A snapshot of Christmas past: Memories of a child's holiday

News-DemocratDecember 24, 2013 

A few nights ago, the ghost of Christmas past paid me a visit.

No, there was no spooky old guy moaning and rattling chains to jolt me from my slumber. It was an old photograph that fell onto the floor as I sorted through papers on my desk.

It shows a skinny little runt with high-water jeans sitting in a room with wild wallpaper, a huge mirror and a scrawny silver Christmas tree.

Instantly, I was transported back to a big white house on 12th Street in Highland, the week before Christmas, circa 1959.

Could this be the living room from my childhood that I've told so many stories about? The one with our "Sunday furniture" and grand wooden pocket doors that were usually closed unless important company came?

"Just before Christmas," I wrote in a 1993 column, "the living room became a magical place."

It's hard to see the magic in the picture.

Our Christmas tree was only as tall as Pop could reach to put the angel on top. To make it seem bigger, Pop put the tree on top of a box on top of a bigger box on top of a coffee table in the corner.

We surrounded it with boxes and rolled-up blankets and crumpled newspapers and whatever we could find, then covered it all with white sheets. To a little kid, it really looked like a big, snow-covered mountain.

"That's your snow-covered mountain?" said a friend who checked out the photo. "Looks more like a molehill to me."

Some years, I'm sure it was much bigger. Of course, I was much littler, too, so you do the math.

The tree was at the mountain's peak. I know that little silver tree seems so wrong nowadays. But in the '50s, silver trees with rotating color wheels were all the rage.

The mountain had lots of room for presents for good kids like us. I remember lots more presents than the photo shows. Perhaps I was a little naughty in '59. It's a good bet there was new Sears underwear in a couple of those boxes. And maybe my Cape Canaveral rocket set.

There's our well-worn nativity set on a plateau on the left. The usual cast of characters -- Mary and Joseph, farm animals, wise men, shepherds, camels, angels -- was housed in a wooden Philco cathedral-style radio that Pop had taken the guts out of. He covered it with cotton for snow, glued on some pine branches, filled it with straw and voila! It was a pretty nifty stable.

I say well-worn because we didn't just look at the Nativity set from afar. We played with it.

We had Mary and Joseph ride in on the donkey from Nazareth, which was somewhere behind the big red couch. When they were told there was no room at the big flowery chair, the end table or the magazine rack, they had to settle for the Philco.

Once in a while, the three kings would be joined in their visit by my little green army men and a cowboy figure on a horse. I figured if I liked them, Jesus would like them, too. I drew the line at my sister's dolls, though. ...

You say you don't see any of that stuff in the photo? You probably can't smell my Mom's snickerdoodles in the oven. Or hear Jimmy Boyd singing "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" from an old 78 rpm. Or see Mom and Pop happy to have all eight kids together again for Christmas.

The Christmas magic is there all right. But this is my magic. I hope you find yours, too.

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