Christmas Long Past

Dear Family & Friends,

[Here are Christmas memories, circa 1954-1964, from the three Blair sisters [Susan, Margot, and Amy].  I originally compiled these memoirs for my siblings, cousins, children, grandchildren, and godchildren but I thought you might enjoy them, also!]

At the home of Mommo [“MAW-maw”] Blair, my grandmother, my very favorite childhood memories of Christmas are:

The bowl of hard candies, in the clear glass candy dish with lid and pedestal;

The Christmas tree, in the “parlor,” the formal living room, and under the tree:

The fairy-like miniature winter scene of a frozen pond –tiny ice skaters on a mirror, surrounded by snow and wee little woodland trees and animals;

The wonderful desserts, stored in the “pie safe;”

The rounds of company, coming to visit;

The crackling fire;

The cousins sleeping, on multiple twin beds, in Aunt Lula’s room or in the dining room; and

The mantel clock, ticking, as we went to sleep.

During my childhood, our Blair family of six drove by automobile, to visit our North Carolina relatives, for the Christmas holidays.  Now, fifty years later, when I drive down lonely, country roads on a cold, crisp December night, I remember the anticipation of approaching the outskirts of Winston-Salem, NC:  The wintry moon cast light on the stark landscape and silhouetted the bare trees against the slate sky, while strings of cheerful Christmas lights illuminated the rural homes & fences.

No matter how late we arrived at Mommo’s home [even at midnight] she was always near the window, keeping watch for us.  We children scrambled out of the car and ran to the door to greet Mommo.  She was dressed, as usual, in a “house-dress” with a belt, a cardigan sweater, hose, low heels, and an apron.  She had silvery, wavy hair, kind twinkling eyes, and a beautiful smile.

After welcome hugs and kisses, we sat down at the kitchen table, while Mommo served each of us a bowl of homemade Brunswick Stew, from a large, simmering stockpot.  Afterwards, everyone gathered around the warmth of the fireplace in the family room to “visit.”  We were amazed when the mantle clock chimed “one” or “two” in the morning because our parents never allowed us to stay up that late!  Finally, sleep overcame us and we bade each other good night.  We children dreamed, not of sugar plums, but of the fun we would have the next day, when our cousins arrived.

Mommo’s home had no central heat or air conditioning but every room had either a fireplace or a potbelly stove.  Each morning, I pretended to be asleep, when Mommo quietly padded into the “girls’ dormitory” bedroom, to replenish the wood or coal.  Except for my face, I was cozy and warm, under layers of quilts, lovingly hand-crafted by Mommo and her sister, Elizabeth [Aunt “Bill”].    I ventured out a hand, touched the frosty cold on the windowpane beside my bed, and snuggled under the covers to doze, until an adult called us into breakfast.

The best Country Farmhouse Breakfast in the world was at Mommo’s large wooden and expandable kitchen table:  Mommo prepared eggs, grits, “red-eye” gravy, ham, bacon, sausage, biscuits, toast, butter, jelly . . .  and, of course, plenty of coffee, which she brewed in an aluminum percolator, on the range-top of the electric stove.  After breakfast [before the era of shared domestic chores] the “women-folk” cleaned the kitchen.  Then, all the adults gathered in the family room, to sit and “visit,” as they sipped more coffee.

We cousins were never content merely to sit and “visit” inside – we were ready for some outdoor adventure!  One snowy December morning, after breakfast, we bundled up in heavy wool coats, leather boots, gloves, and mufflers.  Finally, we bolted outside to build a snowman.  Working as a team, we assembled a snowman:  We scooped up snow and rolled it into three balls — small, medium, and large — and set them on top of one another.  We ran inside to search for old, used accessories for the snowman’s “attire:” a pair of gloves or mittens, a hat, corn-cob pipe, muffler or scarf, and a broom.  We also fetched two pieces of coal and a carrot, to complete the snowman’s “face.”  After we took photographs of our creation, we cousins had snowball fights!

