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December, 2014

Early Christmas Memories

by Larry

Though I'd already experienced four Christmases in previous years (the first in 1943, when but two months old), the earliest one I think I remember was in 1947 when I was barely four years old, and we, that is, Dad (Leon), Mom (Julia), and I had just moved to Falls Church, VA.

Actually, I am not even sure of that. It is possible there is confusion about my initial remembered Christmas, which maybe occurred when I was five.

I do know we moved to Falls Church when I was four, but was it before or after December, 1947? This is uncertain. In fact, most everything before that is a foggy blur as well.

Of my time in FL, my birth state, the only recollection is of a bit of movie newsreel, from when my mom dared to take me, then less than two I think, with her to see a matinee. More dramatic things would occur before we left, including being out in a hurricane, yet of them there is nothing registered in my gray matter.

Meanwhile, my young officer dad, having finished with his own training and preparing his team for overseas duty in World War II, had shipped with his troops over to Hawaii. There he would help man the radar installation. Later, as an intelligence officer, he went on to Japan and participated in war crime investigations of the enemy.

Dad returned to the States about 1946. Soon afterward, Mom and I moved with him to successive duty stations, which meant, between his return and our going to Falls Church, we lived in New Jersey (only about a block from the ocean), the upscale Georgetown district of Washington, D.C., and Albany, in Georgia (where we lived near a marsh or swamp).

Even assuming we averaged just 6 months at each of those locations and that Dad had gotten back early in 1946, it seems the logistics require that it was not till sometime in 1948 that we had moved into a new home we bought in Virginia, at 121 E. Marshall Street, Falls Church. And that means I'd have been five by the time I had my first experience of Christmas there. OK, glad we have that settled!

But that, in turn, means the first Christmas I remember was only a few days before Mom got a call from her step-grandma in Waco, TX, saying her grandpapa had just died. Then she and I flew out there on each of three small airplanes. Our return was delayed since, within 24 hours of our arrival I believe, Step-Great Grandmother Florence had died as well, and many things now needed to be settled. Am digressing.

First Christmas tree, likely in Tampa, FL, about Christmas, 1944

The truth is that, though they are pleasant recollections, I can call to mind precious little of my Yuletide holidays there on Marshall Street. I wonder how much most kids can retrieve from their own earliest festive December occasions. Many little girls no doubt had memorable Nutcracker ballet experiences. But little boys?

What I do remember, though, is that in the weeks just preceding Christmas some big department stores would be all decorated for the season and have huge Christmas displays in their windows, with lots of bright colors and lights, fake snow, Santa Claus, his sleigh, and reindeer, decorated Christmas trees, and that electronics were used to have some parts of these big displays moving and even making sounds, like a deep base "Ho, ho, ho!" from imitation versions of Santa, and plenty of cheerful, noisy carols being broadcast.

One time, downtown, I was given a chance to record telling Santa what I wanted for Christmas and got a copy of this short conversation on a small, flexible plastic yellow record that I could listen to on a regular phonograph player at home. I have no idea what I asked for. Maybe it was just a song I sang, something like: "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth." Or it might have been two good feet that I hoped to get, for only a few months before that first Christmas I had for several weeks been in casts down both legs from the hip, to try to bend my bones so I could walk and stand right, as the bottoms of my feet were kind of bent toward each other when I was born and only reluctantly got used to the more common position, facing the floor or ground. Special massages, shoes, or braces would still be required for awhile afterward.

My favorite big store window displays were of landscapes with long, complicated, electric trains, usually at least three, and sometimes even more of them rapidly moving about at the same time, even on the same tracks, till at the last second one would be switched off to a side track so a main one could get through, its little light shining and its little "Wooo-Wooo" whistle blaring. Some even had the appearance of steam or smoke coming out the top of the engines. I could stand and watch those multiple trains going across country or in their little towns and stations for hours without getting bored.

Shortly before one of my first remembered Christmases, we drove out of town and found some undeveloped, woodsy area. Dad took an ax in among the trees, and we chopped down a little evergreen whose sacrifice would be used for our pleasure. Dad set it up on a small stand Mom had bought for it, into the bottom of which I carefully added water. Even so, within a few days the tree's needles were shedding all over our front room carpet.

