Here I am playing Christmas songs for my two little sisters. My brother was off to the left, but I cropped him out keeping to my promise to not show living people without their permission. I played out of the Fireside Book of American Folksongs, a treasury of tunes including a handful for Christmas. We seem to be singing We Three Kings judging from the illustration.
Despite the totally non-religious household in which I was raised I learned numerous Christmas songs. My grade school music classes taught most of them, culminating with an annual Christmas pageant and songfest. No one in my 1950’s era questioned the overtly Christian atmosphere in the events. It was Christmas vacation and Christmas concert and Christmas play each year. I was pretty oblivious that there were any Jewish people in my neighborhood. When I grew older I learned that was probably a result of housing covenants preventing them. The first Jewish boy arrived in my class in sixth grade, but nothing changed around Christmas.
Now that I attend church regularly I can belt out Christmas carols without ever looking at the song sheets. It is ironic that my ability comes from secular settings, but that is how pervasive Christian culture was when I was a kid in Oregon.
A toy store in town will wrap purchases with a choice of five different papers they keep on rolls behind the cash register. This free service used to be customary when I was growing up. Eventually the stores charged a nominal fee to wrap gifts. The amenity seems to have disappeared in most places I shop. Sometimes during holiday seasons nonprofit groups set up gift wrapping stations in stores offering their expertise for a donation. All these efforts confirm what I have always experienced: most people struggle to wrap gifts and would like someone else to do it.
I am certainly one such person. When paper came in folded sheets I could barely figure out what size to use. Now that it comes in rolls, I am hopeless. I either have way too much or just a tad too little for whatever object I am attempting to cover. Fortunately in recent years I have discovered the magic of the gift bag.
Pictured above are the four gifts that are headed to church for the recipients I mentioned a few posts ago. Each sits happily in its gift bag, purchased at a small cost at Party City.(A whole store for parties!) I had only to estimate the necessary size bag and plop the present inside. A sheet of tissue paper for a cover, staples to keep the bag closed, and labels from the church tags completed the wrapping.
Gift wrapping sanity at last. And when the recipient has removed the gift she will have a bag handy to shop at the stores that now require her to bring her own sack. A double win this Christmas season.
When the three little kittens lost their mittens, not only did they start to cry, but their mother was irritated at them and told them “you shall have no pie.” Clearly the cat couldn’t just run down to the store and buy an inexpensive pair of replacement mittens. Losing their mittens had in fact been a serious mistake. The same held true when I was a child, and the solution was to have a braided cord that joined the two mittens and ran across one’s shoulders under a coat. Most mittens in my group of friends were hand knit and worth holding onto. When we hung our wet wool on those radiators it was clear which mothers didn’t trust their kids to keep their mittens. Those tell-tale cords told us all.
Yesterday as I parked my car at the grocery store I saw one bedraggled glove, propped up on the curb, missing its mate. Perhaps most people in my neighborhood still can hear their mothers yelling “where did you lose your glove?” (As if we knew!) All over I see lone mittens and gloves propped on signs, sticking off fire hydrants, wedged onto parking meters. People have spotted lone gloves or mittens in the snow and, not wanting them to be covered by the next snow, have placed them up off the ground. I think it is an optimistic gesture, and maybe sometimes it helps the panicked glove loser.
I think that mittens and socks should all be sold in threes. They are interchangeable after all. At least that way when one disappears–as it inevitably will–a matching replacement will be at hand.
It snowed four inches last night and my husband came in after a couple of hours of clearing snow from our home, our daughter’s and our neighbors. As usual he draped his wet clothes over radiators in the dining room and living room. The sight took me back to grade school and wet wool.
My elementary school was heated by radiators warmed by a giant furnace fed with sawdust. Long radiators spanned the length of each classroom, providing great ledges for wet clothing. We covered them with wet wool hats, wet wool mittens, wet wool gloves and wet wool jackets when we arrived at school. Today few winter clothes are made of wool, having been replaced with all sorts of polyester fleece and down alternative fillings. But any readers of my age can easily summon the very particular smell of wet wool on a radiator. Not as unpleasant as wet dog, but equally distinct.
Sawdust as fuel for a furnace was fairly normal in the 1950’s in Oregon. Timber was the biggest industry, and sawdust from the lumber mills was abundant and cheap. Our odd school janitor took care of the furnace, surfacing only to clean up when a student “lost his lunch.” One day in fourth grade in fact, Jim stood up to start the Pledge of Allegiance and promptly was sick. The janitor hurried in and sprinkled the mess with—sawdust!
Coal, sawdust, oil, and natural gas have all been used to fuel furnaces throughout my life. But radiators have been a constant. Here’s to the smells of winter, not just of Christmas cookies and pine trees. Let’s pause a minute to remember wet wool drying on a radiator.
In the car we were all swapping retorts that we had learned at some point. I was most amused to learn that some that I learned sixty years ago were still in use among kids. Our joint list included:
- “I know you are but what am I?”
- “It takes one to know one.”
- “So funny I forgot to laugh so I think I will now…Hardee har har”
- “A skunk smells its own stink first.”
What I enjoyed most was that none of these were particularly cruel, malicious or shaming. Rather they turned the insult back on the one giving it. I welcome any mild examples to add to our very short list. But these have clearly stood the test of time.
Wherever we have worshiped, each Christmas there is an opportunity to share by giving to others. At one church we purchased and wrapped gifts for children of men and women in prison. A volunteer had received a specific request from each parent for each child, and the child who received the present got a card from the parent, not the church purchaser. I loved being the facilitator for this gift exchange while remaining anonymous.
This year, as in the years we have attended this church, a Christmas tree is hung with gift tags, three of which are pictured above. Each tag has a specific request for an individual person. Codes on the cards allow us to know if the recipient is in a shelter, in a hospital, is a refugee learning English, or is in a tutoring program. We learn the age and wish of each person and can choose cards that connect with us somehow.
My grandchildren have purchased gifts with me for the past several years. This year I chose cards requesting a pair of dressy boots for a 18 year old girl, a jacket for an 11 year old boy and a coat and pants for an 18 month old girl. My granddaughter informed me that none of the boots were fashionable, so we will have to find another store. My grandson picked an ideal jacket for a boy nearly his age, and assured me that it was “in style.” Together my granddaughter and I picked an “aw,so cute!!!” outfit for the toddler.
We will wrap these gifts and deliver them to church where they will join hundreds of others. I am thankful for all the effort that has gone into this ministry, and I am grateful that my family gets to gift others as we have been so richly gifted.
I have read each of Allen Eskens books, and I as pleased to find his newest, Nothing More Dangerous, at the library this week. The book makes a significant departure from his earlier books; it’s less a mystery and more a coming of age story with mystery elements.
Intrigued by this change, I returned to the author’s note at the start of the book. Here Eskens had written: “I began this novel in 1991 as a way to explore my own failings regarding notions of prejudice and racism. The characters and story line intrigued me, and I worked on the novel for twenty years before setting it aside. It wasn’t ready, and I knew it.”
I found this honesty refreshing and encouraging. Years ago a winemaker had a slogan “we will sell no wine before its time.” Eskens was echoing the sentiment as he discussed his writing. Too often I have started to write a long essay and realized that I was not ready. I have often attributed this to many factors including writer’s block, lack of discipline and various other self-condemning terms. I had never thought to have the compassionate approach to the task that Eskens stated here.
I will remain open to the wisdom that there is a due time for each piece of writing. I needed that concept and I will try to remember it the next time the gremlins of self-criticism descend.