This is the time of year, of course, that families gather.
But families change, sometimes slowly, and sometimes abruptly.
Slowly as babies are added, one by one and children grow.
And abruptly when people depart this earth, leaving behind that empty chair and its accompanying empty cavern in our hearts, having carved great gashes with the roughhewn saw of grief.
For some of us, when the here and now become a bit overwhelming, there is a happier place to visit in that space of our childhood. Those first Christmas memories when we dreamed all starry-eyed of what Santa would bring. No matter what was wrong, everything would be alright – because after all – Santa was coming and we had been (relatively) good.
Your Earliest Memories?
What are your earliest memories of Christmas?
I was too young to remember anything in this photo, but this is me in the first recorded Christmas photo at my grandmother’s house. This would have been my second Christmas and I was probably full of energy; bound and determined to get into that attractive distraction called a Christmas tree.
That’s my ornery brother, John on the right side of the photo, and my cousin, Mike on the left. Mike’s sister, Nancy is holding me. I wonder what was going on, because both boys are eyeing me askance. I do believe that’s called the “stink eye” and brothers excel at that!
Christmas Tree Special Delivery
At our house, Santa Claus also visited a week or two before Christmas and put up the Christmas tree. I waited daily, for days and days and DAYS until that fateful morning when Santa would have arrived secretly during the night. As I cracked the door open, the Christmas tree stood silently waiting with its lights twinkling and its tinsel gently swaying with the air currents in the living room.
I KNEW when Santa arrived one year, because I HEARD him. Not in the living room, mind you, but on the roof. I was just positive and sure enough, I discovered the next morning that he had in fact been there. If I ever doubted, I was convinced.
I do remember the Christmas in this picture when I was age 4. See that tiny piano against the wall – I LOVED that piano. I think I loved it so much that it disappeared or maybe I loved it to death!
My father was present that year, because I was holding his little dog, Timmy. Dad’s arrival, with Timmy, would have been the best present EVER. Kids are so exuberant.
My Dad bought that rocking chair for me and I still have it, although I clearly haven’t sat in it in decades. But my children did and bears with quilts do now too.
I also recall my absolutely favorite gift that year.
Yes, that’s right, a tin marching drum. Somewhere I know there was a photo at one time, but that photo apparently disappeared.
I’m sure my mother wished she could have made that drum disappear too. I’m positive that my much-beloved father brought me said drum, because I’m equally as positive that my mother would NEVER have bought me that noisy thing. NEVER!
I distinctly remember proudly parading around the house in my new too-big brown bathrobe gleefully beating with all my strength on that drum, much to my mother’s chagrin.
Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.
Our version was a tad bit different, but we did indeed go “home” to grandmother’s house every Christmas. For mom, Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas otherwise.
As you can see, my brother was by that time a teenager and had begun to drive. He didn’t have much use for his pesky little sister.
I don’t recall this particular day, or Christmas at my grandparents. Christmas, the holiday, was overshadowed by what followed.
My grandmother suffered a heart attack, collapsed on the floor and died just a few days later, on January 4th.
This photo of my grandmother and grandfather, with Nancy’s son, Bruce was taken that Christmas. I notice that the photo was printed in July, and it must have pained my mother greatly to open that packet of photos when she picked them up at the drugstore.
My grandmother loved Christmas and the fact that her grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren were all gathered together at home. My mother inherited that from her as well.
I’m in the corner of a second very poor photo taken at this same time. I remember the throw on the back of the couch. I could put my fingers in the little inverted popcorn-like shapes. The couch was brown and made from scratchy rough fabric. It’s amazing the memories these photos trigger.
While I don’t specifically remember this Christmas, or any Christmas at my grandmother’s house, I do have very fond memories of my grandmother herself. In particular, she always ran to hug me.
I also have very vivid memories of the heart attack, her laying on the kitchen floor, and the aftermath. For a young child, it was a frightening time. Not only was something wrong with my beloved grandmother, but my mother and everyone else was a wreck too, and I didn’t understand why. My understanding of “sick” was that you threw up, and I kept looking at the floor for evidence of her being sick.
Sick meant something else altogether. Sick meant our life was about to change forever.
I’m glad we had that final Christmas together.
Suffice it to say, my mother was never really “alright” with Christmas again, although she made every effort to hide that fact from me.
Over time, as her grandchildren began to gather in her home as well, enough Christmases had been put between her and that devastating year that she could smile and sing again.
