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Memories Of Christmas Past

by Mary Jo Shannon

Christmases seventy years ago in rural Augusta County – at least in our family – were much simpler than Christmases today. As soon as Thanksgiving was past, we children pored over the Sears & Roebuck catalog, studying the toys and trying to decide which we really wanted most. With crayons of different colors assigned to us, we marked several, hoping that Santa would choose one of them to bring on Christmas Eve. Each afternoon we huddled around the radio to hear Santa read letters children mailed to him, care of WSVA, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

On the Saturday before Christmas, we rode to Staunton in the back of the pick-up truck, with Daddy at the wheel and Mama beside him, to go Christmas shopping. While Daddy shot the breeze with friends in Worthington’s Hardware, Mama headed for Leggett and Montgomery Ward to buy gifts for her husband and children, her brother and her sisters. My younger brothers, Frank and Clinton, were trusted to my care.

We paused often to gaze into store windows adorned with Christmas trees and fake snow and magnificent gifts for the special season. A book store featured a Nativity scene with the Holy Family and a manger filled with straw. At last we made our way to the “ten-cent” stores – Woolworth’s and McCroy’s – where we would do our shopping. (Yesterday’s ten-cent stores or dime stores or “5 and 10s,” as they were often called, are today’s Dollar stores.) Here we would find gifts for the children whose names we drew at school, and for our teachers, our parents and each other. A dime or two could buy a handkerchief or a comic book, a couple of pencils or an eraser. And lots of tempting candies and bubble gum. When our money was spent, we spent time – looking at the merchandise we couldn’t buy and listening to the town clock sound the hour.

At twelve o’clock we walked a few doors down Beverly Street to Wilson’s Drug store, where we would meet Mama and sit on bent wood chairs at round, glass topped tables and enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich and a Coke before Daddy took us home with our treasures.

Plain tissue paper, usually white, served as gift wrap. We didn’t use boxes, and guessing the contents by feeling the package added to the fun. We didn’t have Scotch tape but used Christmas stickers—paper shapes with Santas, stockings, wreaths or other Christmas symbols, backed with a coating of dried glue. They had to be licked and applied to hold the paper together, and the taste was not pleasant. The only ribbon we used was the narrow, crinkle type paper ribbon.

Food was, then as now, a central part of the holiday celebration. We children cracked the black walnuts gathered in the fall and Mama used them in her pound cake. A coconut cake was also essential to her way of thinking, and she bought a fresh coconut for that purpose. I remember how she held it between her knees and punctured the “eyes” with a hammer and nail so the water could drain into a cup. (This she would use in the batter for the white cake layers.)  She used the hammer to crack the hard shell, and pried the pearly white chunks of meat from the shell with a table knife. These pieces were covered with a tough brown skin that had to be peeled away before the coconut could be grated. When I was ten I was old enough to grate the coconut. Believe me, it’s difficult to grate coconut without grating your fingers!

When we visited our aunt on the day after Christmas, we took her a slice of the coconut cake. Of course, we had a piece of her cake and although nothing was said, I’m sure the two sisters compared them, and each thought her own was better. Later, Mama would confide to me, “Geanie’s cake may look prettier, but I think mine tasted better.”

Daddy usually cut a cedar tree from our rocky pasture for our Christmas tree. We decorated it with sycamore balls covered with the tinfoil from discarded cigarette packages, strings of popcorn, and our one store-bought decoration – a string of colored lights. I suppose it looked like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but we thought it was beautiful with its tinfoil star on top and the multicolored lights aglow.

On Christmas Eve we sat around our tree while Mama read the Christmas story from her big Bible. We sang Christmas carols – actually, we had sung carols throughout the days of preparation for Christmas, at home, at school and at church – but tonight in the glow of the tree and the white candles on the table, following the story according to Luke, the words seemed to have more meaning. We felt love in the room and we sensed the love of God coming to earth to live among men.

And that is the same today and forever.

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