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December 05, 2006

The War for Christmas City

By Sarah

I was about eight growing up in the Christmas City of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when I first noticed my mother slipping off late at night after she put me to bed.Christmas_presents

"Where's she going?" I'd ask my father who, per usual, was half asleep in his chair.

"To church," he'd say. Nothing more. Always "to church."

I thought it pretty odd that my mother was zipping off at ten p.m., shifting furiously in the driveway and burning rubber through the neighborhood to go to church when other kids mothers were ironing or watching TV or sleeping. Connie's mother was Presbyterian and she didn't do this, though Lisa's mother, a Catholic, did. Then again, she had five kids and grabbed any opportunity to flee the house. Was this just some weird Roman-related activity? Or was something else afoot?

It wasn't until several years later that I discovered my mother's late-night trips to Almart were but one step in a fiercely fought war to insure we had the Best Christmas Ever! - an annual battle she waged against my father, the one true living Grinch.

Like clockwork on the first Sunday of Advent, my mother, and my mother alone, hauled five boxes of decorations from the attic including special snow globes assigned to each child, porcelain angels, Artificial_tree red candles that, magically, never seemed to burn down, electric candles for our windows, a box for each child containing special Christmas-related books and other stuff, all manor of artificial wreaths and of course the artificial tree.

The artificial tree was my father's returning salvo. His excuse was, having suffered through a fire in the Great Depression, he couldn't bear to have anything so flammable under his roof as a real tree. Therefore, while other families were out stomping through snowy woods or, at least, meandering through muddy tree lots, our ritual consisted of putting slot A into slot B and fluffing out the plastic needles.

Since my brother and I have back-to-back birthdays in the middle of December, the rule was that the artificial tree would not be ceremonially snapped together until December 17th, my birthday. This gave us exactly one week to enjoy the faux pine bliss and another chance for my mother to execute her primary attack against my father: tree trimming.

The fight that erupted on my birthday never failed to be explosive as my mother turned up the carols, brought out the boxes and proceeded to hang lights, tinsel, the works, while my father refused to so much as lift a finger. When his folded arms didn't defeat the troops, he proceeded to complain that Christmas was a) overrated b) caused want and hardship in lower middle class to indigent families c) was a waste of perfectly good something and d) was never celebrated when he was a kid in the orphanage during the Depression so good luck arguing against that one.

Mom usually lost the tree trimming battle, but she still had her secret weapon: cookies. Tons of them. Some were complicated and not worth the effort or time. German anise cookies that had to be stored in tins and never were ended up so hard we used them as hockey pucks on our garageCookies  floor. Slightly nauseating rum balls. Several kinds of wafers and breads involving red and green cherries that were always the last to be eaten. Snickerdoodles. Gingerbread men. Almond crescents. Macaroons. And, course, your classic cutouts. Only hers were individually frosted and decorated.

But wait, that's not all. Because she was a housewife in the 1960s, there were always a few "experimental" varieties thrown in. Cookies that bore an eerie familiarity to the cover of that month's Women's Day. Peppermint cane twists. (A big thumbs down.) Cookies with chocolate and coconut. Stuff with gooey centers. Molasses sponge candy.

All were fired at my father who, like the Titanic, quickly began to take on water. His final shot was to invite Uncle Joe to Christmas dinner and, granted, it was a powerful weapon. Uncle Joe was a foreman at the Steel who sported a crew cut and didn't like foreign cars (we owned a Volkswagen), hippies (my brothers both had hair to their shoulders) or Protestants. (Mom.)

So while Joe sat in my father's Harvard chair griping about Democrats and how lazy kids were today Roast_beef and how everyone was on drugs and women needed to talk less, clean more, my mother trotted back and forth laying out the roast beef, the Yorkshire pudding, brussel sprouts and any other food that screamed "English Protestant!" while humming Good King Wenceslas at the top of her voice.

If that didn't do it, she returned with her nuclear bomb: the famous Stucklyn Christmas bread with almond filling. It wasn't English, but it was German. German like Martin Luther, if you get my point.

