Childhood Memories – The sights and smells of the Christmas season

“Anticipation is sometimes more exciting than actual events.” ―  Ana Monnar

Christmas in the post-War United States

Image via Wikipedia

Our Tree

  • Around the 15th of December  we’d all pile into the car and Dad would take us to find a fresh tree Christmas tree. Dragging the 6′ tall  tree, sometimes in the snow, up to where  it set on our porch, in a bucket of water until a few days before Christmas when Dad would  bring it  into the house,  trim the bottom, hack some of the branches off  to even it up, drill  holes in the trunk and put the branches  make the tree the right shape. Struggling with that flimsy old tree stand we’d finally get it anchored and we’d all make a big deal of decorating it that evening.                                                                                                                                                     The house smelled so good with the live tree as the record player played The Little Drummer Boy, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, White Christmas, and Silver Bells.The highlight was having the tree lit at night during the ten days before Christmas. A Christmas toy village ran around the tree.  We sat and stared,wide eyed, at the Christmas lights filled with colored liquid that bubbled as they warmed.  Relatives and friends would come over to admire the tree and enjoy homemade cookies and hot chocolate with us. One night before Christmas, we’d go over and admire theirs but on the way home we gleefully deemed ours to be the prettiest tree.When we got an aluminum tree, the “Silver Pine” with its  futuristic, Space Age look and  rotating color wheel  we’d lie mesmerized on the floor staring for hours, in a


  • For a special holiday treat Mom served us  FLAMING  ICE CREAM SNOW BALLS.  We loved lighting our candles, blowing them out and eating our ice cream snowballs.


  • at his North Pole workshop. We’d put 3 cents to the envelope using  a clothes pin to hold the pennies on,  and the mailman would know to attach a stamp for us.


  •   Family photo cards of cousins were received along with the newsletters that had been meticulously handwritten.


  • Everything smelled like cedar, the scent  of Christmas! (Kids were always on their best behavior around Christmas but now we learn  that cedarwood, an essential oil, is 83% effective for helping a hyperactive child, according to Dr. Terry Friedmann M.D.)


  • We’d drive into town a few days before Christmas to watch the Christmas parade. We’d angle park in front of the stores, put money into the parking meter and look wide-eyed at the wonderful items in the large display window of each store. Afterwards we’d head over to OTASCO to look at the toys,  then go into Western Auto, C.R Anthony, J.C Penney’s, the jewelry stores and the drug store which had a soda fountain.  We’d cross the street to look around the dime stores Ben Franklins, TG&Y and finally soldier on to Woolworth’s, to purchase a small bag of warm cashews from the candy counter to munch as we did our gift shopping. Earrings for Mom and  hankies, with the initial J on them for Dad, cost less than a dollar each.   We finished our shopping just in time for the Christmas parade where Santa rode on a float made of tissues stuffed in chicken wire pulled by a flat bed truck and threw candy canes to all the kids.  Afterward we’d go to the A&W root beer  stand choosing a foot-long hotdog or a  Teen Burger with a side of onion rings or fries. Big, frosty mugs of rootbeer were brought to the car by a carhop, who attached a metal tray to the driver’s side window. Dessert was a tin roof sundae or a  Black Cow  (which one can find on Youtube by typing in “How to make a black cow”.


  • Mom didn’t work outside the home and our parents didn’t use credit cards. Instead,  Mom would Christmas shop all year putting things on lay-away during the summer using money saved a little from every paycheck and put into a Christmas Club at the bank.   Naturally, some of the gifts were things like underwear.  We may not have had much but she made sure we were clean and neat..(…in case we got run over by a car we wouldn’t have on ragged underwear!) The Christmas Club savings also bought ingredients for the innumerable amounts of cookies and candy Mom made.


  •   Mom stayed up many late nights sewing  new outfits and PJs, for us after working hard all day.


  • Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas Although Grinch attempts to thwart the arrival of Christmas, Christmas arrives all the same. The book criticizes the commercialization of Christmas and satirizes those who exploit the holiday.


  • Clement Clark Moore’s Christmas poem, The Night Before Christmas  depicted  St. Nicholas as a dimpled, “jolly old elf” who comes through the chimney with a pack of toys on his back, seeding the the post-War  Christmas toy extravaganza.


  • Green and red construction paper chain garlands we’d made hung in our classrooms for decoration.We drew names at school and exchanged small gifts in the afternoon when the homeroom mothers brought in treats of candy canes, a sugar cookie and Kool-Aid in a Dixie cup.


  • At the school Christmas program, held the night that we got out of school for the holidays, parents were entertained by the rhythm band wearing shiny red satin  uniforms and hats. Afterward  every child received a sack filled with ribbon candy, chocolate drops, orange slices, nuts and an orange and Santa passed out gifts that our parents had brought for us. 


  • It was the Sunday prior to Christmas Day.


  • parents bought their child a gift and slipped it to Santa (Dad’s fat boss) who then passed them out and Santa got all the glory.


