The images of Christmas: children scrambling under the tree for presents, the smells of evergreens and good food baking in the oven, and the twinkle of holiday displays in department store windows, are as varied as the snowflakes many children pray for on Christmas Eve. For some native Washingtonians, this Christmas will be a time to reflect on the traditions of Christmases past. We've asked some of them to share those memories as a special gift from The District Weekly.
Reflecting on Christmases of yesteryear fills one with a wistful yearning to return to that period when life was so simple, and cares were few. And in my mind's eye those very special and pleasant scenes of my childhood come cascading back.
My family (Victor H. and Constance E. H. Daniel) lived in a very modest three-story brick house in the single block of Westminister Street, in Northwest Washington. Like our family, the neighborhood was very close-knit -- bound together by similar life-styles, cultural interests and economic circumstances.
The church and school were a very important part of Christmas, for it was a time of sharing with others less fortunate. Both of these venerable institutions sponsored the collection of foodstuffs for Christmas baskets. And inevitably both added significantly to the gala of the social season, with pageants and plays, and musicals and other programs. As the season approached, the department store windows were gaily decorated with scenes from Santa's workshop and toyland. The window of Hecht's department store was our favorite, where mechanical toys, moving in time to music, brought forth peals of laughter and squeals of delight. The men and women of the Salvation Army sang carols and kept watch there. Bundled up for the long walk home, we began to dream of what Santa might bring.
At home with father, mother and six brothers and sisters, Christmas was a time to be very, very good; to perform every chore and task to the best of your ability; to pray for snow (Santa surely would leave a sled!); and to delight in those special aromas of pine needles, oranges, tangerines and Mama's mincemeat and pumpkin pies.
Preparing for Christmas was almost as exciting as Christmas day itself. According to age and size, everyone had a special job to do. Windows were washed, curtains hung, floors cleaned and polished, and the house made ready. Then the magic began as the boys helped to select and bring home the Christmas tree. We were unaware that other families purchased decorations, except for the lights, candy canes, and the Christmas angel that adorned the top. We made all the other decorations. Popcorn and cranberries were strung, using a large needle that Mamma produced from the family sewing basket; gingerbread boys and girls with raisin eyes were baked to be hung; and bright color chains were made from construction paper. With pine cones suspended from the shade of each window and a single candle cheerily twinkling there, the tree was ready to be decorated. Placed in the bay window of the living room it captured everyone's attention.
I never stopped to consider it before, but there was a lot of tradition in our family. After the stockings were hung on the mantle piece, Daddy (who could keep us spellbound with his stories) would read The Night Before Christmas. My mother always baked the pies, and as she bent over the kitchen table carefully rolling out the crust inevitably a wisp of hair would escape and fall on her face. The baking of the pies was closely followed by the making of eggnog, which was overseen by my older brothers. And as the three younger children were admonished to go to bed (or Santa Claus wouldn't come), the older sisters and brothers prepared to attend Midnight Mass at the old St. Augustine's Catholic Church (which at the time seemed a very grown-up thing to do).
Presents were never placed under the tree before the younger children went to sleep, and this heightened the joy of finding neatly and gaily wrapped packages on Christmas morning. Although we tried, it was next to impossible to ferret out the the secret hiding places where gifts were wrapped and secured beforehand.
As the packages were opened, it was amazing to see how some remnant from Mama's sewing basket had been transformed into a stuffed toy or a needed garment. For in those days, and with seven children to feed, clothe and send to school, only necessities were bought. But most assuredly each would receive a book of his or her very own. Then there were games to be shared in common for the quiet times: dominoes, checkers, chinese checkers (my father was the undisputed champion) and puzzles.
The excitement and merriment of the day, that began with Mama's home-baked doughnuts and cinnamon buns, was climaxed by a dinner of turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, fresh greens, cranberry sauce, cider, cookies and pies. And when dishes were cleared away, washed, and everything was in "apple pie" order, the family gathered in the living room to once again admire the Christmas tree and the gifts now neatly beneath it. With Mama's good lace tablecloth put away, Daddy engaged the younger children in some quiet game while Mama, with eyeglasses atop her head and the newspaper in her lap, fell asleep. Those were the very best Christmases ever!