By Marie Robinson (11/29/00)
Say Christmas to children and you turn on their dreams, light up their eyes and put hope in their hearts. Say Christmas to adults and they check their bank accounts, wonder what to get their spouses, and hope the inlaws won’t stay too long.
But we all have dreams, and we all have memories – some to treasure forever, some bittersweet and some that hurt too much to recall.
My first Christmas memory was of a cold Colorado mountain valley, in a warm house filled with love. The depression was beyond the comprehension of me and my four-year-old twin sister, Mae. And the galvanized water bucket filled with a rainbow assortment of sweet Christmas candies provided a sense of bounty and a feeling of being special.
Most of the gifts in our early years were homemade or practical necessities. Mama was an accomplished seamstress and spent many days making dresses for my sisters and me, as well as shirts for my father and brother. Only for birthdays and Christmas and at the start of the school year did we get new clothing. Nothing was discarded; the newest clothes were for school and visiting and the oldest for play and chores. When patching was no longer an option, Mama salvaged any unfrayed cloth for reuse or patching and put the rest in her ragbag. Mae and I were frequent visitors to this ragbag when our kite needed a tail or we wanted to make dresses for our dolls. Mama would sew Mae and me new nightgowns as we outgrew the old ones and Don would get new pajamas. Poor Lois, our younger sister, never got a new nightie – she always had identical hand-me-downs!
We girls usually received one purchased gift — usually a doll, a game or a book. Don might get a toy car, truck or model airplane kit. Coats, hats, mittens and scarves were welcome additions to our winter wardrobes. One year we each found an orange and a package of gum in our stockings. This was a real treat. An item such as a sled would be a communal gift to be shared. A Big Chief tablet and new pencils or watercolors foretold enjoyable hours to come.
One bittersweet memory is from the year I was in the fourth grade. We were living on the MacIntyre place and this was our last year on the farm. Daddy had been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery earlier that winter for a perforated ulcer. The doctor said another thirty minutes and he would not have been able to save him.
That year Mama said there would be no extra Christmas gifts. It was a somber time because Daddy was now unable to work and had been forced to apply for welfare. Mama was embarrassed but thankful for the commodities that provided the staple goods for our table along with her store of home canned fruits and vegetables. Daddy was humiliated. He had always somehow been able to care for his family even in the hardest of times. A day or two before Christmas, social workers from the Brown county courthouse in Hiawatha came with boxes of gifts. There was something for each member of the family and a beautiful, shiny red wagon. We could hardly wait for the snow to go away so we could take the wagon outside for a spin.
A big box of holiday groceries included fresh fruits and nuts other than the black walnuts and hickory nuts that we were used to gathering from the timber. Bananas were an unheard of luxury. We were used to dried fruits and what Mama had canned. Mae, Don, Lois and I were delighted with the treasures before us. We did not feel our father’s pain, until we saw his tears after our benefactors had gone. You see, Daddy never cried.
Mama always cooked a special dinner — sometimes ham or some other meat but usually chicken roasted crispy and brown. It always tasted better on that special day. We never ate turkey until many years later when Mama worked at the Horton Garment Factory and they gave one to each employee at Christmas.
Mama also made candy, including divinity that would melt in your mouth. Although I used the same recipe in later years, it never turned out the same. I finally found one using Jell-O powder that solved the problem of having to eat the gooey candy with a spoon!
We always had some kind of Christmas tree — usually timber or one cut from the pasture. We used the ornaments year after year until some had lost their shine or had bare spots, yet we lovingly unwrapped them each year and carefully placed them on the tree. The tinsel was wrinkled from age and had been picked from last year’s tree, strand by strand, and put back on its cardboard holder. We made yards of paper chains, with strips crayoned and cut from our writing tablets, and fastened together with flour paste. We strung popcorn on sewing thread and looped it from branch to branch. Our humble tree had no lights or candles but we always declared it was the prettiest we had ever seen.
Since Mae and I were born on January ninth, we often received gifts from our Grandma and Grandpa Smith marked, “Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday” which at the time felt like we were being shortchanged one holiday. However they had been sent in love from a great distance and we always wrote heartfelt thank you notes. Mama insisted! I came to experience this again when I saw the same thing happen to my son, whose birthday was December 21st. I always made certain I was not guilty of giving him a double gift.
The Christmases that followed after we moved to Horton seemed not as memorable as the earlier ones. Perhaps it was because as we aged, we now began to understand the stress of the season and the responsibility of choosing and purchasing gifts that would please others. We still made paper chains and strung popcorn for the tree. We had a little Fox Terrier dog named Skipper who every year would proceed to eat popcorn from the string as high as she could reach. We never raised the string because we decided it was our gift to her.
There was another year when Daddy was sick and we could not afford a Christmas tree so we decorated Mama’s big Boston fern and put our presents on the table around it. Love finds a way.
During our high school years when Grandma and Grandpa Smith lived in Russellville, Arkansas, we would get a notice in mid-December to pick up a package at the Post Office. It would be a gunnysack full of peanuts from Grandpa’s farm and we looked forward to the time when Mama roasted them to perfection. They always tasted better than the ones you could buy at the store and Mama would feel the connection to parents she seldom got to see.
It was not until our Junior High years that we were invited to Sunday School and I learned that there was more to Christmas than presents and feasting. Santa Claus became just another kid’s story, and I accepted God’s greatest gift as my own. It truly is “the gift that keeps on giving,” and my faith has been the source of strength and peace of mind through many difficult times.
As the years passed, and as we became grownups, somehow Christmas began to lose that magic of our early years and was not reclaimed until we had children and grandchildren of our own. Little eyes see beyond the ordinary and catch a glimpse of wonders not visible to adults. Disappointments are forgotten in the excitement of another season of joy, and any dream is possible.
As Christmas becomes more and more commercialized and the pressure to purchase larger and costlier gifts increases, may we look back to simpler times and remember – the greatest gift is still love.
Learning from Sample Essay Three
Holidays are usually a rich source of personal memories. Marie’s piece is a nostalgic tribute to the simple Christmases of her childhood.
A close reading of Marie’s piece shows some of the strategies she used. For example, she included her very first Christmas memory. Later in the essay, she described a particular Christmas when her father was sick and the family received help from the community. Aside from these two specific Christmases, the remaining description consists of a composite, or medley, of memories from Christmases over the years.
Marie was clearly very attuned to the contributions her mother made to holiday traditions as well as to the family throughout the year. She goes into detail about the sewing box, the handmade doll clothes, and the wonderful cooking of ham and chicken dinners and divinity candy. And, Marie includes the way her “Mama” insisted that they write thank you notes.
The effort made by the family to obtain a Christmas tree, even in the tough years, shows how important this holiday was to them. The description of the “bald” ornaments being carefully unpacked brings the reader right into the living room with this family.
Such details as the peanuts mailed to them from relatives in Arkansas and the dog, Skipper, eating the popcorn off the low-hanging chains provide sensory details and humor.
Finally, Marie closes this walk down memory lane by returning to the present and what Christmas means to her today.
In summary, this is a well-crafted memoir essay. In revisiting your own holiday memories, you might want to use some of the same strategies that Marie used in her beautiful essay.