It amazed me to learn later that not all families waged this war, that some fathers actually liked and participated in Christmas. That they did not give their wives the same five gifts that my father gave my mother: A pair of leather driving gloves, boots with suede protectant, a pair of earrings, a negligee and a membership to AAA. That they actually wrapped the gifts themselves! (This was my job.)

And it can't have been any accident that I married a man who has the same birthday and loves Christmas even more than I do.

Which I guess means that in the end, my mother may have lost her battles (anise cookies) but won the war. (Charlie.)

Happy holidays!



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Gee, your father sounds exactly like my father. My father use to go hunting on Christmas Eve and expect my mother to fix the catch when he returned. She refused, but my grandmother always did it. He NEVER put up outdoor lights. Mom and my brother, when we were younger, did the lights up until two years ago, She is 74 years old. My father omplained constantly about the tree being a fire hazzard. And to my knowledge the only gift he ever picked out for my mother was a new dishwasher. He just puts money in a card, someone else piced out. My father will not will not make the 45 minute drive to the airport to pick up his own children who live out of state now. My husband or mother still do that. This may sound like a personal rant, and it is. But so what, my father will NEVER read this. He doesn't even know how to turn on a computer.
Great post, but all too familiar.

Great one, Sarah! No Grinches in my house growing up - everyone was nuts about Christmas. Due to allergies, no real trees, but lots of decorations and hidden presents, which my sister Michele always found ahead of time, causing my sister Lisa to actually bite her one year when Michele refused to divulge the identity of Lisa's gifts. Michele still brings it up; Lisa is beginning to claim it's a family myth. Good times.

Glad you found your perfect holiday match - one more reason we love Charlie.

Are we playing Can You Top This? Because my father gave my mother a snow shovel one year.

Okay, so it was a joke gift. It took him about 2o years, but he finally started giving her jewelry. Very nice jewelry. (Yeah, okay, I wrapped it for him, but still--he picked it out himself!) It's taken Jeff 25 years to figure it out, too, but now I get nice presents!

Love the blog, Sarah. Love your mom. You must think of her often at this time of year.

P.S. Annette - one of my closest friends growing up had a dad like that. She just started coming to our house. Her dad is still a jackass too. It sucks.

I'm not even going to try to top any of this! My folks were OK with Christmas. They always wanted it to be special, always tried, I think, to please each other (more Dad pleasing Mom than vice-versa), and were always generous with us kids, at least in material terms. Mom never baked a bad batch of cookies and Dad always hung the lights outside. If they never could get it through their heads that I wanted a good baseball glove more than anything else except, possibly Matchbox cars (no girls getting "boy" gifts in my family -- I finally bought my own damned glove when I was living on my own), well, that was how things were in the 60's, I guess.

In later years, as Mom's drinking got worse and Dad's enabling grew to fit, things got more tense. Grandkids helped lighten things up a bit, but never for long. Eventually, of course, we all scattered and family Christmases became few and far between. And right now, I think I'd put up with all the bad parts to see my parents sitting in the living room with their kids and grandkids just one more time.

Wow. What a wide range of reactions!
Annette, I knew we weren't the only ones who grew up in such situations. Maybe we should start a support group?
And, Kerry, sorry about the disintegration. There's always hope though, right?
What a powerful holiday - causes great joy and great sadness. Guess that's why people drink/eat/smoke/argue/sleep/party too much.
The thing is, now that my father's 82, I think he really likes the holiday. Go figure.
PS - Nancy, has Jeff been released from the dog house yet?

Thank you, Sarah, for a fascinating post. It's good to know not all Christmas memories are fit for Hallmark cards.

Like your mom, I too married The Grinch. He's mellowed over the years, but I still get that slight constriction of the heart whenever Christmas tree lots start stringing lights and stacking boughs of holly because I know the battle is about to begin. Has it stopped me from dragging out every conceivable holiday decoration known to man (a kindergarten teacher collects LOTS of reindeer over the years)? Hell no! We Ho! Ho! Ho! from the day after Thanksgiving straight through Epiphany. It's survival of the fittest. Pa-rum-pa-pa-rum!

