Sunday, December 20, 2009

Early Christmas Memories

Something that always signaled the beginning of the holiday season (Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas) was the yearly showing of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” To me, the tone, look and feel of those children and their life and environment was captivating—it was real. It looked like the East coast, like the schools and houses and places I knew. So I would sit, hushed and reverent and watch the bittersweet story unfold. Many weeks later, I watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with the same melancholy tenderness. At the end of each program, an announcer would tell me that the show had been sponsored by Dolly Madison cakes and cookies—seeing the logo always filled me with a sort of sadness. It meant they were leaving and I wouldn’t see them again until next year. I just wish I could’ve gone with them, to help them—to cheer up Charlie Brown or to be Linus’ friend.

My first clear memory of winter is connected to our house on West Main Street. My mother hung wreaths of red, crinkled cellophane with a single tiny red bulb in the front windows. We had a fireplace and my mother and father helped me make a long chain out of colored construction paper to hang from the mantle. Mom made her Christmas butter cookies and I associate their warm, safe smell and luscious, enveloping taste exclusively with Christmas. We mixed white frosting with food coloring to get red and green and I got to frost a few cookies, and then sprinkle on the multi-colored decorations. I ate several before bed each night with a glass of milk and it was heaven. And of course, Santa had to have some on Christmas Eve so my mom and I would leave a little plate for him—and a carrot for the reindeer.

Mom’s Christmas Butter Cookies
Sift together three cups of flour, one teaspoon of baking powder and half of a teaspoon of salt. Then cream together one cup of butter and three quarters of a cup of sugar; stir in one unbeaten egg, two tablespoons of milk and one and a half teaspoons of fine vanilla extract and mix well. Add the dry ingredients a third at a time. Chill the dough for one hour. Roll the dough onto a floured surface with a floured rolling pin. Roll to one-eighth of an inch thickness. Use cookie cutters and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake them five to eight minutes at 350*, watching carefully. Frost and decorate. Enjoy.

I loved riding in the car at night to see relatives because I got to see the Christmas decorations that covered downtown. Garlands wound up lampposts, jumped from one side of the street to the other and zigzagged up Main Street. Enormous wreaths dotted with colored lights were suspended from the garlands down the center of Main Street. Even the traffic lights seemed to sparkle a little more as though they were part of the holiday show. The biting air mixed with the smell of exhaust from the car, and the brown, wet snow slushed under my galoshes.

After a good snow, my father would ask, “Didja hear the weather report? Chile today, hot tamale.” Then he’d take us to the golf course at the edge of town with its gentle (and a few not so gentle) slopes for tobogganing. He bought me a red plastic sled and we played in the snow, both of us riding down the hills, tumbling, laughing, and me getting the shock of snow in my mittens and down my snowsuit.

One Christmas, my parents took me to Rochester to visit many Santas at many different department stores, ending up at a particularly big, grand department store to see the final Santa. I sat on his lap and like all the other children, I must’ve told him what I wanted but I can’t remember what it was that I asked for. Actually, I don’t remember asking any of the Santas for anything. I had my picture taken sitting on his knee, looking calmly, stoically, with resignation at the camera. I remember all this not because of Santa but because of the surreal event I experienced afterward. I was taken to Santa Land in the basement of this department store and I boarded a small, child-sized train. I saw my parents disappear behind me as I slid down narrow, dimly lit hallways. Now and then the hallways would let out onto a large space that held a tableau of Santa at the North Pole or of Santa and his reindeer or of Santa delivering presents to a house while everyone was asleep. I’m fairly certain this was my first exposure to a ride like this and I was enchanted. I was frozen, watching, taking it all in. It made an indelible impression on me and I’ve been fascinated with rides ever since. I have some electric, visceral reaction to rides that make me hold my breath. It’s the idea of being entertained—someone has plotted an experience to excite or to calm me. It’s a performance really, and I consider it to be a gift from its creator to the ones who are riding. Now, I dream of that basement, the hallways sometimes turning into tunnels that connect different parts of the world, the tableaus becoming sections of rides from carnivals and amusement parks I’ve been to in my life.

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