I know I said last week that I was going to write about Jimmy Carter's book addressing violence, but I looked at the calendar and realized that this is not an appropriate week for it. I continue to believe in peace and good will – as does he, even though much of the world argues against it. Someday it will happen: we will have a democratic global government that assures peace and safety for everyone. I won't live to see it, but I'm sure that it will happen. Either that, or we disappear as a species. There simply is no other choice.
So instead of thinking about violence, I'm going to wallow in nostalgia. I also said last week that atmospheric warming is real and Christmases aren't as cold as they used to be. So to nostalgia: As a child, I never imagined a Christmas without snow. My Minnesota town welcomed it with lights across Main Street that featured a star and streetlights festooned with winding garlands of fresh evergreens. Lumber was an important industry, and buying these garlands probably wasn't prohibitively expensive. I don't remember who put them up, but they were lovely in front of our house, especially when the light reflected the snow on them.
Decorations were much simpler then. Mom put a red cellophane wreath in the front window – in these years just after World War II, cellophane was the latest thing. Dad hung a single strand of colored lights around the door, something that relatively few of our neighbors did. After we moved to Arkansas in 1954, lights were even more unlikely. We lived on a high hill, and Dad placed nails on the side of the house in the shape of a Christmas tree, visible to all who drove by. I treasured lights and still do. I am so happy about the fantastic displays here in Florida. It's important when days are dim.
Our tree in Minnesota was in a window seat, so it would have been visible to those who walked the icy streets – but mostly it was high in the bay window to prevent little hands from reaching the ornaments. Houseplants lived there most of the year, but at Christmas they were replaced by a tree, always fresh from the lumber yard. I recently had the joy of reliving the scene: among the thousands of photographs that my sister left (unsorted) was one of my first Christmas. I never had seen it before, and I can't imagine how it survived her many moves. It may have come from my mother, but I thought I knew all of Mom's photographs. In any case, it was marvelous to see.
Probably taken by a professional photographer who lived nearby, it shows me as a three-month-old baby sitting on Mom's lap. She wears a dress, of course, and her well-shaped, nylon-covered legs are prominent. Dad wears a three-piece suit and sits at the end of the sofa, next to a floor lamp that I remember. My brother, who is just eighteen months older than I, stands in short pants in front of my oldest brother, who was then thirteen and wearing a suit. Both he and my older sister died last year, and I especially miss them at the holidays. She is very small in this photo, although she would have been ten years old. The tree is to the side of us, and I remembered the paper wrapped around its base; it was intended to look like the brick of a fireplace.
MORE MEMORY WADING
Dad's family was Norwegian, and Mom paid tribute to that on Christmas Eve. I didn't like any of the traditional foods, but in retrospect, I appreciate her efforts. We had oyster stew, with canned oysters (the only ones available) and a lot of milk and the appropriate small, round crackers. The other holiday highlights for Norwegians were lutefisk, lefsa, and sweet soup – again, none of them popular with children, at least not this one.
Lutefisk has become the subject of many jokes; it is cod dried in lye and reconstituted as a fish dish. With lots of butter, it is barely edible. Lefsa is better; the Norwegian version of pita bread, crepes, and other such, it is made with mashed potatoes and flour. Served warm with butter and cinnamon, it's okay. Sweet soup is stewed prunes, raisins, and lemon, bound together with tapioca. Some of my cousins use red wine for stewing, which is a slight improvement.
After that, I looked forward to the treats I knew we would get at church. We children rehearsed every Sunday of Advent for the Christmas Eve service, memorizing carols and our "piece" in that year's pageant. One year my brother wore a bathrobe as a shepherd, but I'm still disappointed that I never got to dress up as an angel. After we moved to Arkansas, I once led the parade of kids coming into the church, wearing white, carrying a lighted candle, and singing "O Holy Night." Both in Minnesota and Arkansas, Lutherans apparently believed in the same menu: a paper bag passed out to children after the service, it reliably contained an apple, an orange, unshelled nuts, and ribbon candy. In very good years, there might be some chocolate.
Dad was Norwegian, but we belonged to Mom's German Lutheran Church, just a block away from the Norwegian one. Those and the Catholic church, heavily populated by people of Eastern European heritage, were the only ones in town. Unlike the Catholics, we did not have midnight mass. Our service was earlier in the evening, and Santa Claus came while we were at church. Dads invented an excuse to rush back into the house so that presents would be there when kids got home.
