Averyell A. Kessler
For me, December’s wintery days passed slowly, very slowly, like a tortoise crawling across wet bricks, or honey, oozing drop by drop from a bear shaped bottle. They were a lost dog casually meandering down a country road or a scattering of puff ball clouds inching across the sky. I was eight and into immediate gratification. But that did not come.
First, there was school. I don’t how the brave souls teaching at Power School endured the last weeks before Christmas while closeted in a packed classroom with wiggly, impatient children. Learning was impossible; discipline did not exist. I’m sure they were counting the days also. In the interim, we made paper chains from multicolored construction paper, sang up on the housetop reindeers pause, and memorized paragraphs from T’was the Night Before Christmas. Those of us with tonette flutes tooted, Mrs. Mills strummed her autoharp, while we shook tambourines, clanged tiny triangles, and pinged miniature xylophones with wooden sticks. I still know every verse of Jingle Bells as well as the names of all eight reindeer plus Rudolph.
Things were also heating up at home. Our tree was always a rotund cedar cut down in Avery Gardens and jammed into a homemade tree stand. From the moment Daddy squeezed it through the front door, its fresh woodsy fragrance filled our house. Mama and I made a trip to the ten-cent store, aka Morgan & Lindsay, to replace the burnt-out bulbs for last year’s tree, a fresh strand of bubble lights, a package of icicles, cotton batting to surround the tree stand, and a few new glass ornaments. Just the thing to soothe and pacify an excited, can’t wait, how many more days child. When a mound of presents formed under the tree, I whirled and danced like a spinning top.
Then there was candy, referred to as a confection in the 1950’s version of Joy of Cooking. All in all, a non-stop sugar infusion. Who can resist a bundle of crunchy peppermint sticks, swirling red and green ribbon candy, life saver books or a Whitman’s Sampler? It’s hard to finish your peas and carrots when an unopened box of gooey chocolate covered cherries waited on the kitchen counter. Mama was a fan of Primos gingerbread men, each with stout legs, round heads, and plump raisin eyes. Daddy liked iced Christmas cookies with silver beads and sprinkles on top. My grandfather always ordered horehound candy from a bleak, anonymous store in New England. I thought it was horrible. My favorite Christmas treat was large box of homemade candy we received every year from a neighborhood friend. It must have taken her hours to produce creamy white divinity, fudge, pralines, sugared pecans, and date rolls, each individually wrapped in a twist of wax paper. This woman was saint if ever there was one, and I’m certain her candy thermometer had an intense workout early in December.
No discussion of Christmas treats is complete without mentioning fruitcake. Not my favorite by a long shot. Apparently, someone in our house liked it because we had one every year. Mama and Daddy, not yet authentic southerners, hadn’t learned the trick of infusing this bricklike concoction with an ample portion of Elijah Craig’s finest. (Elijah was also a Baptist preacher, but he knew his art). They wouldn’t have let me have that anyway, and ice cream cake roll was a wonderful substitute.
As the measured days of early December crept along, I crossed off each one on a wall calendar hanging inside our broom closet. I was diverted by Belhaven’s Singing Christmas Tree, the arrival of Santa in Kennington’s toy department, and a rousing parade on Capital Street. There was always a fervent but impractical hope of snow. Often, those December days were spent in shorts, sandals, and a sleeveless blouse. My best friend Martha and I improvised by sliding down the steep hill in our front yard in cardboard boxes Not ideal, but manageable. We were a team, relentless and unstoppable, battling exhaustion with a diet of cookies, Cokes, and handfuls of M & M’s. Together we wrote letters to the north pole and dropped them into the mailbox at Morgan Center. We made a secretive search of every closet in her house and mine. Sadly, nothing turned up because we couldn’t see the highest shelves. We worried because Martha did not have a fireplace in her living room and we didn’t know how Santa was going to get inside. Perhaps he’d find a window with a broken lock and climb in. As a final achievement, we learned the art of loosening scotch tape on one end of an intriguing package, peaking inside, and replacing the tape without leaving sticky fingerprints.
Suddenly, it was the 14th then the 15th. Hallelujah! Power School was out, and Christmas was only a few days away. Nothing more to do but hang stockings, make certain the chimney was clear, and wait for Bob Neblett’s Santa update on Christmas eve. Days lasting a hundred hours would end soon, and the 25th would finally arrive. I was hopeful. Maybe, the special delivery package from Columbus, Ohio did not contain another pair of lumpy hand knit slippers, maybe the oblong box in silver paper was Chinese Checkers or Monopoly, and maybe, just maybe a shiny red Schwinn would be waiting under the tree. Another Christmas of joyous celebration and unbridled excitement was just ahead, and anything was possible. As always, hope springs eternal in the human breast*. I hope it always does. Fa, la, la, la, la, la.
*Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man