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The time is approaching, that wonderful time of year (for most children) called Christmas.

Christmas is different for each person. So much of it depending on the memories of Christmases past, each lending a certain spice to the sum. I relish the memories of my childhood Christmases.

Christmas first of all meant parole from school. Sure, Thanksgiving earned you a 2 day reprieve from your studies, but Christmas came with a whole 2 week excursion away from daily monotony. That alone was reason to celebrate.

The season would have grown cold, sometimes bitterly cold by Christmas time. Our old house was two story, wooden, and cold enough to hang meat in. Our heat was from a wood heater in the living room and a wood burning cook stove in the kitchen. In winter the only time our home approached a state of warmth was when both were in full use. The humidity from the tea kettle, as well as steam from whatever food was being prepared, cast a rime of humidity on the windowpanes, humidity which later would turn to frost.

Christmas meant there would be time to sleep in, wake up at your own pace under the heap of blankets and quilts used to stay warm. Getting out of bed was a hardship, leaping out of the warmth onto the frigid linoleum. The next step was to grab your clothes, race downstairs and lower the oven door, and warm your clothes on the door before finally donning toasty warm clothes.

Christmas brought a change in our food choices. My father would bring home an orange crate full of delectable items. A big paper sack full of mixed nuts in the shell, oranges, tangerines, and grapes. Candies if all sorts including peppermints, various hard candies (even the nasty kind), tangerine slices, licorice whips, chocolate drops, and others. He also bought a whole gallon of oysters. We'd have fried oysters, oyster stew, have them until we'd gotten our fill and then some.

Mom would always bake a ham for Christmas, an odd enough custom considering that our Christmas celebration of the birth of the Jewish messiah came along with baked pork. It was divine, all glazed and sweet with pineapple and brown sugar on it. There was enough to make ham sandwiches, ham omelets, ham salad, anything you wanted to make with ham.

The final act was to decorate the tree. Our tree was always a cedar, one we'd go out into our woods and select. We'd look among the available specimens, decide if it was too tall, too short, too big around, the branches too thick or too scraggly, all the things to be considered when a tree is going to come inside with you for a while. We'd make our choice, chop it down, and drag it back to our home like a crew of cavemen dragging home an evergreen bison. We'd trim the trunk, leaving an exposed tree to a height of perhaps two feet, then branches started fanning out. We'd then place the tree into a bucket of dirt and rocks to stabilize it, wrap the bucket with gold colored foil, and set the whole assembly into the corner selected for the occasion. The house would start of smell of the fresh cedar scent, the best part of having a natural tree.

Next came the good part, decorating the tree. On my Mom's wardrobe, way up on top where the dust bunnies roamed, was the Christmas box. It was about 2 inches deep, 24 inches wide, 28 inches tall. The cover declared it to be The Deluxe Jumbo Circus Christmas Light Set. It had a scene of a circus, complete with elephants doing foot stands on drums, clowns, and aerialists of both sexes. I don't know to this day why the box had a circus scene, but it really did. The box held magic inside.

We'd take off the lid and look upon the fragile glass balls of different colors, the lights, the tinsel, all the decorations we hadn't seen in a year. First things first, we'd separate all the items, then check the chain of lights to make sure they all lit. These were rather large teardrop-shaped multi-colored bulbs, a type then in vogue, now totally verboten, deserving of at least a citation (if not a flogging) by the decor police. Onto the tree the lights went, wrapped in the approved spiral pattern.

Next came the glass balls, seemingly fewer (and therefor more dear) each year. Lustrous red, blue, and silver balls, each close to 3 inches in diameter. There were some that weren't round, these being tear-drop shaped as well, looking like Russian onion-domed church spires of multi-hued variety. Onto the tree with them too.

Next came the chains of tinsel, another item which has become forbidden these days. Long loops of sparkly silver tinsel, wrapped about the tree. Finally came the icicles, each strand carefully draped or wrapped upon the branches of the cedar tree. The icicles filled all the gaps that didn't have a ball or other decoration, lending balance to the decoration. Upon the top was our tree topper, a plastic star with rays extending, symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem.

The tree finished, we'd scoot it back into its niche in the corner and wait until dark, when we could plug in the lights and exclaim at the beautiful tree we'd made. By today's standards it would be horribly cheesy, at the very best so kitsch, and it was absolute magic.

Our family was poor, the kind of dirt poor suffered by many in Appalachia during the 50s. We didn't know we were poor because no one else was obviously much better off than we were. We had clothes, though not many, and they were kept clean and mended by my Mom. We had enough to eat, though we raised most of it. There wasn't much in the way of variety but there was enough of it to fill a hungry family.

The Christmas shopping happened on the Saturday before Christmas. Mom and Dad would leave me and my two older brothers at home while they went to town to shop. This was before shopping malls were even invented, so shopping meant a trip to Sears, Roebuck, and Co. I remember going to the Sears store as a kid. It had a little kiosk outside where a vendor sold hot roasted nuts. In winter they were the best things to enjoy.

While our parents were gone our chores were to wash dishes and not mortally wound each other. As the youngest, I always got stuck with drying the dishes, a job I totally despised. My Dad apparently had a phobia of water spots caused by letting dishes dry in a drainer. He acted like a water spot was equal to a massive dose of Ebola. In all fairness, we boys weren't called on to do dishes often, but that didn't serve to make the occasion much more joyful. Our surliness was only tempered by our lust for whatever goodies we would later receive.

Mom and Dad would be gone all day, leaving us to our own devices. We'd get out the guns, check them out. We'd get Dad's souvenir bayonet from WW II out and inspect it for enemy blood or anything else cool like that. It never did develop gory stains from one Christmas to the next, but we still had to make the effort. We'd get out the highwayman's pistol he brought home from France, practice dueling just in case we ever had to shoot each other. We'd get into the medicine cabinet, smell all the medicines, see which ones would make us want to puke or anything gross. We'd dare each other to take a dose of the castor oil that was ever present. My Mom was possessed the knowledge that nothing made the universe run better than a really good crap. No one would take the castor oil dare. We all knew what that stuff tasted like all too well. In short, we barely averted self destruction until the long anticipated return of our parents.

When they did return from the 30 mile trip to the nearest city, instead of letting us snoop into the packages they shoo'ed us away. Safely excommunicating us from the house, they'd lug in the bundles and stow them out of sight with dire warnings of certain retribution for prying eyes. They weren't kidding, either. My parents didn't take any prisoners when it came to disobedience. You learned real early and real good that the price was 'way too high.

Christmas would finally come around with all its attendant silliness, the myth of Santa Claus and such. We'd each get a toy or two, a few clothes, and lots of food. Christmases were spartan by today's standards, but still very grand to us. I'd give anything to go to the wardrobe, get down the Christmas box, and take it to my Mom once again just to see her raise the lid and let out the magic.

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