Fa la la la la—la la—la—la. Christmas was and still is my favorite holiday. Climbing into the arctic attic to drag down Christmas tags, packages, boxes, and bags, the ribbons, the wrappings, the tinsel, and trappings is not one of the more appealing entries on my to-do list, but opening those boxes to release sixty years’ worth of Christmas memories and traditions is well worth the chilled bones and strained back. (I told the Grinch that sentence was too long, but he insisted.)
Every year I open with loving care the treasure trove that I have accumulated—like the Shiny Brite ornaments that I bought for the tree in my college apartment back in 1971. I still remember walking to Hills with friend Dave to buy them.
Then there are the unfinished wooden ornaments that I bought as gifts for my students and myself in my second year of teaching in 1974. My fiance (now husband) Frank and I sat in my West Virginia living room for hours painting more than thirty ornaments.
There are the precious school art projects presented to us by our son and daughter at Christmas throughout their childhood years. Those gifts have been gracing my walls and trees for decades, worn as they are.
In 2005, I bought a large ornament of the Grinch standing beside a fireplace. Inside the fireplace is the photo of my daughter Leslie and her husband Alex taken shortly after Alex proposed to her, all while being serenaded by a homeless man singing Christmas carols. The photo was taken by a random woman at the corner of Walnut and Shady in Pittsburgh, the exact spot where two years before Leslie had told Alex that she wouldn’t touch him with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole. Well, actually, she more or less told him that he was wasting his time
Some of the most cherished items in my assemblage are the old ornaments and decorations from the 1940’s through 1960’s handed down to me by my parents. There’s the wind-up Santa on his motorcycle (that still works).
There’s the purple ball ornament painted with white flowers, now faded after more than 60 years of use. There were three back in the day, and they were my favorites of all the ornaments. Several years ago, I was sitting in the kitchen when I heard a crash down in the game room. I knew immediately that the tree—the fully decorated tree—had fallen over, and, as I ran downstairs, my first thought was “Please don’t let the purple ball be broken.” It wasn’t, but, alas, one of my Shiny Brites was. Sigh.
There’s the antique plastic Santa ornament that I always place front and center on my tree. Here it is on my 2014 tree.
On my fireplace mantle is the vintage Santa on his sleigh pulling three reindeer, one with a broken leg that was glued back on years ago. I don’t know whatever happened to Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen.
I clearly remember my family’s creche when I was a child. I have what remains of that as well. The stable must have been irreparable, even for a stable, for it ceased to exist sometime while I was away at college. But I managed to rescue a ceramic Joseph, one angel on bended knee, a lamb, a cow, and two camels with chipped ears. Mary and Baby Jesus must have broken long ago. What other explanation is there for their absence? I have replaced them with a close facsimile.
The photo below was taken in 1957. Notice the complete set of Santa and reindeer on our train platform. Look closely and you will see the aforementioned red plastic Santa on the tree and the nativity scene underneath the tree. I also still have the rubber animals that we used as train platform accessories.
I could go on. There are too many Christmas treasures to mention—each with their own little anecdotes. You undoubtedly have your own to tell.
Traditions play a major role in our memories. At my Catholic elementary school back in the 50’s, the countdown to Christmas began with the one and only party of the year on the last day before the Christmas break. Talk about Christmas cheer, even the nuns shed their formidable drill sergeant personas and were positively amiable for a few hours that day. It wasn’t a rip-roaring party with pizza and balloons and games—well, maybe we played Seven-Up—but we sang religious holiday songs and got gifts! Every year we got a religious memento like a small statue of Mary and multicolored hard tack candy in a box the size of a Barnum’s Animal Cracker box.
The anticipation leading up to Christmas Day was palpable. Back at home, my two sisters and I would take the 60 or so Christmas cards that we received and attach them to the living room walls in Christmas tree shapes. And the envelopes they came in? You might think this is pathetic, but I would pretend I was a teacher and grade the handwriting on them. I won’t embarrass the culprit by revealing who always got an “E,” now known as an “F.” Hey, I was teaching my baby dolls when I was eight years old. What can I say? I had teacher in me for as long as I can remember.
Christmas was never truly upon us until the Lionel train was set up. It took up a large swath of our living room but was worth every inch of displacement. I devoted my entire February 2014 blog to Lionel and American Flyer trains of the 1950’s. Read here.
Clockwise from bottom left are Shirley, Billy, Eddie, and Karen with some Christmas booty circa 1955. Baby Sandy was probably taking a nap. Behind us was the Lionel train platform. Notice ye olde red plastic Santa on the tree.
