Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

Whether it snows or not Christmas traditions endure year to year

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know…” — Gannon and Kent (as originally sung by Bing Crosby, 1943)

Every Christmas I spent at home was not white—in fact, there were several years that Dad worked off his turkey dinner by raking leaves in the afternoon.

However, the weather was about the only thing we couldn’t count on. As with every family who celebrated Christmas, each year was about preserving tradition, using the same decorations and cooking the meals, desserts and once-a-year pies that marked the season and the day. With all of the rigid dedication to preserving every tradition, even as children grew and moved away, what could possibly go awry on the way to Christmas 2016?

During the first week of November, I happened to eat at a restaurant where every square inch had already been festooned with Christmas tinsel, bells, bows and trees. Holiday music has been playing in most stores for the past week, and a few weeks ago I watched as the Today Show followed the Rockefeller Christmas tree down the streets of New York City. There was no way to avoid reminiscing and remembering.

As Thanksgiving is mere days away as I write this column, my first thoughts were of the preparations made in advance of Santa’s visit. Among the earliest tasks tackled by my parents was the elaborate process of reviewing the Christmas card list, purging and adding names based on changes in relationships and reviewing who had taken the time the previous year to include us as worthy of receiving a card. My mother, the secretary for the family, kept a detailed list with check marks in neat columns indicating those sent and received for at least the previous five years. Choosing the right card was also a process, although the decision had probably been made the January before when all boxed cards were on sale. Often our Christmas card would be a black and white replica of a carefully posed picture (taken by Olean/Mills) of my sister and me, complete with party dresses and hair ribbons and a phrase such as “From Our House to Yours.” Humorous cards were rarely sent and ours was not a family that frequently chose a card with a religious theme.

Cards that were imprinted with the name of the sender were regarded as evidence of laziness, typed labels never appeared, and Mother’s cursive hand always added a flamboyant touch. Christmas cards received were, however, an important part of the house décor. Each card was carefully Scotch taped at just the right angle around every doorway in the house—your popularity measured by how many archways would be completely covered during the season.

Christmas “Specials” was still a relatively new industry. There were rather primitive cartoon programs, including “The Little King” and “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”. There were a number of Christmas variety shows including those that featured Perry Como, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Occasionally, clips of Bob Hope’s annual holiday visits to soldiers around the world were aired always with the ever popular show girls. Perhaps the most memorable Christmas special for all of us was “A Charlie Brown Christmas” which made its debut in December of 1965, more than a year after we graduated from high school. Sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company who brought us the very embodiment of a classic Santa in their advertisements of the 20th century, it was produced on a very small budget in a few weeks. Today it is still aired at least twice during the holiday season, reinforcing the message of the true meaning of Christmas and perpetuating the image of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Its production is often credited with prompting a host of similar specials, including “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman”—now annual favorites among all age groups.

Our early signal that Santa’s sleigh arrival was within sight was the arrival of the Sears Catalog. Several inches thick and devoted to peddling the latest in toys, bathrobes and slippers, it was a most anticipated event. Parents as well as children spent hours scanning the pages, making lists and overtly indicating preferences and wishes by dog-earring the appropriate pages. Keeping in mind that department store shopping in town was relatively limited in the 1950s and 1960s; the Sears Catalog was our internet to trends in all things, including the latest in home appliances. I distinctly remember one Christmas morning when Mom, in her chenille bathrobe and hair in curlers, opened her “big” gift—a canister vacuum! As always, she was very good at the expected oohs and aahs, masking her real thoughts of how a bottle of perfume might have been more appreciated.

But, back to the preparations. Early purchases for the season also included wreaths for the doors and occasionally windows and gathering clippings from evergreens for window boxes and, for those who were really ambitious, the making of roping to drape on railings, bannisters and around entrances. Among the first decorations to be taken from cardboard storage boxes were the electric candles for the windows, all aging cream colored plastic, usually single or in in units of three. Grandma Cordwell always put blue candles in her windows—we were of the white bulb devotees. Multicolored lights in the windows were considered a bit “tacky.” There were many in town that had outdoor displays, but this was long before our culture had moved to the tiny white light, dripping icicles look. Many a finger was numbed as outdoor lights (those GIANT ones) were clipped individually to bushes and trees without the benefit of modern day netting—or energy efficient LED bulbs.

Outdoor displays, especially in front of businesses, especially funeral homes, sometimes included plastic Christmas characters like Santa and Frosty—and more often than not, lit replicas of the Nativity. I don’t particularly remember what might have been displayed on City property, but you can be sure that today it would not include Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. There were absolutely no balloon-type figures that are so popular today, reminiscent of the only holiday balloons that we knew—those that were part of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade—another holiday family viewing ritual in our family.

One of the more popular and flourishing seasonal businesses in Rhode Island is companies who come to your home, map out elaborate outdoor lighting displays, hang the lights, and remove and store them for the next season. In many big cities, including most communities in Florida, you can order a pre-decorated tree based on your preference for theme and color and have it delivered and set up in your home. This allows, of course, for a display that reflects the current “hot” look for Christmas. What can have gone awry indeed?!