The old man was usually too drunk to know what was going on, and for once we were happy about it. Just propped him up in a corner chair with the Old Grand Dad and had a great holiday around him.

Once when he passed out we put tinsel on him and boy did Mom get mad.

Growing up Jewish, Christmas was always a complete bummer, until we moved in with our father when we were teens. He celebrated the gift exchange because of his Protestant girlfriend (now wife), even though she would skip out to visit Mummy as soon as we were done with the presents. He stayed, and so did we, because she didn't have the guts to tell her mother that she was living with him and all of us for about 10 years, about the time she turned 45. Then, he would go upstairs to read the paper, we would watch TV and bitch about nothing being on, and at about mid-afternoon, we would head out to someplace, usually a Chinese restaurant, for dinner. Gosh, as I read that, it sounds like a bummer, too.

Much better now. I dragged the tree up from the basement this past weekend, and decorating is occurring. I put the phallic things on the tree, and my wife removes them. Just like in a Rockwell painting.

Beautiful, Sarah! Beautiful.
My mom had the same cookie obsession. Overworked, widowed mom to 8 kids. she still had about 17 Christmas Cookie recipes up her sleeve, mostly unpronounceable. Thanks for the memories.

JJ - I, personally, LOVE the tinsel.

I cant say there was ever a time that there wasnt some kind of Christmas in my house.There were times that candy was all I got but my Dad always made it something to smile about. When I married my husband, he has a special way to get his presents. He gives you a list and that is what he insist he get. He has sucked the special surprise out of Christmas, but he spoils me every other day of the year, so I can get over that one day.Since all the kids have grown and gone Christmas just doesnt seem the same. Each year we look at each other and ask " Well, we going to put up a tree the year?" Each year we dont. This year I know we will.You see the one kid of ours that LOVED Christmas is in Iraq this year. He has been there for two weeks now and has called more then he has ever called us before. Three times now he has called and we havent been home and that is heartbreaking.He is at Camp Anaconda northwest of Baghdad, Mortaritaville they call it. I guess because of mortars that get lobbed into it. He tells me " Dont worry mom, we have a movie theature, and a pool!" Right like your going to have time to swim! So far we have sent him 4 packages with all the things he loves snacks, drink mixes, and the main thing BOOKS!! First thing he asked for.Harley remember the email from me about why books and authors are so important? Here is another reason. Sooo anyway, this year for my son, we are putting up a tree. Along with the American Flag outside not coming down until he gets home, there will be a Christmas tree waiting for him also. Seems like a small thing to do, but its the little things help parents, wives, keep their sanity while their loved ones are in harms way. Life is on hold, breathing becomes difficult when the news comes in that another soldier has died,and pacing is the exercise of the moment waiting for the phone calls to come in.So Christmas will be a time for us to remember the ones we spent with him, going to make his favorite meal, and think nothing but good thoughts but Pray an awful lot. BTW if any of you have an inside track to God, send a special prayer for all the men and women in Armed Forces this year! Thanks, SusanCo

Nothing negative and no Grinch stories from me.

Your post filled my mind with wonderful and warm memories of my own mother's Christmas cookies. Those were memories that I'd tucked away into the corner of aging mind.

Suddenly, I can recall the wonderful aromas wafting from her kitchen on those cold days leading up to the holidays. The delicious scents always led to warm cookies that were so soft they'd bend when you picked one up. The first bite was like heaven.

My mother liked to make those thumbprint cookies with the jelly centers, or the peanut butter ones with the crisscross patterns on top. Sometimes she'd even let me press the fork into the dough to make the pattern.

What nice thoughts. Thanks.

SusanCo -

Wow. Guess that puts pay to all my Grinchiness. Yes, by all means put up a tree and let's see if we can chip in some books. Thanks for reminding us about what's important and you have our prayers.

