I Remember Christmases Past and …
Some of my best memories of Christmas are of my family, of brightly decorated trees and times when everyone, kids and adults, puts work aside for a few days and spent time with each other.
One Christmas memory that I will never forget is that of a black metal Lionel Steam engine with a bright headlight, jeweled sidelights, red Pennsylvania logo and the smoke and rasping whistle as it chugged steadily along its metal tracks circling under our tree. I was 6 years old and my father had spent most of his Christmas paycheck on that train. He enjoyed it almost as much as my brother and I.
For many years it circled our Christmas trees, recalling past Christmases with each whistle and puff of smoke.
In those days Christmas trees were fresh cut and the scent of pine needles filled our small house. We decorated the tree with frosted glass ornaments and strings of popcorn and real candy canes. The lights I remember best were blue bubble lights, which magically danced for me in my imagination.
It seemed that Christmas was colder then and I recall one time when the snow was so deep our German Shepard puppy could only move by leaping up and jumping; he would disappear in the powdery snow and then suddenly reappear next to us, wide eyed and tail wagging.
In those far off days our entire community would come outside after a snowstorm. Fathers would actually set up barricades on side roads so we kids (and more than a few Dads and Moms) could sled safely. Neighbors would go caroling, visiting and actually would make a point of helping the elderly clean sidewalks and get groceries.
We had a Safeway not too far away but for many purchases we would walk the mile to our nearest corner store, a grocery store no larger than a 7-11 (which didn’t exist back then). It was a community, you knew your neighbors for blocks around and they knew you.
Our elementary school had a Christmas pageant every year. There was no political correctness back then; if non-Christian kids were in the school they were usually treated by the rest of us with great care and compassion.
What? You don’t get Christmas Presents?
Different branches of Christian faith might fight like cats and dogs but when Christmas came around it was a united front. In those days the spirit of Christmas was pretty much universal. World War II had ended the depression and now the Korean War had been over for a few years. People were optimistic and determined to spoil their kids; for the most part they succeeded.
We would exchange presents in school, and I don’t remember anybody ever complaining about that. The teachers and staff would always be certain that everybody got something. Days were spent in happy activity on Christmas projects and learning songs for the school pageant.
That was an event somewhat reminiscent of “a Charlie Brown Christmas;” all our families would come to watch each class sing Christmas songs. It amazed me that our teachers could get kids together that individually couldn’t sing at all and combine them together into a group that produced beautiful music.
There was always a Christmas tree at school and even a special pre-Christmas lunch of turkey, fresh baked rolls and a cupcake. It was a happy time, a special time of the year and it seemed to me then that Christmas vacation lasted almost as long as summer vacations did.
In the mid 80s it was my turn to raise a family and just before our first child was born I decided that he would have a Lionel train set for Christmas just like mine. I bought my first train from a magazine and ended up with something so cheap and plastic that it was quickly shelved in the basement.
This was not as easy a task as I had thought. Things had changed over the years. I did research and discovered the old Lionel trains I had loved were still around. For a while Lionel had fallen on hard times, the space age had dawned and the days of O-Gauge trains seemed to have passed.
Then, just about the time I decided to get a train, Lionel underwent a major revival. Baby-Boomers everywhere seemed to have rediscovered them. For the next few years we collected trains and built a permanent layout. Each Christmas finds us gathered around the smoking, chugging engines watching as they circle the track, complete with flashing signals, whistles and lighted buildings.
Both of our sons have mastered the art of running the trains but it is a time when all of us take a turn at controlling the throttle and running the show.
Now that Robert and Kenneth are almost grown (17 and 15, football players both) I look back at the Christmases we have shared. I remember many times at the Church of the Transfiguration, in the old small building on Braddock Heights, watching the youngest among us in the Christmas pageant as they try to remember their lines and bask in all the attention from the adults.
Remembering our young sons from 11 years ago as they dragged their woolen lambs behind them for the play, solemnly playing their roles as Shepards. It seems impossible that the years have passed so quickly.
Rarely do we have a fresh cut tree now; I miss the scent but not the mess. Every few years we would hike out to a tree farm and spend a few cold hours selecting that perfect tree. This year the family gathered and set up the artificial tree that looks really nice but doesn’t have that great smell. My wife insists the lack of pine needles stuck in the carpet more than offsets the loss.
Now there is no longer that 5 A.M. rush of little feet and cries of “come on GET UP!” from our kids on Christmas. We get to sleep in now. When the kids were little and had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, I used to sneak out with a belt of sleigh bells and ring them loudly from the darkened hillside outside of our house. It took a few years before they actually suspected that Dad was the source of such sounds. “We used to think it was Santa Claus” they exclaimed and I always answered “How do you know that it wasn’t?”
I vividly recall one midnight church service just a few years ago. There was a small crowd in attendance but it was a fine service and afterwards, when we emerged from church, we discovered that it was snowing.
Father Tom, our pastor, somewhat resembled Santa Claus with a white beard and sparkling eyes. He stood alongside us, smiling at the sight as snow floated down in waves of shifting flakes.
A blanket of white powdery snow had covered the ground and reflected light in glittering rainbows and made the sound of our church bells ring clear and pure. It would have made an incredible Christmas card, but still it is etched in my mind forever; for that moment we were all kids again, lost in wonder at the sight of so much beauty around us.
Now it is Christmas again, and I have learned to look for the joy and wonder in small faces, to appreciate the presence of friends and family. I know these moments will pass but I realize now that you need to step back and look for the spirit of Christmas around you; easily found if you pause and take the time to look for it.