Growing up in rural Arkansas made for some unique family traditions, especially when it came to Christmas. Christmas was my favorite time of year - brightly colored lights draped around a fresh cut cedar tree, homemade decorations (with a few glass ornaments handed down from Grandma), lots of tensile, and Frosty. The mood was festive and not once can I remember feeling poor, although I suppose we were as poor as church mice. I knew there would not be many presents come Christmas morn, but I also knew I would not be forgotten.
We would cut down our own cedar tree and drag it back to the house (about 2 weeks before Christmas), trim the branches, and set it in a 5 gallon bucket filled with rocks to keep it standing stable and upright. Even as a child I wished that there was some other way to stand the tree. That 5 galloon bucket was just ugly and large and because the tree needed a gallon of water every day, keeping the bucket covered and clean was a challenge.
Once the tree had found its Christmas home in the corner of our living room, decorations were hung. First came the string of lights. They were the old fashioned kind that got hot enough to melt the tensile. Next, each of us kids (For me that meant a little sister and an older brother. We were the last of the kids still at home.) would hang our favorite ornaments with each trying to make sure theirs were prominently displayed at the front for better visibility. (Over the next couple of weeks we would make and add new decorations, replacing those that had not survived the year of storage.) Then Mom would hang the tensile, most of which was saved from the years before. Not in globs. Oh no. Strand by strand the tensile was hung in curtains off the outer branches. Finally came the star - and not just any ole star. Our star was handmade. It was a 3 dimensional, 5-point star made out of thin cardboard, and covered in aluminum foil. There was a toilet paper tube glued to the back so that it could be slid over the top most branch. The tree was always a thing of beauty for me. I could gaze at it for hours. Ever so often I would blow a puff of air toward the tree so that the tensile would gently rustle sending sparks of light into the room.
Our presents to each other were creative and practical. I thought I was so rich when I was given $5 to shop with. “Shop” I type with a smile. I mean it was really something special at the time because we (the kids) just did not get to go shopping during the year. Mom would gently guide me in my shopping spree – like a brightly colored umbrella for my sister and a pair of gloves for my brother. I would march to the store counter, plop down my money, and pay for these special gifts myself. I felt soooo important. The bag was tied tightly so that no one could see the contents. Now keep in mind, mom did the same thing with my siblings, at the same store and at the same time, and that we traveled home together - each clutching our prizes tightly to our chests. Gifts to our school friends were boxes filled with homemade cookies or divinity. Other gifts, like the ones given to my eldest sister that lived just a block away with her family, were more on the creative side. One year she was given a handful of gift certificates. Some of the certificates included were “redeem for one batch of homemade bread” and “redeem for one pumpkin pie”. (Girls in my family learned to cook/bake early. Making a pie and sharing our accomplishments were common practice for us.) Our presents were brightly wrapped with ribbon and bows, usually in paper and ribbon saved from previous years, and proudly added under the tree.
Once the first present made its way to the base of the tree, it was time for Frosty – usually 3 of them: one for home, and one each for my sister and I to take to school. Our Frosty was made of popcorn. The rocker-bottom skillet (a heavy aluminum skillet that had been well used, overheated one to many times so that the bottom was no longer flat, and around long before my first memory) was filled time and time again with kernels of white popcorn to pop and as each batch was finished, it was added to a large metal dishpan. Once the corn was ready syrup was made out of Kayro white corn syrup and sugar. You knew the syrup was ready when you dropped a bit into cold water and could hear the “crack”. As one of us drizzled the syrup over the corn, another would stir the corn as quickly and thoroughly as possible. We would bathe our hands in butter - so that the molten syrup wouldn't stick to our hands - then one would make the head, one the middle section, one the bottom, and whoever finished first would make the arms –which had wooden homemade dowel rods in the center. The bottom section was given to the youngest to make because the same gallon Tuperware bowl was always used as the mold and the molding was easy compared to the tossing, shaping, and compacting needed to make the other sections. Why the tossing? Well if you held the popcorn ball in your hands too long, you ended up with 2nd degree burns. The sections were “glued” together with more syrup. Then before the leftover syrup could harden in the pan, it was used to glue store-bought hard candy, chosen with care and sometimes arguments, to the snowman for eyes, nose, mouth, and buttons. Mom usually did that part. She was better at not getting burnt.
Frosty in many respects was the central figure of our Christmas traditions. He played such an important role in keeping the magic of Christmas alive. He was placed on a dinner plate then wrapped in clear Saran wrap (to keep him fresh and clean). Then he was placed so that he had a good view of the tree and the presents beneath. I don’t know about the average Frosty but ours was a tattle tale. If one of us would dare to peek at a present, not only would Frosty tell Mom but he would also tell Santa which could result in dire consequences. I don’t know what the consequences were. I just knew they were “dire”. I can never remember peeking; the same can not be said for my little sister or brother. On Christmas Eve, each of us kids would stand before Frosty and tell him what we wanted for Christmas so that he could tell Santa – with helpful suggestions being offered by Mom. The last year Dad was with us (that would make me almost 9 years old) I can remember asking Frosty to tell Santa to bring me an instrument to make music with. I didn’t care what it was, just so long as I could learn to play it. Santa, in his infinite wisdom, brought me a record player and two vinyl 45rpm records. For those of you too young to know what a record player is just think “CD player” only larger. The first record had Sesame Street’s Ernie singing “Rubber Ducky” and the second one was by the Irish Rovers with the song “The Unicorn” - which is still my favorite song of all times.
Christmas morning after the presents were all carefully opened and admired, Frosty became no more. His duty was done and being the practical family that we were, we would eat him - always starting at the back so as to preserve his looks as long as possible. Then Dad would share with all of us a small slice of the homemade chocolate fudge that Mom always managed to secretly make for him.
Our Christmas dinner was the same every year: Dad would buy a 5 lb tube of bologna and a couple of loaves of store-bought bread. It was the only time during the year we had store-bought bread. The rest of the year, either Mom or one of us girls would make our bread. Christmas was the one day a year my mom didn’t have to cook.
As I look back on these memories I wish with all my heart that my children would remember their own childhood Christmases as they begin to raise their own children. I kept many of the same traditions I grew up with and shared them with my children: handmade ornaments and presents, the event it was to decorate the tree, Frosty, the spirit of family unity, the magic of Christmas, and - even though the word was never spoken aloud to me as a child - love. I did however change our Christmas meal to a “feast”. We had always had leftovers for a week after. :)