But that didn’t happen for a very long time.
Christmas and our family traditions changed dramatically at that point in our lives.
I have only vague recollections of the next several Christmases. My grandfather was still living in December of 1960, but would have been ill in December of 1961. I remember that he asked for peanuts for snacks and I was so pleased to give him a can of peanuts. The kind with Mr. Peanut on the side.
My grandfather passed away in June of 1962 and by that December, the house my mother had grown up in had been sold. Mom took her portion of the inheritance and purchased a house. We moved in, you guessed it, on December 23rd.
I was in first or second grade that year, and I was quite worried that Santa wouldn’t be able to find us at our new house.
Would he know to come on the night of the 23rd to put the tree up?
Yes, mother asserted me, Santa was magical.
Would we have to do without a tree that year?
“No, of course not,” mother assured me.
I wasn’t very reassured.
Not only that, but I couldn’t sleep very well in my new bed in a strange new house and I heard a strange “rustling” in the living room, right beside my bedroom.
Sure enough, the next morning, Santa had somehow managed to find us and put up that tree among the boxes of our still-packed household.
What a sight, boxes and boxes and a fully decorated Christmas tree.
All was well in my young world again. My mother, however, was incredibly sleep-deprived for some reason. Apparently, she had been up waiting for Santa too!
Three Years Later
The next Christmas photo I have was taken three years later in 1965 sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace and the Christmas tree. In fact, there’s my rocking chair again.
I’m hugging my mom, who is dressed up for Christmas Eve, and my sister-in-law is to our right. My brother is partially visible behind her. They didn’t have children yet at this point, so it would have only been our small family gathered. My father had passed away the year before. I think my Mom’s boyfriend must have taken the photo.
Mom always decorated the fireplace mantle with the Christmas cards we received after faithfully writing any changed addresses on the Christmas card list.
At the time, I didn’t realize of course that my grandmother’s tree had merged with our own, but looking at our Christmas tree now, I realize that’s exactly what happened. Of course, today my tree and Mom’s have merged too.
The Ubiquitous Camera
In that day and age, photos were rarely taken and then only on very special occasions. It wasn’t unusual to go for years with no family photos and one roll of film often lasted several years. So long that you had no idea what photos were actually going to be printed.
The next Christmas photo was taken in 1970 when my mother just happened to have the flu on Christmas Day. She opened her packages laying on the couch. She’ll haunt me if I publish that one.
Grandchildren’s pictures are on the table, of course, with the ever-present Christmas candle choir in front. God help you if you decided to light one of those candles.
By this time, our tree was artificial but still dripping with tinsel. Artificial trees were so much easier. In fact, I think that tree itself was a gift one year.
I have several of these ornaments on my tree today.
This was the first year that Christmas photos were in color.
What memories – the “record player,” our old television, the stuffed Santa that I still own and our rescued cat, Snowball. Um, now that I think about it, I might still own that record album too.
These photos sure bring back memories of what life was like then.
In case you’re wondering what the heck was in that huge package, I had saved my money for weeks to purchase Mom this “painting” at Woolworths. Did she want this? I have no idea, but it hung in her house for the next 25 years. I surely hope she liked it!
The small framed item was a print I had purchased in Paris as an exchange student. Mom had the set of prints framed for me. I still have those as well.
Of course today, we’re used to taking digital pictures with our cell phones and photos are just a daily fact of life. Instant gratification, no printing costs and delete them if they don’t turn out well.
Of course, finding them in another few years, or decades – well, that might be quite another matter because today’s photos aren’t printed and in most cases, aren’t archived either.
Poof, the phone or computer is gone and so are your photos.
What About Your Family Memories?
I bet by now you’re thinking about your own childhood Christmas photos.
- Where were they taken?
- Who was there?
- What year was it?
- What gifts did you give or receive?
- Do items in the background jog any forgotten memories?
- How did life change in the following years?
- Was that photo of a first or last something?
The best thing you can do with your photos is to get them out of the box and share them with your family this Christmas, as you gather.
If you have siblings or older family members, ask them to share their memories with you.
As they tell their stories, write them down.
If you ARE that older family member now, share your memories with others. They might not appreciate them today, but they will be polite and humor you. (If they don’t, just cast that stink-eye in their direction – just like my brother did.)
Then, do them a favor – write down your memories. Include the photos.
Some day they will wish desperately that they had paid attention, and you can leave them the best gift of all!