Only two hours after breakfast, it seems hard to imagine that we Blair cousins could be hungry again!  Yet, we gathered in the kitchen and expectantly sat around the kitchen table.  With wide-eyed delight, we watched as Mommo positioned her sturdy step-stool, carefully climbed up to reach the highest pine cabinet shelves, and retrieved two tall, decorative Christmas “tins” or metal canisters.  Inside those canisters were the most delicious homemade Christmas cookies in the entire world!  Mommo made the cookies “from scratch,” using Salem Old World Moravian Tea Cookie recipes, in two flavors:  “Sugar” and “Spice.”  Even now, in my imagination, I can taste them:  They were thin and crisp and seemed to contain, within their sugary and buttery depths, all the wonder and delight of A Child’s Christmas at Grandmother’s Home.

Mommo served us cups of steaming coffee, in “grown-up” china cups and saucers.  We passed around the sugar and cream and helped ourselves to generous amounts of both.  The temptation was to “dunk” the cookies into the coffee but they were so thin that they instantly melted into the hot liquid!  Thus began my life-long love affair with coffee:  Even to this day, I cannot enjoy a cookie without the accompanying comfort cup of coffee.  I have since never found a cookie to be as scrumptious, nor a cup of coffee as aromatic, perhaps because I have never been as exquisitely happy, as in those carefree days.

From his childhood in the 1920’s and 1930’s, our father, A. B. Blair, remembered that, every year, in early December, Mommo made several “batches” of the Moravian cookie dough, which she shaped into “logs,” wrapped in clean linen tea towels, and chilled in the “icebox.”  Every night, she rolled out a portion of one log and used tin cookie-cutters to create seasonal shapes of stars, bells, snowmen, angels, candy canes, and evergreen trees.  The dough was cold, thick, and sticky.  Mommo asked “Daddah” [Grandfather Blair] to come into the kitchen and help her.  His job was to sit on a stool in front of the stove, watch the cookies, and make sure they did not burn.  [Imagine a stove with no electronics, not even electricity or natural gas energy.  With only wood or coal for fuel, you can assume that baking was not an exact science.] Daddah kept a vigilant eye on the cookies:  He frequently opened up the heavy, solid cast iron door to peek in and determine if the cookies were done.  After every batch, Daddah wearily inquired, “How many more, Hope?”  Mommo never disclosed to Daddah how many cookie dough “logs” remained in the “icebox.” In fact, she hid the “logs” from his sight!

During the evenings, we younger cousins sat in a cluster on the hearth rug, around Mommo’s fireside rocking chair, while she read books aloud to us, as if she had all the time in the world.  She had large hands and thick fingers; after every page, she paused to touch her finger to her tongue and then she slowly turned the next page of the book.  She read with expression and gave the dialogue of each character his or her own unique “voice.”  This was endlessly fascinating to me.  With those large, hard-working hands, Mommo played hymns on the piano in the formal dining room.  As she played, she also sang, with a voice that was strong and true.

In the evenings, we cousins also gathered together in Mommo’s family room to watch a Christmas film on the black and white television.  Enthralled, I watched Shirley Temple, as poor Sarah Crewe, in the film, The Little Princess. I can still remember an old film version of A Christmas Carol: There lay Scrooge, wide-eyed and trembling, dreading the arrival of his third visitor.  Then, the Ghost of Things to Come reached out his bony hand to pull back the closed curtain of the bed.  At that moment, I recoiled and fled from the room!  Almost two decades would pass before I was willing to watch a new film version of that Dickens classic.

