Home for the holidays.
It sure wasn’t like the pictures you find posted on Pinterest or featured in Better Homes & Gardens. We were more a straggly Charlie Brown Christmas tree with a table full of food and tons of laughter.
Living on a tight budget meant the Thornton family didn’t spend a lot of money on Christmas. For many years we didn’t even buy a tree. Dad brought home a tree from Greenfield High School where he worked as a teacher, guidance counselor and temporary principal. Dad hauled the tree home after school closed for the holidays and we’d make it our own.
Me, with no patience, would glob strands of tinsel on the tree after we had wrapped the limbs in strands of brightly-colored bulbs.
I’d turn off the lights, stand back and squint to determine if and where more tinsel was needed. There was always need for more. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.
We had some pretty ugly trees but I didn’t realize it at the time. And when aluminum trees arrived on the scene and dad conceded to purchase one, I was thrilled to replace tinsel with even more lights.
Mama was hands off to tree decorating, at least when I was at home. She left that task to Dad and the kids. She focused instead on practicing for the church cantata and preparing the children’s Christmas program.
Every Saturday during the month of December, had choir practice at the church. Our choir, though small, sang loud and with great enthusiasm. Mom’s accompaniment drowned out any flat notes.
If I remember right, the cantata was on Sunday morning and the kid’s Christmas program was the Sunday night nearest the 25th of December. Mrs. Mears took charge of the centerpiece in front of the church. She used a lot of tin cans–large coffee cans –which she painted gold or silver. The arrangements would contain something colorful and reflect the season. Red and green (of course) for Christmas. For Thanksgiving, her motif might be seed-covered tin cans surrounded by ears of corn. The rest of the year fresh flowers from her amazing garden would fill up the front.
The children’s Christmas program followed the same format for decades. The youth group performed a song song or two. The little kids (and a few reluctant teens) acted out the birth of Jesus, complete with bathrobes and turbans made of bath towels or lengths of shiny fabric. Then Dad would wind up the evening with a short homily and prayer.
That was when the festivities began.
Everyone in attendance received a cardboard boxes stuffed full of hard Christmas candy. Families exchanged gifts and everyone saw to it that no one left empty handed. The small sanctuary felt alive with laughter, conversation, children’s squeals and music. The world felt safe and warm and happy on those Sunday evenings.
I don’t know what my siblings had as their responsibilities at Christmas, but mine was to set up a little village on top of the organ speaker.
Angel hair served as the base. I would spread it out to form a cloud-like foundation and then, very carefully I would place our treasured angels and elves, cardboard churches and other figurines just so. I thought it was beautiful. Magical. Again I would squint my eyes and look through my lashes at the scene. Magical. My villages appeared every Christmas until I left for college.
The highlight in our family was the meal, not the gifts. For many years, our Christmas dinner took place at Grandma Thornton’s house. She and her maiden sister, Effe, lived together a few blocks from our house. Dad’s sisters and brother would arrive from Indianapolis and St. Louis and the commotion began. Cousins running wildly everywhere. The women moved to the kitchen to help Grandma and Aunt Effe dish up the traditional meal. The men grabbed the rockers and easy chairs and waited patiently until the food was served. The high point of Christmas dinner at Grandma’s was her money pudding. In honesty, not my favorite dessert, but each serving held a monetary surprise!
Ask anyone who was there at any Christmas and they’ll remember the anticipation of biting into or digging around for the money.
Once Dot and Aunt Effe grew too old to host the clan, the party moved across town to our house. Mom held court in the kitchen with help from Grandma and the aunts. My sisters joined in because it was too fun not be to in the kitchen. Occasionally my brothers took part, too. Kids ran in and out. Hot rolls came out of the oven. Someone mashed the potatoes. Dad always carved the meat, be it turkey, ham, roast beef or all three, until one of the boys decided it was time to take over.
I had the task of assigning seats. Mom handed me her frosted glass name plates and I determined who would set where. I felt very important.
Gift giving was not a big thing in our family. I remember being disappointment most Christmas mornings at the dearth of gifts for me…the that soon faded. Everything else about Christmas day was fantastic!
My childhood memories of Christmas are rich in love, company, laughter, food and warmth.
Mom’s idea of a gift exchange was to go around the house and select things she loved that she thought someone else would appreciate. She’d stack her items to be wrapped on the dining room table and I would get to work wrapping. While I created bows and filled out name takes, she’s play Christmas songs on the piano. Or make a pot of tea. Or sit and talk with me while I used up the tubes of wrapping paper and rolls of tape.
My daughter, an only child, knows little of a house full of loud, laughing people at Christmastime. Our tradition is quieter, smaller and more focused on gifts. I feel I’m doing her an injustice. We have been creating our own traditions, yes. But she knows nothing of the noise, the craziness of 18 or 20 people having to share one bathroom over Christmas vacation. She hasn’t helped put up tables in every room to accommodate a growing guest list. She has never spent long afternoons around a cluttered table with her mom and sisters, aunts and friends talking, laughing and even shedding a few tears. She hasn’t seen Dad and the brothers-in-law and uncles dozing in the front room or quietly playing games of chess until they hear the call to come back to the table for supper. Katherine hasn’t played so hard with her cousins that she collapses onto the floor in the glass-enclosed front porch and gives in to sleep. Nor has Katherine gathered with her tribe in the front room to close out the day with favorite songs and special performances by great uncles with booming voices.