The weeks leading up to Christmas seemed to be filled with news reports of toys being recalled because they contain parts coated with lead-based paint. I told someone the other day that we never had to worry about that when we were growing up because the pine cones we used for baseballs and the limbs we used for bats were not painted. We used daddy’s good plow lines for jumping rope and they also were paint-free.
When my siblings and I played with those simple toys, I never would have imagined the complexities of the toys my grandchildren would one day play with. In fact, as I look back over the years, it’s hard to believe children once appreciated the gifts of oranges, tangerines and apples. Today, children would probably not even accept pieces of fruit as presents.
Around the holidays, I always like to recall the sights, sounds and smells that I remember from my childhood Christmases at home.
I remember the beautiful tree we had decorated in the corner of the front room. It was not a store-bought, artificial tree that was shaped perfectly. Many times I walked all over our wooded land and old fields trying to find the best pine tree to chop down and use for a Christmas tree. There were not any cedars in our area, so finding a tree with a lot of limbs on it was the goal.
It was easy to string the lights around the tree; the long strand only had 14 large bulbs on it and when one went out, they all did. The lights did not twinkle, chase, sing or blink. They just shined brightly. We would wrap two strings of red and green rope and a strand of aluminum foil around the tree. A dozen large, glass balls hanging from the limbs and a few icicles completed the tree. It was a simple but beautiful tree when it was finished.
I thought wistfully of our old Christmas tree a few weeks ago when I tried to put together my artificial tree that came with lights on it. Gene helped me and finally, frustrated, he snatched it up and took it outside to unload at the dump! I told him that I would go out and saw down one of our Leyland cypress trees to use, but he knew I was kidding because I simply could not bear to chop down a pretty tree to decorate for a few days.
As for the sounds of Christmas, I’m reminded of the huge peppermint sticks my mama used to buy for us at the holidays. One of those sticks was as big around as a small teacup. She would take the large butcher knife, put the candy stick on the table on top of a piece of newspaper and whack it into a dozen nearly equal pieces. My siblings and I loved that peppermint candy and we all tried to get the biggest piece.
I also remember the sound of parchment paper rattling around in the big boxes of bonbon candy ordered from Sears and Roebuck. What delicious candy that was!
Then there was the sound of a hammer pounding open Brazil nuts on the fireplace hearth on Christmas Eve. Every year, daddy somehow managed to buy a large paper bag full of Brazil nuts and we always looked forward to him bringing them home. We also sometimes used half of a brick to crack the shells.
We made a lot of noise cracking the coconuts that my aunt would bring us from Miami. First, mama would use an axe to chop off the coconut’s thick outer shell then she used an ice pick to puncture the coconut. She turned it over a glass and poured the clear coconut milk out slowly until the glass was about half full. We seven kids passed that glass around and drank a sip each. We were not scared of catching each other’s germs. Finally, mama took the hammer and busted the coconut into many pieces and we used a Case knife to pry the coconut meat loose from the hulls. It was chewy and delicious.
It was not illegal in Georgia to have firecrackers when I was young. Daddy always brought home a selection of cherry bombs, sparklers and bottle rockets. We all gathered around in the front yard to watch daddy as he lit them and threw them into the air or across the yard. We really enjoyed the boomerang firecrackers. They would race across the yard, turn around and come back toward you. I was always too scared to light one, but did enjoy standing behind daddy and watching.
Now for my favorite part of Christmas — the smells. The smell of the decorated pine tree was nice in the living room. But the real smells of Christmas came from the kitchen, which was connected to the rest of the house by a breezeway. We had a large, cast iron stove that used wood for fuel. The stove wood pile had to be piled high for all the cooking to be done at Christmas.
Mama mixed batter for a fruitcake in the old, large, beige-and-pink-striped crockery bowl by holding the bowl in the crook of her arm and stirring the batter with a big spoon. The ingredients were not the same as the ones used in fruitcake today. She used fresh chopped oranges, tangerines, bananas and apple slices, plenty of raisins and shredded coconut. There were no pecans to add to the batter. Seven thin layers were baked in an iron skillet one at a time and stacked on top of each other without any frosting in between. It was a wonderful cake!
Mama also baked chocolate, coconut and apple jelly cakes. We liked the chocolate cake best. My siblings and I all stood around watching, our mouths watering as my mother dipped the hot chocolate from the iron skillet onto each layer of cake as it baked.
While the cake layers were baked, mama boiled a large, fresh ham in a pot on top of the stove. When the cake baking was finished, she put the ham — along with some sweet potatoes — in a pan and baked it until it was brown and crispy on the outside. Fresh pork backbone and rice rounded out our Christmas dinner. And, of course, fruit salad was an absolute must.
Recalling the sights, sounds and smells of Christmases so long ago have made me yearn for the simple times. I see no reason that my mama, who turned 91 on Dec. 4, cannot get started right now and prepare us a nice dinner like she used to. Heck, she would not even have to keep putting wood in the stove as hers is electric now. How ’bout it, Ma?
These are all precious memories that I would not trade for any of the fine, festive things available today. I hope you all are having a very glorious Christmas holiday filled with good health, joy, happiness and peace within your families. Also, have a happy New Year and never forget: Jesus is the reason for the season!