Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas stockings from long ago

Maybe it was the two stockings my wife hung over the fireplace yesterday, but something got me to thinking about the Christmas stockings I knew as a child. Christmas morning always seemed like such a miracle — a roaring fire in the fireplace that illuminated the living room, a room closed off and unheated for most of the rest of the year; the sweet scent of a red cedar Christmas tree glowing with the old-style, large, hot, colored bulbs; the wonder of gifts left by Santa Claus, possessions far too costly for our parents to ever provide. The excitement as I waited with my brothers and sisters to enter the living room left me shaking and shivering.

Those stockings that hang by my fireplace today are as different from the ones I knew as a child as our gas logs are from the wood fires of my youth. On Christmas Eve, we would search through a wardrobe's drawers for five old, woolen socks that our father never wore, but they were ordinary socks, not giant Christmas stockings. Each year, Christmas morning, those stockings would be stuffed the same treats: an apple, an orange, a tangerine, a handful of nuts (walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts), three or four packs of chewing gum, two Hershey's candy bars (milk chocolate and almond), another couple of candy bars (Baby Ruth and Butterfinger?), a few loose chocolate drops candies, and a peppermint candy cane. What made those treats special was not their volume or variety but the simple rarity of such special treats. It was the only time of year we ate Brazil nuts or walnuts; candy bars were rationed the rest of the year at the rate of one per week if we were lucky, and never, ever the succulent Hershey bars; Dentyne chewing gum was tasted only at Christmas; oranges and tangerines, it seemed to me, must only grow at the North Pole. One year, I mentioned to my mother that my cousin had a banana in her stocking. I couldn't understand why Santa Claus would provide different fruits for children only a few miles apart. Would I like to have a banana in my stocking, she asked. I said I would. The next year, my stocking contained a banana. Until dementia stole her mind, my mother had an amazing memory.

By Christmas sundown, I would have sucked all the juice from my orange and perhaps peeled my tangerine, too. I would have eaten at least half of my candy bars, chewed nearly all of the chewing gum and cracked all the nuts in my stocking. I would have managed all of this while playing with new toys and eating at least two huge meals with extended family. And I would have listened to my parents and their siblings talk about how much kids get at Christmas these days. In their day (the 1920s and '30s), they would have felt fortunate to receive one little toy (a ball or a doll, usually) and one piece of candy for Christmas.

But for me, Christmas was one amazement. With such a bounty of food and playthings amid a year of frugal existence, it was no wonder I considered Christmas an inexplicable miracle.

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