If anyone has a person and address to send books to, I think we could organize a heck of a drop.

That is so sweet, my love! Thank you for the tag line -- even though I don't deserve it. OK, gotta go. Gotta run to Victoria's Secret and pick up one of those Ertha Kitt Santa Claus outfits you blogged about recently --- grrrrrr!

Sarah ~ you reminded me of the days of my innocent childhood, when all was well in the family and the joy of Christmas was in the getting there.

My mom was big into baking the Good Housekeeping cookies as well as some of the traditional ones past down through her family. A few years ago, just after my brother died, I went on a baking binge...18 varieties of cookies and no family nearby to eat them. Of course, I then had to quit before the 19th recipe due to a bad case of bronchitus! LOL!

Now, as for the books, I know that the Marine Corps League in my area (my dad is a member) does a collection of care packages that they will send to the soldiers whose addresses they have. I do know that the boxes have to be addressed specifically as there were worries about terrorism in the mail to the military overseas.

This year, as we (my mom, stepdad and myself) have every year since my niece was born, we head into the city to spend Christmas Day with the youngest children so that they can stay near their presents. Afterwards, I will visit my mom and stepdad for a couple of days as work is giving me the week off.

Joe Konrath posted a name on his blog to send books to and I know one of your blog members (sorry I'm not at work and the name escapes me) has one too.

We never had a lot of money but Mom and Dad tried hard--esp Mom. I think, in hindsight, she's what really held our family together. We lost her five years ago right after Christmas and even though Dad's remarried, it's not the same. Funny, I think what bugs me the most is that it's not the same food-of all things!

Well dont know about anyone else who has loved ones in Iraq but this Mom is not to proud to ask. All cards and best wishes for my son Steve would be wonderful.
1st line: SPC Herzberg Jr. Steven R.
2nd line: 952ND ENG.CO,92D ENG CBT BN (HVY)
4TH LINE : APO AE 09391

Well dont know about anyone else who has loved ones in Iraq but this Mom is not to proud to ask. All cards and best wishes for my son Steve would be wonderful.
1st line: SPC Herzberg Jr. Steven R.
2nd line: 952ND ENG.CO,92D ENG CBT BN (HVY)
4TH LINE : APO AE 09391


What a wonderful flood you released with your great blog, Sarah.
mary alice

Okay, all I have to say is I ain't stepping into no Eartha Kitt Santa outfit....
SusanCo - Expect an outpouring!
Anybody have a general mailing list, too?

SusanCo--What kind of books does your son Steve like to read?

Mary Alice - Great to see you post!

You aren't supposed to step into it. Just out of it.

Thanks for bringing back a flood of great memories, Sarah. My dad pretended to be a Scrooge but would crawl under the tree and shake the presents when he thought no one was looking! He usually would come home from work and come in the back door except during the holiday season. He would then come in the front door with a gift(s) for my mother to hide in my closet. Think she noticed the change in his routine? She never let on!

Charlie - call me. She doesn't like that one - she likes another one from the same catalog - not to worry, it's just as, uh, abbreviated.

Taking her out for five or six drinks before hand will help as well.

That special medicine helps a lot of people, but it just puts Sarah to sleep.

Stay tuned for more holiday tips from me, Margie, if I can get them past the censors, which means I have to post them in the middle of the night after everyone is gone.

Sarah, we will pay you to step into whatever Charlie brings home.

The USO has some other great ways to brighten the holidays for folks overseas. Operation Phone Home allows you to donate phone cards (this is a real boon for many; as we all know, a goodly portion of our servicemen and women would otherwise not be able to afford international calls):

Operation Care Package provides a care package of items most commonly requested (phone cards, disposable cameras, toiletries, etc.) and a personal message. A package costs $25:

We found that our local video store was taking donations of video gift cards. These are donated to the local USO, which then buys videos and ships them overseas.

Lots of good ways to help . . .

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