  • going from house to house to sing would be served  hot chocolate and cookies at our house.   When we went, we took a thermos of hot chocolate


  • We lived for the the toy catalog (a fantasy in itself) and were ecstatic when the Sears and Roebuck  “wishbook” arrived in the mail, although we only got to see after Thanksgiving. Of course, we would fight over the Sears catalog,  even though the mailman had brought us  Montgomery Ward, Aldens, Spiegels, Penneys catalogs. We  lugged them to bed with us, carefully paging through and check marking what we wanted  usually memorizing the catalog by Christmas.   Excitement  grew as boxes from Sears arrived with presents. There were times Mom had them delivered to a neighbor so we didn’t have a clue, but there were times we never got anything  from these “wish books” because Mother had already put what they could afford on layaway. However, we had the joy of looking.

“The pleasure isn’t in doing the thing, the pleasure is in planning it.” ― John Green, Paper Towns


  • Mother whipped  Ivory flakes with the hand mixer for fake snow before it was available from a can. We used this and stencils to decorate windows and mirrors.  The beautifully decorated tree, the creche, a sprig of mistletoe in the doorways, some holly on the mantle from the neighbor’s house were our inside decorations. The extra bottom branches Dad sawed from our Christmas tree were used to to make a  beautiful wreath for the door providing our only outdoor decoration.  


  • Lots of baking went on prior to Christmas.    Mom and I had cut out, baked and decorated dozens of homemade sugar cookies in the shapes of reindeer, trees, stars, and bells with her red plastic cutters then painstakingly frosted and decorated every single cookie that we would offer guests. We packed  cookies  into Tupperware containers for the teachers because  Mom said they were busy and didn’t have time to bake their own. Many times Mom had to hide the remaining cookies from us there there would be some left for Christmas.


  • The long days waiting for Christmas Eve to finally arrive was a time of pleasurable anticipation.    We spent Christmas eve playing lots of games while listening to Christmas music and eating snacks which included French onion dip and Chex Party Mixwhich was only made for the holidays. After supper we all piled into the car to drive around to see the beautiful Christmas lights  decorating  the homes in our neighborhood.    The picture windows  had the drapes open allowing us to view their beautifully flocked Christmas trees in white, purple, gold, pink, and even aqua. Some homes looked serene with a single electric candle in window. At Midnight  we met up with our grandparents for the gloriously joyous celebration at Church. Returning home late  mom would let one of us put the ceramic baby Jesus in his cradle inside the cardboard stable since it was now December  25th. Mom  would place a plate of cookies and a glass of milk by the fireplace so Santa would have a treat.   The local radio station announcer would cut into the soft Christmas music to tell us  that Santa was spotted on radar, getting closer to our house.    We kids would scurry up to bed after brushing our teeth with  Ipana Toothpaste and try to get to sleep on those pink foam curlers  because we would be taking pictures on Christmas day.   When we went to bed on Christmas Eve the house looked like to normally did but we knew something exciting was going to be happening.  Laying in bed on Christmas Eve, waiting for the sound of Santa arriving on the rooftop I’d drift off and sleep soundly during the night.


  • Awakening early on Christmas Day we discovered that our home had been  transformed into a Christmas wonderland.  The milk glass candy dish had been set out with delicious Russell Stover chocolates.  A bayberry candle was burning, the fireplace  glowing, carols were playing on the radio or from a Christmas record album on the Hi-Fi (the needles had to be changed often.) and the tree lights were on. Santa had sorted our few gifts into a pile, with our stockings on top then ate the cookies and drank the milk, leaving behind crumbs and an empty glass.We oooo & aaaaahhhh at the 2-3 packages for each of us under the blue-lit tree, waiting in our footed pajamas in an excited cluster outside the living room as we peeked in before.     We could see the doll buggy, bike and BB gun.  Santa’s gifts were never wrapped as Santa didn’t have time to do that so Giddy with the excitement  we ate a  big breakfast which included  Mom’s  special “Christmas muffins” before we finally got to open our presents as Dad took pictures with his  camera which had a separate flashbulb that made a popping sound.Homemade felt stockings  which had been hung over the fireplace now contained a few necessities and small treats such as a comb or brush,  some walnuts,  panties and socks, a new hankie, gold foil chocolate coins, a roll of Lifesavers,  a lip gloss, some ribbon candy, orange slices,  a peppermint candy cane,  an apple  and orange, maybe a  banana  but always a tangerine in the toe.  The fragrance of tangerines can take me back to  those Christmases of long ago.Adults didn’t usually exchange gifts with each other but our parents sometimes gave each other one small thing.  Nor did they  lavish us with lots of  gifts. Thus, we were very thankful for the  inexpensive, and  practical gifts that we got with the gift tag made of recycled Christmas cards. We  carefully removed the wrapping paper and saved it for smaller gifts the next year.     Thrilled and so appreciative of everything I got, I can still remember each wonderful thing I received for Christmas.  A pen in the shape and color of a candy cane  wrote in PINK.   We did not feel deprived as we did not know anyone else that had more then we did. None of us expected more   and we were thankful for what we got. We were  never sad about what we did or didn’t get. We were brought up to accept what we were given and not to criticize anything. The spirit of giving something that the recipient really needed exemplified the true meaning of Christmas as most of the  children needed the clothes they received.The aroma of the huge turkey cooking in the oven, filled the house while we were busy admiring the gifts we had just opened. Parker House rolls that Mom had  rising would  soon be eaten with REAL butter. The punch bowl had been set up to hold eggnog.

