Friday, June 19, 2009

Remembrances of a Childhood (Installment #5)


By Lynn Harrington

Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

11. Christmas

We all sat silent then for a time, hushed by the splendor of the sight.

Of all the holidays of the year, Christmas was to us children the most exciting. In those early years presents were very modest, but our parents saw to it that each of us could buy a small gift for each of our brothers and sisters. The older girls in turn made it possible for us to each buy a gift for Mama and for Dad. I remember that for several years in a span that must have started when I was five the girls would help us boys in our Christmas shopping. The actual shopping was done during the week before the holiday itself -- we couldn't have endured so high a pitch of excitement for much longer than that.

This is the way it worked: Each of the eldest three would take charge of one of us boys, taking us downtown on the streetcar to shop, handling our money, and helping us with our selections. Mary, for example, would take me to Woolworths or Kresge's or both. They were called 5 and 10 cent stores in those days, and they really were just that. I find myself to this day surprised as I reflect upon the variety of items each store offered for a nickel or a dime. There were toys in great variety (metal or wood, but no such thing as plastics), coloring books, crayons, games, puzzles, and novelties of all sorts. She would help me select a gift for each of the others. The boys, of course, got the toys that appealed to me most strongly. For Florence I would select something like a pencil box or a little story book (which I of course figured she would later read to me). For the older girls I standardized: Each got a package of hairpins. For the selection of Mama's and Dad's gifts I was usually steered into W. T. Grant's store. The sign on the front of that one read 5¢ - 10¢ - 25¢ - $1. The choosing of gifts in that lofty economic environment was more difficult. I would finally settle on something like a nice handkerchief for Mama and a pair of suspenders for Dad. Then when she had a chance later my shopping advisor would let me help her wrap the gifts in pretty paper.

Mildred and Myrtle did similar duty for Bob and Jim, while Florence could take care of her own shopping, except that she was not yet allowed to go downtown by herself. From year to year we paired off with different sisters. It was always a very happy arrangement.

Just as Christmas was the most exciting day, so was the day before the most interminable. It just seemed it would never get dark. Our salvation came after supper, when we were allowed to go to the movies at the Arcadia. It made no difference at all what was playing. We three boys were delighted to attend, to find the time slipping away as we enjoyed the comedies and the playing of the piano, and sometimes even paying attention to the feature picture. But what meant the most to us was the realization that when the show was over it would be time to go home and to bed. And we would be tired enough to fall asleep quickly, and then when we awoke it would be Christmas!

In winter it was always dark when we woke up. It seemed that on Christmas morning our internal clocks sounded their silent alarms not later than 5:00 a. m. But we were ordered to stay in bed and be still, for Mom and Dad and the older girls had to get up first and get the breakfast preparations under way and the Christmas presents all arranged under the tree before we could come downstairs.

Then at last, probably between 6:00 and 7:00, we would be called to dress and come down. When we reached the living room several lamps would be burning in their brackets, and everyone was dressed and we could see the table in the dining room all set for the breakfast that would follow the opening of the presents. But what caught our attention more than anything else was the dark Christmas tree,in the corner of the living room opposite to the bottom of the stairway. Then we all took our places, Mama and Dad standing by the tree, we boys sitting on the floor at the bottom of the stairway, and the girls sitting on the stairs.

The lighting of the tree was to us a scene of transcending beauty. Distributed about on the tips of the branches, among ribbons and tinsel and threaded strings of popcorn, but not visible to us until lit, were the little candles. Each was held in a little tin sleeve soldered to a clamp which held it tightly near the end of a twig. Dad turned the kerosene lamps down very low, casting the room into near darkness. Then he went to the tree, and, as Mama steadied each candle-bearing twig, Dad used a match to light the candle. This continued until all of the candles bore their tiny flames, and the tree was a shining cone of breath-taking beauty. We all sat silent then for a time, hushed by the splendor of the sight. But the flames had to be extinguished. If one of them happened to touch a dry evergreen needle there would have been an instant, sizzling flame. So Mama turned up the room lamps while Dad pinched out the candles, and the distribution of the presents began. Jimmy, as the youngest, was designated to pass the gifts to the rest. Mom and Dad, by turns, picked up a package, read to Jimmy the name on it, and he would carry it to its recipient. Of course, when they gave him one with his name on it, he plopped right down on the floor and unwrapped it, chortling his glee over the present. I substituted for him in the distribution until he was ready to resume, so the gifts kept flowing.

The presents were small and inexpensive, and the colored tissue was, as far as possible, saved for another year. But none of that mattered. We were not expecting great things, and the pleasure was in the receiving and the sharing. And I do not think we were ever at any other time so happy and so unified a family as we were on those Christmas mornings.

Christmas in Ft. Harrington, 2008
An electrified Harrington Christmas tree, more than 80 years later and a continent away. (Click the image for a more detailed view.)

The next installment of Satchel will probably be posted on the weekend of June 27 - 28. We'll give Lynn Harrington a little break then, and will hear from other voices. Dad's "Remembrances of a Childhood" will resume the week after that.

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