence.  I think he was probably an agnostic.

My mother sang in the church choir. She took us kids to church every week.  

My father would only come on Christmas and Easter, when the church put on a special show.  The Christmas service was in the evening of Christmas eve.  The church was generally full those evenings.  

The priest always made some comment about that, how he wished so many people would show up every Sunday, but that never happened.  I guess there were a lot of people like my father that way.

Opening presents
We were fortunate.  There were always a lot of Christmas presents.  My mom’s siblings, who lived on the east coast, sent presents to all of us in Wisconsin every year, which added to the pile. And each of use gave each other person at least one present.  My parents generally got my brother and me each several presents.  So there was quite a pile.

We were wrapping and putting presents under the tree for a couple of days before Christmas.  The wrapping paper was kept in the upstairs closet, below the linens.  My mom was careful to save large pieces to use over year after year, just as we saved ornaments.  I don’t think people do that much any more, but we did then.

There were also stockings.  

I know, in some families, the tree and all the presents are brought by Santa.  In my family, only the stockings were brought by Santa, after we children went to bed.  

On Christmas morning we were only allowed to open the stockings before my parents got up.  This was because my mom wanted to keep a record of who gave what to whom, so that we could write thank you notes to the more distant relatives.

But, even tho we only owed notes to the relatives on the east coast, she wrote out a huge spread sheet with all the presents under the tree so she would have a record.  I’m not sure what she did with those spread sheets. I don't recall finding them when I went through her stuff after she died.  Maybe they were in the papers that had to be thrown out after the basement flooded, because they got moldy.

This record keeping meant, tho, that we couldn’t open presents too fast, because she wouldn’t be able to write it all down.  

The stockings generally had several toys to play with, to keep us busy.  When we were smaller, we were up an hour or two before my parents.  They insisted on having breakfast before opening the rest of the presents.

As we got older, it was more likely that they were impatiently waiting for us, because we wanted to sleep in.

When I was in law school, I lived in a dorm with students from all the graduate schools of Columbia.  Across the hall from me was Mika, who was a student from Japan who I was very fond of.  

While her family could afford to send her to graduate school in New York City, apparently flying home over Christmas break was too much, so she was expected to spend the whole month in the dorm, with most of the other students gone. 

I asked my parents if I could bring her home to Wisconsin.  

Disappointingly, my mom said “No.”  Asians were too neat and clean, she opined, and she couldn’t have an Asian scrutinizing her housekeeping before Christmas.  It would be too stressful.  

This was an inaccurate stereotype in Mika’s case, I thought.  Mika kept dirty sanitary napkins under her bed and drank orange juice directly out of half gallon cartons. 

Eventually, my mom relented partially and said that Mika could come the day after Christmas.  The week after Christmas was the week when my father made his annual pilgrimage to a warm climate before the semester started up and he had to teach again.

My father hated the cold.  He generally refused to get proper winter clothing.  He seemed to refuse to believe that it wouldn’t matter what clothing he wore.  He would always be cold. This was not very logical for a physicist, who should have appreciated the benefits of insulation.  

The boots he wore were just the rubber types that you pull over shoes.  One winter I got him Sorel boots for Christmas.  After that he was forced to admit that it did matter what types of winter clothing one wore.

Eventually, my mom convinced him to wear a coat with a hood.  Hoods are much warmer than hats, because they insulate all around the neck and ears, but it was a long time before he was sort of dragged into that kind of warmer clothing, despite his constant complains about the cold.

My mom went along on these pilgrimages, so Mika and I had the house to ourselves. I’m not sure where my brother was.

I remember driving her out to the countryside around Madison.  She was amazed at the open space, which she considered wasteful.  Perhaps it looked so in winter, tho I think it was used by dairy cattle in summer.

My parents did let me bring home my two serious boyfriends, Andy, and Alan (who I eventually married), for Christmas.

My mom was concerned about having premarital sex going on in her house when I brought Andy home.  I wasn't one to challenge this sort of thing.  I thought she had the right to decide what would happen in her house.

I was surprised that my father turned out to be the more liberal one.  He said we would use the English system, which he said consisted in putting unmarried couples to bed in separate rooms, but not checking afterwards to see where they ended up.

Generally, tho, visitors were not in order on Christmas Day.  My mother, in general, and a hard time with visitors.  She had been raised in a house with servants, and entertaining, in general was very stressful for her.  She could never relax about food preparation and cleaning, because she had to learn all that stuff as an adult.  I was told that her mother, my grandmother, only learned to boil an egg at age 45.  That was an issue with her throughout my mother’s life, feeling inadequate to entertain.


My father's mother was from Vienna, Austria. She had many fine recipes, which she would happily have shared with my mother, but my mom wasn't in to cooking, so she only took one, the Linzertorte, which was my father's favorite. It took quite a bit of time to prepare, so my mom made it only on Christmas and on my father's birthday.

My brother and I both loved this recipe.  I've posted it on this blog before.

Oma's linzertorte recipe

I don't eat highly sweetened foods any more and the recipe contains nuts, so I seldom have an opportunity to make this recipe, which I'm sad about. My kids also don't like nuts, which is in the dough.  In that respect, they are like my ex husband, who also does not like nuts.  Therefore I can never make the recipe for them either.

Most Americans have never had this wonderful desert, and eat things that I believe are far inferior.