For a child of the late 1950s, the holiday season truly began right after Thanksgiving and with the arrival in the mailbox of two long-awaited-for, mail order catalogs: Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. (For some reason or another, many locals seem to always call it the “Monkey-Ward catalog.” I never understood that myself.) My mother did do a lot of shopping with those two catalogs, so my sisters and I made sure that certain pages of both were well dog-eared and, of course, casually left open to sections of particular interest. I loved the toy section -- sweaters, socks, and jeans, not so much.
To this day, I do not know how my parents were able to do it year to year but the number of presents underneath the tree kept us all behaving well for the few weeks before the big day. My mother would remind us all several times a day that “Santa’s elves were watching.” I would bet that in the weeks before Christmas, that my room was as clean as it ever was with my comic books neatly stacked in their cardboard box next to my bed, with clean clothes where they should be, dirty clothes in the hamper, and my pajamas folded at the foot of the bed. Pesky elves were not going to foul-up my Christmas plans.
So many of my own Christmas memories while growing up on our dairy farm up on the Common, could easily be a chapter or two in the in the ever-so-popular holiday movie, “A Christmas Story.” I did, in fact, even get a BB gun for Christmas when I was either 6 or 7. While I did not “shoot my eye out,” I did by accident nearly shoot the thick glass screen of the old black and white console TV as I practiced my loading, action-levering, and aiming skills from my make-believe fort beneath the old card table, covered with a blanket. (A fact, by the way, my parents never ever found out about. A good thing.) With my dog Bonnie, I kept the entire family safe, I was sure.
Traditions are of the greatest comforts of the whole Christmas and holiday season. One big tradition – perhaps the biggest -- for a small boy was going out with Dad and finding that perfect Christmas tree. I am not sure when it was but at some point, I inherited the very grown-up responsibility of searching for, selecting, cutting, and hauling the family Christmas tree to the front porch of the house. I was more than happy to assume this incredibly important task. The woods and forest that surrounded the open meadows of our farm were our playgrounds; they were both safe and mysterious at the same time and my sisters and I spent a good deal of time there. Sometimes chasing cows with their newly born calves and often in the spring walking with our mother as she taught us names of wild plants and flowers. I, however, spent a good deal of time keeping a close eye out for that perfect Christmas tree. Always with Bonnie, and as she sniffed out rabbit warrens, I scoped out evergreen after evergreen tree constantly doing the Goldilocks “test”: this one is too short, this one too tall; no, not this one it’s a Charlie Brown tree. This one … this one is just right! Most importantly, was not to bring back – and pardon my expression here – one of those “cat-piss-pines” which made the house smell of, well needs no more explaining, right? (If you do not know what I am talking about then you have never searched for a Christmas tree other than in a parking lot. No offense intended.) Regardless, the family tree had become my responsibility. I know I had passed some sort of grown-up test because this also meant that I was trusted with a sharp axe, being out in the cold alone, and most always wallowing in a foot or more of snow hauling it back home.
Next tradition? Pestering my parents – constantly- about when we could bring in the tree and decorate it. My dad’s duty was to cut the base off square with a handsaw and attach the metal tree stand. He was, then, done. Never once saw my father place one tiny ornament on a Christmas tree. Getting the tree inside and standing it up straight was a task my mother took on. As well as sweeping up all of the needles. Like setting up the tree, decorating the house was also according to my mother’s rules. We had two sets of multi-colored electric candles which we put in windows facing the road. We had this little electric Nativity which we placed on the top of the TV. We could put all these up in the first week of December. Not before. We had two or three crepe-paper fold-out bells which we hung in two hallways in the house. That was it for decorating the house. Sometimes there was money for a poinsettia. We had a collection of glass ornaments and bulbs from both sides of the family, and we always had old Christmas cards from relatives no longer with us to also place on the tree. Most importantly, though, we were a multi-colored light family. Our family did not put single-colored lights on a Christmas tree. Such holiday heresy was left to those people from away who decorated a Christmas tree with white lights only. (By the way – my wife has since taught me differently. I’m a good listener.) Final touch -- one of us placing the star on the top, balancing on a kitchen chair, and trying not to fall into the tree. We were ready for the holidays.
Those days were the best. Childhood and Christmas and sense of security of small-town Vermont.