The weeks leading up to Christmas seem 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.
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 is hard to even imagine that children once appreciated the gifts of oranges, tangerines and apples. Today, they would laugh at you. If it doesn’t have a button on it and a battery inside of it, they do not want it. Those little objects they hold in their hands almost all the time occupy their time and minds.
Around the holidays, I always like to recall the sights, sounds and smells that I remember from my childhood Christmas at home in the 1950s. I remember the beautiful tree we had decorated in the corner of the front room. It was not a store-bought or artificial tree that was shaped perfectly.
Many times, Mama and I walked the woods around our farm, trying to locate the very best pine tree to chop down and decorate. There were not any cedars in our area, so we tried to find a pine with many limbs.
There was not much of a problem stringing the long strand of pretty lights around the tree. After all, it had only 14 large bulbs and when one went out, they all did. They did not twinkle, chase, sing or blink but just shone brightly.
Two strands of red-and-green roping and one string of aluminum roping encircled the tree. A dozen large, glass balls were hung from the limbs. Icicles finished the tree.
All the decorations were very old and had been used for years. When finished, the tree was beautiful to us.
I recalled these kinds of trees when, a few years ago, I tried to put together a tree that had the lights already on it. Gene tried to help me, and the more we tried, the worse it became. Frustrated, he snatched it up and loaded it up for the dump. I told him that I would go out and saw down one of our Leyland cypress trees to use. He knew I was kidding as I could not bear to chop down a pretty growing tree.
Sounds of Christmas remind me of the huge peppermint sticks that Mama used to buy off the Rolling Store. They were as big around as a small teacup. She took the Old Hickory butcher knife and put the candy sticks on the dining table with layers of newspapers under them. She’d hack them into a dozen pieces as equal as she could.
We loved that candy, and each of us tried to get the largest piece. Not even a sliver was missed!
Also, the rattling sound of the parchment paper in the big boxes of coconut bonbon candy ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue certainly cannot be overlooked. That was the best candy.
Another sound was the hammer pounding Brazil nuts on the fireplace hearth each Christmas Eve. Every year, Daddy somehow managed to buy a paper bag full of the brown nuts that we loved.
Excitedly, we watched for him to arrive home with this bag. If we got impatient waiting for the hammer, we found a half brick and used it to break the hulls.
Cracking the coconuts that my Aunt Bert brought from Miami was another sound I enjoyed. They grew in her backyard. First, the coconuts had to have the thick, outer shells chopped off with the ax.
Mama did this and then took the ice pick and punched through the little holes that made the face on the coconut. She put it over a tea glass, and all the clear milk ran into it. The glass would be about half full.
We had to each take a sip and pass it around. Finally, she took the hammer and busted the coconut into pieces. We grabbed a piece and a case knife and pried the white meat loose. Man, that was so chewy and delicious.
It was not against the law in Georgia to have firecrackers when I was young. We did not have any for the Fourth of July but did for Christmas. Daddy brought home a selection of cherry bombs, sparklers and bottle rockets. We all gathered around in the front yard to watch as Daddy lit them and threw them across the yard or up into the sky. We really enjoyed the ones we called boomerang firecrackers. It would race across the yard, turn around and come back to you. My brother Tommy was brave enough to light one but we just stood behind Daddy and watched as we were scared to mess with them.
Now, for my favorite sense of Christmas — smell. The smell of the decorated Christmas pine tree was nice in the living room. But, the real smells of Christmas came from the kitchen, which was connected to the main house by a covered walkway.
We had a large cast-iron stove that used plenty of wood. The stove woodpile had to be piled extra high for all the Christmas cooking.
Mama mixed the batter for her “fruitcake” in the old beige with pink and blue stripes McCoy crockery bowl by holding it in the crook of her arm and beating the batter with a large spoon. She used fresh oranges, tangerines, apples, bananas, raisins and shredded coconut.
She cooked seven thin layers in the cast-iron skillet. They were stacked on top of each other without any frosting or icing. This was a wonderful cake, and my Florida cousins looked forward to it each year. She also baked a chocolate, coconut and apple jelly cake. The chocolate was our favorite. We watched her as she dipped the hot chocolate icing from the skillet onto each thin layer as soon as she got it baked.
While the cakes were baking, there was a fresh ham boiling on top of the stove. After the cakes, the ham was placed in a roasting pan and baked until brown and crispy on the outside. Sweet potatoes were baked in the oven along with the ham. Fresh pork backbone and rice were always cooked for Christmas dinner. While Mama was making a large bowl of fruit salad, there were always three or four young’uns standing around her feet clamoring for the apple peelings.
Recalling these sights, sounds and smells of long ago Christmases have made me hungry for the simple times. Mama cooked Christmas dinners like this just as long as she was able.
There was one huge difference. She did not have to keep a fire going in a wood stove, as hers was finally electric.
This will be our second Christmas without Mama, but we will not forget the many good memories she and Daddy made for us even though they did not have the means to make any material gifts.
These are all precious memories that I would not trade for all the fine festive things that are available today. I wish for each of you a very glorious Christmas holiday.