Ever since I grew old enough not to be scared to death by it, I have been a big fan of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. And, while I recognize the necessity of having the ghosts of Christmas Present and Christmas Future, the Ghost of Christmas Past has always meant the most to me. Perhaps this is due to the fact that every year I myself am visited by this very ghost.
The Ghost of Christmas Past that visits me does not take the form of a spirit, however, but rather takes the form of extraordinarily strong memories – memories that can brings lovely sounds to my ears, sweet smells to my nose, a poignant smile to my lips, and even tears to my eyes. I suppose I would have to say that this Ghost brings me the most physically tangible memories in my experience.
For some reason, this year the Ghost has been even more present than usual, and she (for I am certain that the Ghost is female) has walked me through some early Christmases from start to finish. As we all know that memories have a tendency to fade over time, I have decided to put pen to paper (so to speak) and document some of these memories, which are rooted in the rituals and traditions of my childhood.
Most of my Christmas memories seem to have a musical soundtrack; maybe this is part of the reason why they are so vivid. Both my parents were accomplished musicians; my dad played both piano and harpsichord, and my mom majored in music in college. My sister and my brother were both accomplished, serious singers; I was the slacker, having abandoned my musical talents in their early development stages to pursue athletics.
In the evenings leading to and following after Christmas, we would often sit in the living room by the tree and sing carols. Lisa had a lovely soprano voice, Mom was an alto, Dad was a bass, and Bobby and I would trade off on tenor and bass parts as the mood struck us. One of us would choose a carol, all would sing, then someone else would choose one. “God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Angels We Have Heard On High” were my favorites. We would always end on Silent Night, to the lights of the Christmas tree and the flame in the fireplace, and would hum the last verse.
My mom and my brother were scrupulously traditional. My dad and I would sometimes advocate throwing in some variations, but we never got anywhere with that, and eventually gave up. Our traditions straddled the border between custom and ritual, and while we paid a price in spontaneity, we gained benefits in deeper meaning and emotion.
The festivities would start in earnest on Christmas Eve. That was when we would have our big Christmas dinner, rather than on Christmas day. My grandparents would always come over, and we would have a turkey dinner, finishing with a flaming plum pudding garnished with holly. After cleaning up we would head to my dad’s cousin’s house for their annual Christmas Eve party. As a kid, I was always resentful that we had to go to this, as it was definitely an adult party. But, it was somewhat of an obligation, and I do have very fond memories of everyone clustered around the piano singing carols.
Once we got back from the party, it was time to go into full-on Christmas mode. Ten o’clock at night, and SO MUCH to do! The main event was the hanging of the stockings. In my family, the stockings were NOT hung by the chimney with care, they were hung from the posts of the bed in the master bedroom. And, they were not pretty Christmas stockings, but were long nylon stockings, usually supplied by my grandmother I believe. We hung the stockings, and when we were little (I stopped being little by the time I was six) we were allowed to jump on my parent’s bed; the only night of the year we were allowed to do so, I can assure you! We would then nestle together on the bed and my mom would read “The Night Before Christmas” to us, followed by the Christmas story from a book called “The Christ Child”. We were then given strict instructions on when we could knock on their door in the morning (originally eight o’clock, eventually negotiated down to seven-thirty), and sent off to bed.
Of course, being kids, and being very excited, we could never sleep until the allotted hour. So, we would usually congregate in Bobby’s room to wait impatiently together, comparing notes as to what we had heard during the night and what we thought might be under the tree. Finally, the time would arrive, we would knock on the door, and we would be told “just a minute!” and asked whether we had brushed our teeth (to which we would invariably answer “yes”, of course!). FINALLY, the door would open, exposing to us a most surreal scene!
We would rush through the door headlong into the brightest light we would ever see, as my dad would take movies on his super-8. As our eyes adjusted, we were able to make out five amazingly overstuffed nylon stockings. We would all climb onto the bed, and my dad would hand our stockings one at a time. These stockings were filled to the brim, with a couple toys, some candy, some other sort of special snack (my favorite was smoked oysters that come in a can, for some reason), the upcoming year’s supply of underwear, a few pairs of socks, three or four paperbacks, and other sundries. There was always an orange in the bottom of the stocking.
After collecting our loot and taking it to our rooms, it was time to head downstairs. Not for presents, however! We were not allowed to see the tree yet, or any of the stuff underneath it. We would play with the toys and games we got in our stockings while my dad would prepare breakfast. We would finally sit down to a nice breakfast in the dining room, with fresh squeezed orange juice, which was always a special treat. After breakfast, we would attend to our kitchen chores, then head upstairs to get dressed (in “nice” clothes) and to clean our rooms (yes, this was required).
At this point, of course, we kids were ready to burst with impatience and anticipation. Dressed, teeth brushed, rooms cleaned, and much of the morning’s take of candy already consumed, we were ready the main event. At that point, we would get the OK that everything was ready, and we would rush downstairs to see the tree, surrounded with more presents than seemed possible, with Santa’s “main present” to each of us unwrapped under the tree. We would then sing “Joy to the World”, and get ready to open some presents!
Unlike many of my friends, opening presents was a very deliberate exercise. It was one present at a time, one person at a time, with Mom as chief choreographer. Presents for us kids were wrapped in coded wrapping paper so that she knew who was opening what, and when. Each present was followed by a personal “thank you” and hug and kiss from the recipient to the giver. As you might imagine, this took place over most of the morning, but as a kid I always viewed the way we did presents with pride. There was true appreciation, rather than simply an acquisitive rush that was over by breakfast time.
Just as we were running our of steam (and out of presents!), Grandma and Grandpa would arrive with one more present for each of us – and usually a pretty good one! That would usually cap things off for a while, as we would kick back, play with our new toys, try on new clothes, etc. Then it was off to the kitchen for turkey sandwiches and leftover desserts. Then, my grandparents would leave, and my parents would head off to their room for an afternoon nap – the only day of the year that this every happened. We kids never understood why they were so tired on Christmas day… but once I became a dad I understood!
Late in the afternoon, it was time to put the new loot down for awhile, and get ready for our Christmas visit with the Karlsons. Nip and Wes Karlson were some of my parents’ oldest friends, and we would get together with them every Christmas evening, alternating between their house and ours. This was another mostly-adult party, as the Karlson boys were a bit older than us, but we would bring a toy or two with us, and there was always great food like cheeseballs, various chips and dips, and plenty of candy. The grown-ups invariably had Tom and Jerry’s, while us kids had egg nog. The party would last until bedtime or after, bringing to a successful conclusion another Beekley Christmas.
So, there you have it, a Beekley childhood Christmas, in a thousand words or so. There is so much more, though, much of it is difficult to put into words. The awe and joy of finally seeing the presents under the tree. The gleam in my mom’s eye while singing carols by the tree, a look of love, pride, and pure joy. The great feeling that came with giving someone a gift that they really loved. The memories only become warmer, sweeter, and more visceral when viewed through the rosy lens of elapsed time.