We had few tree decorations in those days, and I remember the first time we got some artificial tinsel and tossed it around and put on a little string of colorful lit lights. Mom made us long strands of popcorn on thread to adorn the tree as well. She also filled the house with marvelous smells of holiday baking: homemade sugar cookies, gingerbread, date fingers, brownies, and pies!

I got several neat gifts from my folks or from Santa. And, by the way, I soon caught on that it was best not to let Mom and Dad know I knew that they were really "Santa." I can still recall one Christmas Eve night when I must have been barely five, and they thought I was asleep but actually was way too excited for slumber, hearing my parents talking and joking, and I think having a drink or two each, eggnog perhaps, while they arranged everything for my benefit, as if Santa had left me a big red filled stocking along with a few fresh presents under the tree. There was also for awhile an intermittent ringing of little bells that I think was to simulate Santa and his reindeer with their musical collars.

After Mom and Dad had gone to bed and all was finally quiet, I crept out of my room and explored. The tree's lights had been left on, so it was easy enough to look around, and then I had to pretend to be completely surprised when morning finally came, and it was time to officially check-out what Santa had left and, still later, exchange other gifts.

First meeting with Santa, probably in San Antonio, TX, about Christmas, 1946
We were never anything like rich, and gifts were accordingly in some ways such as might have blessed the home in "Little House on the Prairie." My stocking usually had an orange and an apple, some nuts, and if it were really special that year, a bit of chocolate or a wrapped cookie. Despite their meagerness by today's standards, the presents meant a lot to me. The fruit or nuts were really neat, as certainly were the candy and cookies!

Other gifts those first couple of remembered Christmases included quite a bonanza. For example, early on there was a heavy box of little metal soldiers. I think they were made of a lead alloy, the molded ingot painted over with probably lead-based paint as well. These gave me endless pleasure as I staged innumerable savage World War II battles with them on the front room carpet.

Along with the massive doses of x-rays the doctors administered to my chest and neck as an infant to correct congestive heart failure, and the machines in shoe stores that would show how well the footwear fit by actually zapping through kids' little feet and revealing to our wondering gaze just what our living bones looked like swaddled in their ghostlike surrounding flesh, and all the movies and TV encouraging smoking that went on among many if not most adults in our young environments, not to mention the mercury-based fillings in our teeth, the small amount of lead I ingested from all that play with the toy soldiers does not seem to have caused me terrific harm. Nobody knew any better, in any case. We mostly made it through to adulthood without airbags or even seatbelts too. Go figure.

Other gifts received that first time or two: a battery-operated Morse code signaling device, a tiny, assemble-it-yourself crystal radio set that actually worked, a record of Bozo the Clown rocketing about among the continents, and a realistic book about American Indians before the Europeans arrived, both text and illustrations interesting and enlightening.

Along with cool, evocative traditions that were developing for me around the Christmas holiday, there were others coming soon about New Year's. In particular, I learned that New Year's Eve, only six days after Christmas, is another party time. Then at midnight, one is to open one's front door, yell, and bang on pots and pans with big spoons to make a raucous, percussive noise for a few minutes. We had no fireworks for such occasions then, yet making a big racket by whatever handy means was not merely tolerated but encouraged. I never knew why, do not to this day. Such are the antics of we wise apes.

On New year's Day, my mom told us, we must eat black-eyed peas. Again, the significance of this habit escaped me, but I was happy enough to comply. I like well seasoned black-eyed peas, and often as not Mom would bake fresh, hot cornbread and spread it with warm margarine or butter to dip into our warm bowls of black-eyed peas. Mmm, good!

As time passed, and I had not that long to wait by then, Christmases became more jolly as first a sister and then several brothers joined our growing throng. Dad too, but Mom especially had a way of making such occasions extraordinarily meaningful, bright, and full of good memories, with songs and instrumental holiday music, delicious smells, movies or special TV programs, projects, driving out or taking walks to see awesome house decorations, hopeful, upbeat records, laughter, meaningful gatherings at schools or churches, helping one another to make everything ready, and many generous exchanges of thoughtful presents. More than anything, these happy times remind me of our inspirational Mama and the rich, joyful atmosphere of celebration and Christmas spirit she helped instill.

How did you celebrate in December when young, and what all do you recall? If you are like me, it can be a fun trip down that particular reminiscence lane.

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