The collective memory of a child’s Christmas
If you were born in the ’40s or ’50s, you remember how it was. Just about perfect. This is a boomer boy’s memory…
There was always lots of snow then, and you’d go out with your brother wearing your scratchy wool jacket and hole-y mittens and corduroy pants worn smooth, along with those leaking galoshes, and you’d build snow forts and an arsenal of snowballs all in your back yard which seemed to go on forever. It didn’t, of course, but you let it expand in your imagination and become enormous and always beckoning outward. You got cold and wet in the snow, your feet are sopping, and you caught a snowball in the face from your jerky brother, so it was time to go inside.
The tree was up and decorated, and your father had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir playing on the Victrola in the living room while he’s pouring whiskey, and he starts to get emotional over “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” starting to tear up, except the record skips right there, always at “Hail, the Heav’n born Prince (SKIP) light and life to all he brings,” and he pulls himself together and goes back to making his drink. Drinks were everywhere, especially at the annual Christmas party where all their friends came with their furs and satiny dresses and bow ties and cigarettes and fragrant pipes, dozens and dozens of them smelling of stale tobacco and after shave, and all of them wanting to see you and your brothers and sisters, and tousle your hair or slap you on the back. Where are you at school? What grade are you in now? My heavens! See how you’ve grown! You wore an ill-fitting scratchy tweed jacket and a fat necktie you’d just learned to tie yourself, and it’s all too tight around your body as you struggle through the clouds of cigarette smoke and throngs of all these old people to get to the food table. And the beautiful Christmas music plays on.
You’re up early the next morning because there are lots of glasses half-filled with Mom’s special eggnog still in them, and everywhere the wreckage of glasses of unfinished wine and booze (which you don’t have a taste for yet), but oh that eggnog! When your parents finally creak downstairs holding the handrail, you’re one happy little dude – and not too dumb, either, because you’ve swigged some orange juice to kill the smell on your breath.
Christmas then had a forever smell. The tree smelled wonderful back then – it was balsam and radiated its perfume to lock in your memory forever – and it dripped heavily with tinsel and heirloom family ornaments – and now it’s Christmas Eve day which your mother declares every year is her favorite day of the year, as if it’s news. You start to get quivery and tingly about that new Meta-Jet bicycle (made in Japan!! Cool!) or that snare drum or that new guitar or the HeathKit make-your-own-radio thing. Maybe it was simpler than that: a crystal radio set, a water rocket, or anything having to do with space because you’ve grown up watching Tom Corbett and his Space Cadets or Captain Midnight and have sent in how many cereal boxtops with a quarter taped to each one all addressed to Battle Creek, Michigan to get that toy rocket or ray gun, or maybe it was a Lone Ranger cap gun or Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Maybe you asked your parents for a Jerry Mahoney dummy or Richie Ashburn bat or Willie Mays glove. You know from their secret smiles something big is coming, something you really want.
Family might come around Christmas Eve, kicking the snow from their boots at the door. Here’s your cigar-smoking uncle who’d crush you with a bear hug and scrape your face with his five o’clock beard, and your Aunt Peggy who always seems to be wearing an apron and looks and acts just like Jeff Miller’s mom on Lassie, the loving and caring and cookie-baking perfect Mom. The fire’s lit, the grownups sit and drink whiskey – it was Bellow’s Partners Choice back then, and they all seemed to be smoking L&Ms – and they chat idly about Sputnik or Ike’s heart attack or the incredibly exciting lineup of 1957 car models, all of them with rakish fins. Now Mom goes to check on the roast beef in the oven, one of those roasts that drips fat and goo into the pan that gets ladled up with the mashed potatoes and peas and the deeply rich and salty slices of beef. (This is the American meat-and-potatoes era. You don’t have pizza, spaghetti is from a Chef Boyardee can, seafood is frozen fishsticks). Now the Old Man sits at the piano and you’re dutifully standing up to gather round the piano and sing more carols even as your voice is changing and sputters between a croaky bass and strangled falsetto, and no, he won’t play “Rockin’ Around the Chrsitmas Tree.”
It’s late now, time to prepare a snack for Santa on the little bench in front of the fireplace. Cookies, milk, your older brother suggests pouring in a shot of whiskey, the Old Man scolds him, makes threats of hauling us all off to church for their Christmas Eve service. Santa, fading into myth, is still sacrosanct. You’re grateful that your father has kept his temper under control all night because you know all too well how it can be sometimes, with the whiskey.
You kneel at your bedside for your litany of God Blesses, not forgetting the dog, redouble your prayer for that two-tube stereo amplifier from Radio Shack, and roll into the long blur of sleep, waking up in the dark, it’s too early, just five a.m. Now six a.m.
There’s always an orange in the toe of the stocking to stretch it out and make it seem longer, heavier… and there are always lacy patterns of frost on the windows and snow outside and your breath blows out in clouds. Sometimes it seems to be mostly clothes under the tree, the stuff you need not want, sometimes large heavy boxes spreading out from the tree and crowding the furniture. The new 3-speed bike is in the garage with a ribbon on it. The guitar is a kid’s toy guitar and it angers you. You give the Old Man a Sinatra album and he seems indifferent. Mom is ecstatic over your handmade potholders. The day slides leisurely through the morning toward Christmas dinner at noon with the oyster stew and the turkey and Bloody Marys and always the stale smoke, all of it sliding into memory, building into a collective memory – a monument, actually – of all Christmases past and present and future with the always smells and the always feelings held just beneath the skin, fragile and poignant and never simple.
Every year it will be like that.
Perfect, real egg nog!
with dark rum and cognac…
This has been a Christmas favorite for my wife’s family for eternity, and a delicious way to jog one’s collective Christmas memory. It’s real, very rich, and delicious.
- two smallish bowls, one very large bowl for serving
- 12 eggs, separated
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup dark rum
- 2 cups cognac
- 3 pints whipped heavy cream
In a mixer, beat the yolks with sugar till thick and lemon-colored. Slowly add rum and cognac while beating at low speed. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites till almost stiff.
Transfer the yolk mixture to the large bowl and fold in the whipped cream. Now gently fold in the beaten egg whites till nicely blended. (☞ FOLD! Don’t stir, or it will lose its fluffiness.) Chill for at least an hour, then serve. People may want to add a bit more rum or cognac, to taste.
Merry Christmas, everybody!