    Dad and the kids quickly got dressed and headed to church while Mom stayed behind.  She had gone to Midnight Mass, the night before so she would have more time Christmas Day to prepare.

    Soon our house would  fill up as our whole family,  including grandparents and cousins would come for a big Christmas dinner and games afterwards.

    If it was a year that we were going to Grandma’s instead  we’d dress up after opening gifts, take a new Christmas toy with us,  pile into the station wagon and head to our  grandparents house for a big family meal where holidays dinners were a big deal. Gas was 26 cents a gallon due to  gas wars between the stations.

    Our grandparents lived near one another which allowed us to  see all the family on both sides– aunts, uncles and numerous cousins.  At each house there was lots to eat. All the women cooked and each brought  tons of delicious “made from scratch” food that we got only during the holidays, such as  green bean casserole,  candied sweet potatoes, Nana’s homemade chicken and noodles, many different Jell-o salads, which  included a huge family favorite cranberry salad made with oranges, apples, pineapple and nuts, eggnog, celery stuffed with pineapple cream cheese from a small glass jar that would become a juice glass, both green and black olives ,  and of course, the big turkey with dressing.  Those family dinners which were such a wonderful part of Christmas included fresh baked pumpkin pies, with real whipped cream for dessert. The hours spent  preparing these special foods  and then getting together to share those  meals showed love and caring.

    Kool-Aid spilled from our Flintstones jelly glasses  wasn’t such a big deal since the kids had their own table from the adults and had the chance to just be silly with their cousins as we compared presents from Santa as the adults visited.  Later with Bing Crosby’s Christmas album playing softly in the background we opened little gifts and ate Grandmother’s peanut brittle,  pecans toasted and glazed with  cinnamon sugar, homemade fudge (both Aunt Betty’s peanut butter fudge and one made from Mamie Eisenhower’s Million-Dollar Fudge recipe. There were lots of tasty desserts from Mrs. Claus’ Cookbook of Christmas & Holiday Recipes .  Ribbon candy was in Grandma’s cranberry glass candy dish   and walnuts, in the shell, in a wooden bowl that we cracked with a nut cracker.

    The smaller kids, who needed a nap, were placed on the chenille bedspread in the middle of the big bed and gently covered. They’d  awaken with an imprint of the bedspread on their little faces. We older kids played outside or in the basement, with our new toys for the rest of the day. If we noticed the neighbors had set out big cardboard boxes from their Christmas gifts we asked for them in order to make forts, houses and Indian tee-pees. If the weather was good, the men who had been smoking and visiting in the garage would get a game of football or softball going with all the kids.   If it was snowing kids went sledding, using those cardboard boxes that had been bummed from the neighbors, climbing up then launching them down a steep hill, over and over again.

    After a wonderful evening meal of leftovers we would pack up the station wagon and head home.  There was no big let down  Christmas night because we knew the holidays were not over.  Between Christmas eve and New Years day different relatives came to our home to visit  over cookies, popcorn and ice cold bottles of pop. Christmas was the only time of the year there was soda in the house. We had a good selection for our visitors. Orange Crush, Grape & Strawberry Nehi, Diet-Rite Cola, Royal Crown (RC) Cola, Tab, Fresca, Pepsi Lite in returnable glass bottles that we would offer to return for mom in order to get to keep the deposit money. The coffee pot was always on the stove for those who preferred. Ashtrays were conveniences offered in every home, even if the family had no smokers. We made sure to see every relative over the holiday, which meant  taking cookies and homemade candy to go visit at their house.

    Wonderful memories of  the hours spent with family, make one realize what is really important. More memorable than any gifts I have ever received are those  memories of such happy times when our family was able to be  together and the house was full of fun and laughter. What fun we had,spending time with relatives just  enjoying the company of one another. Christmas is a time to recognize that Christ, the Prince of Peace, was the TRUE gift given to us. The tree was taken down somewhere between the day after Christmas and  New Years Day…. and life went back to normal.   We wouldn’t see anything of Christmas until in late November.


Television specials – Small Black and white tv’s allowed us to watch  Christmas specials such as:

        • Frosty,  the Macy’s parade and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
        • It’s a Wonderful Life  starring James Stewart
        • Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
        • Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.
        • Amahl and the Night Visitors about a crippled shepherd boy healed on the first Christmas Eve
        • A Christmas Carol


Mom played Christmas music on the piano on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we’d just have the radio on listening to:

        • Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
        • Frosty the Snowman”
        • All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth
        • I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
        • Santa Baby,  a  tongue-in-cheek look at a Christmas list of a woman who wants the most extravagant gifts for the holiday.
        • Jingle Bell Rock
        • Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
        • Elvis’ Christmas Album which featured four gospel songs and eight Christmas songs, included “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” and Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me)”
        • Blue Christmas

The above are shared memories. Please leave a comment and tell us about yours.

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