Ghosts of Christmas Past: Part 3–Getting Here From There

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1970 christmasWhile I was baking cookies with mom last week, she asked me the kind of question for which she’s infamous: which three Christmases were your favorite?

I laughed.  Her memory is selectively perfect, by which I mean if it matters to her she recalls details of times and events with the closest thing to eidetic memory I’ve ever encountered.  She can tell you, for example, what she got for Christmas in 1947–when she was 5 years old–as well as what the weather was like, who was at the house, and how dinner was that year.  After she told me of her three favorite years, in unnerving detail (my wife thinks mom is totally bullshitting us–“she’s convinced herself that it’s what she remembers”–but I don’t know.) I had to admit that I was lucky to resolve the details of any specific year.

I happen to think that it’s for the better.  Oh, I remember spectacular gifts I received: specifically: the GI Joe Training Tower–that’s right, for the GI Joe with Kung Fu Grip, the

yellow Mobile Action Command Rescue Vehicle and Mountain Base (that’s two different things–and both of them were awesome and just what I wanted), and the HO scale train set for which my dad made an immense platform upon7 itm_251456370394he


which he mounted tracks, painted roads for automobiles, and sites for buildings from the Plasticville, USA and Pleasantville series of HO scale accessories.  I remember that the train

Plasticville--build your own dismal sub-division.
Plasticville–build your own dismal sub-division.

was 1976, because it was a Tyco Bicentennial Edition.  A small residential neighborhood included a couple of boxy cap cods and some really depressing 1960’s vintage ranch houses, pictured here–the houses each included an mid 1970s primer grey camaro up on blocks in the driveway and a collapsed above-ground swimming pool full of tadpoles and dead squirrels.  Well, not quite.  There was also a really, really cool lumber mill on a siding on which, when the train pulled up , a switch would Triang_2010_log loaderbe engaged and three plastic logs would roll down a chute and onto the waiting log car.  Finally, there was a vintage diner building that concealed a simulated train whistle.  Those were the best three toys of my life–and I still have the train set and the yellow plastic MAC van.

There are less vivid memories–the year my mom caught the curtains on fire cooking bacon for Christmas breakfast.  My then 15-year old aunt carrying me from the house and running down the street, tripping on her slippers and both of us falling to the concrete–I would have been about 3.  I remember her holding me, and I remember fear and falling–nothing else.  Not even the firetruck.

Speaking of fire trucks, another memory is a Christmas memory, but it actually happened on the day before Thanksgiving.  My dad was a firefighter back in those days, and Santa would arrive at a local strip mall each year on a fire engine, and I got to go.  We drove to the mall in a cool old American LaFrance engine and met Santa, who was waiting patiently around back, by the service entrance,  smoking a cigarette with a custodian. He tossed his butt on the asphalt and hopped on the truck–I got to push a pedal on the floor that made the siren work, and pull a cord that rang the bell.  Pretty cool, right?  I was probably around 7 or 8 and, at the time, it was the coolest thing ever–both the fire truck ride and getting Santa to myself for 3 minutes.  He gave me a heaping handful of candy canes that kept slipping through my mittened fingers, and growled, “So remember to be nice, and not naughty, ’cause Santa Claus is watching your ass, ” a comment that amused my dad and the other firefighters to no end.

I remember the year some neighborhood kids knocked out a bunch of the big C9 lights my dad nailed to the porch roof by throwing rocks at the house–the adults were outraged, but I was mainly focused on the degree of accuracy required to accomplish such a feat.

AdventWreath-300x225And then there was Advent.  My mom had an advent calendar each year that counted the long days, but the big countdown came in church, with a special ceremony each weekend in which a candle was lit signifying the 4 weekends of the liturgical calendar leading up to Christmas.  A fifth and final candle was lit on Christmas Eve.  I didn’t fully understand then and certainly don’t recall now all the conceits, but it was pretty much the solemn, religious countdown to The Big Night, and like all the really great Pagan rituals that were stolen and co-opted into Christianity, it was an old German thing.  My mom had her own advent wreath at home that she lit during dinner every Sunday night, at least for a while, which seemed perfectly normal at the time but strikes me as strange now.

The Christmas season permeated all aspects of life back then, religious and secular, as any number of hyperventilating “war on Christmas” conservative hysterics would have you remember.  Not only did mangers and giant plastic advent wreaths adorned church lawns and public buildings alike, but school music classes were focused on singing carols–not just Frosty and Rudolph, but Silent Night and other spiritual fare, and I have to say that we’ve lost something in excising the spiritual element of the holidays.  That doesn’t mean that I think it’s wrong to respect our rapidly changing population–there ought to be a way to deal with our celebrations through inclusivness–but that’s a whole different post on it’s own, one I doubt I’ll have time to address this year.

We never made a big production out of the Christmas tree–they were available everywhere, for about $5 most of my childhood, sold by a local boy scout troop. Ostensibly I was there to help choose, but that decision always ended up with my mom