Frank’s American Flyer trains circa 1959
Sometimes my parents would give me a small amount of money to spend on the family. One year they gave me a dollar. Even in the 1950’s, that wasn’t going to get you far with a family of seven. Young and foolish as I was, I thought I could pull off a gift for each family member . . . until I fell in love with a small white patent leather purse for a mere 59 cents that my sister Sandy would love. I couldn’t resist. I had good intentions. I also bought my mother a package of emery boards. What I did about the rest of the family I do not remember. Selective memory, I guess. I do know that I was very proud to give my mother a gift other than a homemade card and maybe a school art project.
Did you browse through Woolworth’s 5 & 10 or your local toy store, gawking at all the toys and making a mental note of those you wanted to convince Santa or your parents that you couldn’t live without? Maybe your favorite was on these Woolworth’s toy shelves:
To see more of Jim, the Photographer’s 1950’s Woolworth Christmas photos, view his photostream here.
Most years we put up the tree and decorated it on Christmas Eve. Perhaps it would have been wiser not to have waited until the last minute to avoid a few inappropriate words that came out of my Dad’s mouth when he couldn’t get the tree to stand upright. He never threatened to stop buying real trees, though. Maybe it was because very few people had artificial trees back then except for those silver aluminum ones, and my Mother wouldn’t have stood for that. Sandy and I would have cried him into submission anyway.
On Christmas morning, we were all up by 6:00 a.m., the prospect of presents under the tree too much to allow slumber that day. Our parents made us wait breathlessly at the top of the stairs until everything was in order. When permission to descend was granted—Geronimo! We five kids bounded downstairs like the roadrunner escaping the coyote’s latest Acme contraption.
Despite having five children in the family, Santa always managed to leave each child a pile of toys—plus a stocking made of red netting filled with candy and small toys.
On the left are my family’s old net stockings.
On the right are 1950’s Woolworth’s 5 & 10 stockings.
I got a baby doll each year throughout my early childhood. When I was in second grade, my grandparents gave me a large doll—well, large in my eyes. It wasn’t three foot tall like my best friend’s, but she was substantially bigger than my other dolls, and she straightaway became my favorite. I christened her Gloria because I wanted her to have a “holy” name. It never crossed my mind to name her Mary or Elizabeth or the name of a saint. Instead, I came up with “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Well, it does mean “Glory to God in the highest,” so I was on the right track.
Gloria was not only my favorite doll but my favorite toy of all time. I slept with her, ate with her, and taught her arithmetic and geography. She was the brightest child in my baby doll classroom. Everyone in the family knew her; even my two brothers knew Gloria by name and remember it to this day—maybe because they routinely harassed us both for years. I am pictured above with Sandy, Shirley, Billy, and my new doll Gloria in 1959.
One of my favorite Christmas memories was bolting down the steps on Christmas morning a few years later to discover Gloria sitting atop my pile of gifts. And guess what? She was wearing a brand new flowered dress that my mother had sewn by hand—most likely while I was at school. I was elated because her original pink dress had already sustained substantial wear and tear. I still have Gloria—cracked neck, broken fingers, unattached arm, missing eye lashes, and all. And although that dress my mother made is now stained, ripped, and missing its lace waistband, I still have that, too.
Here is Gloria today wearing a contemporary outfit. We baby boomers still desire to be stylish. In front of her is the very dress my mother made in the early 60’s.
Big sister Shirley and I playing with new pots and pans
Later on Christmas morning, the family would always head to church and a wondrous Christmas mass, stopping to admire the creche on the way out. Then as now, I took my time admiring Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and His well-documented worshipers.
After lunch, it was off to my grandparents’ house for a visit and then it was back home for a splendid holiday feast for seven. When there are seven of you, you don’t get the casual invitation to dine with others. But during the week between Christmas and New Year, you never knew when the doorbell would ring and in would walk aunts, uncles, and cousins to keep the festivities rolling. Do my family memories and traditions sound akin to your Christmas season in the 1950’s or 1960’s? Maybe they have a lot in common with your Christmas in 2014!
Ah, those were the days of little or no responsibility in preparing for Christmas. Now, as adults, no matter how busy we are, we have to find time to shop, wrap, decorate, clean, bake, cook, and entertain . . . and, in my case, prepare for my daughter and son and their families to descend upon my house from out west, three small grandchildren included.
Gotta get back to my to-do list. But before I do, I have a few words of wisdom from the Who’s down in Whoville and Theodor Seuss Geisel: Go ahead and trim the tree with Christmas stuff like bingle balls and whofoo fluff. Hang pantookas on the ceilings; pile panpoonas on the floor. Dance with jintinglers tied to your heels; merrily feast on your roast beast meals. But remember, “Christmas Day is in our grasp as long as we have hands to clasp. Christmas Day will always be just so long as we have we.”
Have a Joyous and Blessed Christmas.
Karen Gennari is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.