During the day, we cousins did not devote any time to watching television at Mommo’s home.  No, sir!  We were too busy playing Hide and Go Seek, Cops and Robbers, and Cowboys and Indians. One cold December day, we were on a search for the best hiding places inside Mommo’s home.  We entered one of four doors that led to a square, enclosed hallway, which contained the landing of the stairs.  Within the hallway was a coat & hat ‘hall-tree,’ with a bench or seat, which doubled as a storage chest.  We opened the lid and peered inside:  [Would one of us be able to fit in there?] Underneath the stairs, we opened a door, which revealed steps disappearing into the cellar, the cool, dark storage place for glass jars of preserved garden fruits and vegetables.  [No good:  Too small, musty, dark, and cold.]

Next, we climbed the stairs to the second story, which ended on a landing.  Beyond the landing was a dormer window, which faced Waughtown Street.  We explored the two bedrooms upstairs, one on either side of the landing.  Inside each bedroom was a clothes-closet.  One of us pushed the hanging clothes aside and discovered that — lo and behold! The back of the clothes-closet revealed yet another door!  This hidden door opened up into the light-filled and spacious attic.  [Hey, everybody!  Our search is over!  Come and see!] The sunlight streamed through the attic windows and provided hours of day-time enjoyment and adventure, as our imaginations soared and we created our own entertainment.  In this domain, among the dusty, old furniture, children reigned and adults never ventured.

On Christmas Eve, we [all the Blair and Long relatives] attended the Evening Candlelight Worship Service, at the family’s neighborhood church, The Evangelical and Reformed Church, which was within walking distance of Mommo’s home.  After the service, we bundled into the family cars and traveled to the home of one of the aunts and uncles.  On Christmas Eve, it was always cold; if it was also snowy, the fathers and uncles installed snow tires.  Often, the extended family gathered at the home of Uncle Audree and Aunt Margaret because their home had central heat and a large, finished, basement family room.  The women-folk transformed the basement table into a sumptuous buffet, with tempting “potluck” covered-dishes and festive desserts.

One Christmas Day morning, Mommo and I were alone together, in her family room.  That year, one of the gifts from her two sons was a large, oval, braided rug.  I was on my hands and knees, smoothing out the wrinkles in the new rug.  I looked up at her and asked, “What else did you receive for Christmas?” In response, she brought to me a gift box from the top of her dresser.  I sat Indian-style on the rug and opened the lid.  Nested within the satin lining of the box, I found a fancy silver-plate “dresser set:” a hand-held mirror, hairbrush, and comb.  I smiled politely but I privately considered this second gift to be only slightly more inspiring than the first.  I was sad for Mommo because she had given all of us so much love yet she had received only two gifts for Christmas and neither of them seemed very exciting.  I asked her, “What did you really want for Christmas?” She paused to bend down toward me and put her face next to mine.  She smiled and answered, “My greatest gift for Christmas is having all of you here with me.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“It was she . . . who protested that she didn’t want a present; she just wanted us all to be together and to love one another.  It was she who feared that seasonal frenzy would over-shadow eternal verities.  She was apprehensive that we might get so caught up in the excitement of giving and, regardless of what anyone tried to teach us, of getting, that we would ignore ‘the true meaning of Christmas . . .’

. . . The true meaning of Christmas.  Indeed.

‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come.

Let earth receive her King.

Let every heart prepare Him room

And Heaven and nature sing . . .’

. . . Oh, Christmas gift!  Christmas gift, everybody!”

~~~ Excerpt from Christmas Gift! by Ferrol Sams, 1989, A Delta Book, published by Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., NY, NY, ISBN 0.385.31399.3

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Christmas Long Past

  1. Deitra

    OMG Margo, I thoroughly enjoyed this! What a treasure/legacy for your children and grandchildren and so beautifully written. I felt like I was there with you enjoying every moment. This brought back memories of my own grandparents victorian home in NY with a fun attic we played in. Thanks for taking the time to write and share. Have a blessed Christmas. PS: You should submit this somewhere to be published!!!

    • Dear Deitra,

      Thank you for your very encouraging comment! I have worked on this piece for about five Advent seasons–off & on. I am so gratified to know that you enjoyed it!

      Coram Deo,
      Margot

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