Both Catholics and Lutherans opened their presents on Christmas Eve, and for my family, Christmas Day meant more church, followed by eating – roast goose was Mom's preference – and playing with new toys. On the 26th, we traveled to my grandparents for what was called "The Second Day of Christmas." Grandma Schultz went to rummage sales all year long, and at Christmas, she treated us to two gunny sacks (if you are young, you may have to look that up). They were filled with unwrapped presents, one sack for boys and one for girls. You closed your eyes and pulled out something. If you didn't like it, you were free to trade with a cousin.
I'd have to do an analysis to count the cousins I had at that point: eventually, there were 56. Yes, 56 first-cousins on one side of the family. My mom was the oldest of twelve, and Grandpa and Grandma stayed so active that my brother had two uncles younger than he. They still were single, but the others already had enough kids that, except for collecting our food in the kitchen, we were relegated to the basement for the Second Day of Christmas. Grandpa set up long tables of lumber, and we had a good time. No organized games, certainly no video games or even television. We invented our own fun.
SANTA CLAUS AS CONTROVERSIAL
My mom remembered lighted candles on Christmas trees. That was before electricity: her parents would disappear into the parlor and then throw open the doors to reveal the glittering sight. Being the oldest of twelve and growing up in a rural community without any form of mass media, Mom believed in Santa Claus until she was thirteen. Yes. She told me that it was shattering when she understood the truth; she felt betrayed and questioned her intelligence at falling for the myth. Dad never did believe, and he discouraged any attempt at fantasy on our part by muttering that he wished Santa would pay the bills.
This brings me to ask if you saw the news story about the Italian bishop who railed against Santa. He argued that Catholics should not inculcate belief in this magical gift-giver. From a doctrinal point of view, I think he is correct. It is theologically wrong to encourage children to believe in a falsehood that equates Santa with God, to promote a sky-based figure who keeps lists of naughty and nice. Millions of parents disagreed with the bishop, however, and I think he merely caused trouble for himself and possibly for the Church.
Hubby and I let our daughter believe what other kids did, and we took her to meet Santa at the malls that were new then, Westshore and University. Her faith was too great, though, and she saw no need to share with us what she had told Santa she wanted. As she opened packages on Christmas morning, she kept whimpering, "helmet? helmet?" It turned out that this two-year-old girl had requested a football helmet. Ah, the unexpected dangers of deceiving children!
Children only recently became the center of holidays. As you know, this and other traditions are based on the winter solstice. Days grow shorter and colder, so pagan people understandably sought ways to bring back the sun. All cultures had forms of doing that, and so Christian leaders melded native beliefs with the new creed by designating December 25 as the day of Christ's birth. Even now, though, some western countries have days that are at least as meaningful.
A MONTH OF CHRISTMAS
I've always wanted to do a book with that title. It would start with December 6th and end with January 6th. The December date is Saint Nicholas Day in Holland -- but don't ask me to get into the complexities of who St. Nick was. December 13th is Santa Lucia Day in Sweden -- and again, you can look her up yourself. Orthodox Christians in Russia fast for forty days prior to Christmas Eve, but their big day is January 6th. As you know from our Tarpon Springs Greeks, that date is Epiphany, and it also is the important time for Hispanics, whose celebration translates to "Three Kings Day." This commemoration of the wise men is appropriate to gift giving.
But what perplexes me most about Santa Claus is the assumption that he is a he. This is not only because women are more likely than men to give gifts, even to those who don't deserve them, but also and especially because of language. "Santa" is a female saint: think Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and Santa Rosa. Those who use the masculine Saint Nicholas are closer to the mark in terms of linguistics. Yet the same Dutch culture that promotes St. Nick also produced "Sinterclaus." When the Germanic people we call Pennsylvania Dutch settled in America, that word morphed into Santa Claus. No one thought about this being a feminine usage in Latin-based languages.
Not a bit of this is traditional to Asians, of course, although they now manufacture most of what we use at Christmas. I often wonder what they think as they create our angels, nativity scenes, and more. I also wonder how things will develop during the next century, and when – if ever – we will give up on magical gift-givers and get back to acknowledging the seasonal reason that pagans understood. A holiday based on the solar system would be much more inclusive of Jews, Muslims, and other Americans who don't share Christmas customs.
In any case, whatever holidays you do or don't celebrate, I hope they are happy – and especially that the New Year is better than the old.