Christmas Decorations 1945-2015

Assorted polar bears, $19.95 (reg. $24.95) caught my eye, along with assorted owls, assorted elves, and battery operated candles. And then: table top fireplace (buy 3, get one free)! Such were the tantalizing holiday adornments on offer in a full page ad of the Sunday morning paper, November 29, 2015. Probably they come from China. Whatever happened to the tiny plaster figure skaters to set on a mirror “pond” surrounded by cotton batten “snow” and white-speckled, green bottle-brush trees?

Christmas was a colorful (if laborious) holiday in my childhood home, with Scandinavian tradition on one side and German on the other. Cookies stand out as the festive food, always homemade, sometimes taking hours to shape, bake and decorate. The favorites to eat were almond crescents, but the most admired were the cutout sugar snowmen, santas, hearts, and candy canes elaborately frosted to hang on the tree with the punched tin stars, bubbling lanterns, and jewel-toned glass balls. The kids might add paper chains and popcorn strings.

Christmas Tree 2013

When I married and had children, I kept up the tree trimming tradition, starting with the glass balls, adding three new handmade ornaments every year, one for each child. Church bazaars yielded hand painted, wooden rocking horses and clothespin soldiers, flannel gingerbread men and batik candy canes. I was thinking they would want to take them when they had homes of their own. But they have their own traditions. Most impressively, a daughter-in-law assembles her grandmother’s aluminum, revolving tree with an Evergleam color wheel. I confess, even I gave in to my husband’s suggestion that, living on a desert, we should have a faux fir with lights already wound into its branches. All we have to do each year is fluff it up a bit. And buy gifts for sixteen people.

In the Forties and Fifties, presents from our grandparents were always special: a dog or bicycle for my brother; for me, a doll house with electric lights, and a Sonia Henie doll with a hand knit skating skirt and sweater, even a stocking cap and socks. My parents’ gifts to us were modest. They hardly had time to shop, the social season was so frenetic.  Mother might be sewing herself a fancy dress for a winter dance, or making (besides hundreds of cookies) dozens of canapes for a cocktail party. Dad was busy preparing end of year business reports.

Still, without fail, Dad put up the outdoor display and organized the trip to get a freshly cut tree. Whether it was fir or balsam or Scotch pine depended on which woods my dad had been invited by a lumber baron friend to take one from, and which one looked spectacular enough for my mother’s discerning eye. One of my outstanding memories is of a gray day, standing in awe in a wide, tall and silent forest in Upper Michigan, watching soft white flakes flutter down, faster and faster, until my five-year-old brother, hip deep in packed snowbanks beside me, let out a frightened wail that echoed longer than a wolf’s howl in the oncoming dusk. Our mother huddled him close to her all the way home, while I rubbed holes in the steam on the car window, and peered into the darkness for the lights of farmhouses marking the edge of our northwoods village.

Perhaps that is what Christmas 2015 should be, not a time of luxurious trappings and feel good fantasies, but a time to strip down to the bare essentials; to stand in awe, perhaps even fear, and feel gratitude for the love that surrounds us.


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