Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas in a simpler time

Invariably during the holiday season, my mind skitters back to Christmas celebrations from a much simpler time. (Everything seemed simpler when we were kids!)

Even before children are old enough to understand the hoopla, I suspect they are drawn to Christmas by the excitement in the air. I don’t really remember any Christmases from my pre-school years, although I THINK I remember them because of the home movies I saw over and over again.

My early school years are when the memories actually kick in. Back then, I liked Christmas mainly because there was no school for two whole weeks. They could have parked Ground Hog Day in the middle of two weeks vacation from school, and it would have been a big hit with me. I would have gladly decorated a tree and sung Ground Hog Carols if it resulted 14 in consecutive days with no school in the middle of winter.

Of course, getting TOYS was pretty cool, too.

As a lad of four, five, six, seven, or eight, during the late 50’s or early 60’s, my Christmas wants were pretty simple: anything in cowboy. A cap gun. A holster. A cowboy hat. Cowboy boots. Or a hobby horse, which, as you may recall, was a stick with an imitation horse-head on the end.

It’s not that we were so easy to please back then… It’s just that we didn’t know much else except Cowboys and Indians! There were no Transformers or action figures. There were no Ataris or X-Boxes. Just a back yard, and enough vivid imagination keep us occupied for hours playing Cowboys and Indians, sometimes all alone!

During the 60’s, the advertising industry teamed up with the Saturday Morning Cartoon industry to start TELLING kids what toys they wanted for Christmas: Mr. Potato Head, GI Joe, Easy Bake Oven, Rock’em Sock’em Robot, Etch-A-Sketch… they all looked better than simple plastics on TV. It never occurred to us that Super-ball, Twister, and Slinky were nothing more than a hard rubber ball, a printed piece of plastic, and a coil of wire.

And the games!!!! Candyland. Chutes and Ladders. Operation. Parchesi. Sorry. Mystery Date Game. And that old standard… Monopoly.

Another thing different about Christmas these days are the Holiday movies. Back then, there were only three: Rudolf, Frosty, and Charlie Brown, as I recall. That’s because we didn’t have cable TV, nor the multitude of channel selections that we have today. There was no such thing as a “movie channel”. So each of those movies was aired ONCE ONLY during the holiday season, along with the annual Bing Crosby show and a handful of other specials.

For some reason, the smells of the holidays during my childhood seem to linger in my memory banks. There was something special about coming in out of the cool, crisp winter air into a toasty den, with the smells of a cedar Christmas tree and firewood crackling blending with freshly baked cookies and pies. The grand finale for the olfactory senses was the Christmas dinner… all kinds of good things to eat at Grandmama’s house.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: At my house, we never once left milk and cookies for Santa, as tradition called for us to do. Even while maintaining the existence of Santa, Mom and Dad told us that the “cookies and milk” bit was a myth. (In truth, they were far too frugal in those days to let perfectly good milk and cookies sit out half the night and go to waste!)

The Shealy Family Christmas Tree was always something to behold. Shiny, shimmering ornaments that showed up year after year. Never-mind that they were mostly just painted plastic…. to us they were valuable antique heirlooms! (One I specifically remember was stuffed with Angel Hair!) Strands of garland. Silver and gold tinsel hanging from every branch. And string after string of colored lights.

There were only two kinds of Christmas lights to choose from: indoor and outdoor. Both consisted bright, multi-colored bulbs, but the outdoor variety was larger to withstand the elements.

I don’t recall ever going to a “Christmas tree lot” as a child. Why bother when there were acres and acres of woods all around? We simply walked into the woods and found a little cedar tree. (Sometimes they even grew in the highway right-of-ways!)

And if the tree was a little skimpy to start with, you would never know it after the decorating process was complete, with 4 strands of garland, 59 ornaments, 144 multi-colored lights, 2,918 individual pieces of tinsel… and one star splendidly adorning the top of the tree! By the time the Big Day arrived, the tree would be finished off with a mountain of colorfully wrapped gifts underneath – about a gazillion in all.

Then came the mid 60’s, and the carefully-decorated cedar tree was replaced by a silver, aluminum “tree”, with a spotlight and color-wheel which revolved to give the appearance of a different color tree every few seconds!

Some of my childhood Christmas memories are actual memories, but others have been propped up by the photographs which captured those moments. I’m sure I don’t remember Christmas morning when I was two years old… but I know about it because there were a few pictures. Not a lot of pictures, mind you. Back then, we were very selective about our picture-taking because film cost a lot of money, and developing the film cost even more.

Nowadays, with digital cameras and VCR recorders, we can capture image after image… but in those days, picture-taking was reserved for special occasions like Christmas, family-vacations, and the occasional dance or piano recital.

Of course, the most vivid of the Christmas almost-memories were the ones captured on home movies… 8mm filmstrips.

The lighting was bad, and the movies were usually just a collage of 15-second clips… the average length of time of a movie scene, due to the afore-mentioned costs of film and developing. But it only takes a few seconds of these old home movies to capture the simpler times of Christmases past. The freckle-faced two-year old with a blonde crewcut -- and the other people in those movies -- are long gone…. But the memories come back year after year during the holiday season.

Here’s hoping you create your own armload of happy memories this Christmas.

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