Riding a Time Machine into the Past

Reflections in SummerWhat fun it would be to hop onto a time machine and return to the Christmas shopping of my childhood, after I had turned eight. How I enjoyed buying my parents small stocking presents at Grants and Woolworth’s. I want to return to the days when the ten dollars I had saved up sufficed to purchase about everything I wanted to buy for them. Maybe there would even be enough left over for an ice cream cone. I loved the way the store smelled when I walked in, and the overflowing counters with the glass part in front to make sure items didn’t fall off.

I didn’t mind no longer believing that Santa filled the stockings, because it was such fun to wrap up my inexpensive gifts to fill them for my parents. Best of all would be to write notes on them the way they did. I bought Ponds cold cream and vanishing cream each year. I think they were ten or twenty cents each.

My mother told us a joke once about the latter. It seems a child took off all her clothes, rubbed her whole body with vanishing cream, and then went downstairs where her parents were hosing a party. The polite guests pretended not to see her. The next morning she told her mother gleefully that vanishing cream really worked. My twelve year old self thought that was very funny.

My time machine would whisk me back to my Great Aunt’s dining room with all the relatives gathered together and finger bowls brought in at the end of the Christmas meal–often roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. Sometimes there would be a plum pudding brought in and ignited after brandy was poured over it. The dancing flames were blue and very exciting. I didn’t care much for the plum pudding but the had sauce with it was pretty good.

It would take me down the snowy streets with the sparkling stars way up high, and the carols on the radio. Those times seem quite simple compared to now. The television had only a few channels, and the programs didn’t play all night but ended with a test pattern. Mothers mostly were at home. Most had only one car per family, and my mother’s friends met bi monthly for lunch and chitchat over their mending.

In my time machine I would also visit the wondrous Daniel Lowe’s department store in Salem with all the glittering silver and crystal when you walked in. I did no Christmas shopping there. Salem was the big city to me and we seldom went. Nearby Beverly was smaller. That was where the Woolworth’s and the Grant’s were, as well as Almay’s department store. We did some of our shopping there. In those less frantic times no one thought to purchase gifts until a few weeks before Christmas. The stores waited until after Thanksgiving to decorate for the holidays or play Christmas music. However, that was then. Though different from that time, now has its delights as well. While the past is fine to visit, I wouldn’t wish to live there.

After the Gifts Are Unwrapped

gifts-4  In days gone by when my children were small and Christmas was something of a big production, by the evening of the 25th everyone was satisfied to play with his or her toys, eat the festival leftovers and chill out. It was then that I would take my guitar in hand and drive with it to the Beverly hospital to play for the patients. I was a regular volunteer there so I would don my pink volunteer jacket and go around to the wards and private rooms to play Christmas music together with my usual folk tunes.

During my time in Manchester-by-the-Sea I used to play my guitar several times a month and sometimes even more often for the patients who were well enough to be listening. However I did have to be mindful of my lyrics. This being in the days of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, my repertoire consisted mainly of traditional folk songs, some of which had lyrics that might not sound cheerful such as: “Go tell Aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead,” or one that began “When I’m dead and buried, don’t you weep after me,” a rousing spiritual that was great fun to sing as long as I omitted the first verse and went right into the body of the song.

On Christmas night I felt as though with all the visitors having gone home by then, the patients could use a bit of cheering up. After all, the visitors were returning to their families and friends while the patients were still in their rooms or wards and perhaps more aware of being there than usual. It was heartening to see the welcoming smiles on their faces and to receive their enthusiastic approval. More than once someone who had been relatively comatose would actually clap their hands and manage a smile.

Today my children are grown and gone and my family is for the most part scattered far and wide. Holidays are quieter. Nor do I play my guitar any longer, though next year I hope to have learned some carols on my new harp. However, I don’t expect to be singing them in a hospital. Life brings changes, some welcome, some not so. The happy memories of Holidays past become gifts to cherish with joy, more so perhaps than any other gift beneath the tree.

Now that the presents have been opened and our holiday meal consumed, I find myself reminiscing to myself over past holiday celebrations. I note familiar faces that have moved on from my life. Some still walk this earth others do not. I am reminded of the places where I have lived in the past and see again the rooms as well as the homes that hold the memories of holiday times. Each year holds its blessings. I am grateful for each and every one, and most of all I am grateful to be able to celebrate with joy the love that flows to me from those who each year remember me.


Greens for the Holidays

tree-16-1          As a young child I was only allowed to decorate the back of our Christmas tree. An artist, my mother had a specific vision of how a tree ought to look. She once told me her ideal tree would have blue and silver balls, white candles or lights, and silver tinsel hung exactly evenly from every branch. Needless to say this was not the case in our home. We had a variety of ornaments, some of which were antiques handed down from another era.

As I grew older I was allowed to decorate more of the tree, and finally the front. The year I was twelve, my mother was too busy to do anything and I got to do the whole tree. I loved my task and gloried in my opportunity to arrange the lights, the colorful ornaments and the tinsel. We didn’t have any other greens in the house, however we always had a wreath on the front door.

Looking around at the gaily-decorated wreaths on the doorways of homes in my neighborhood, I had a funny memory. I was out for a walk one day years ago, and a gentleman stopped me: “I beg your pardon,” he said, “Why are there so many wreaths on these doors? In England that signifies that someone has died.” I laughed and assured him that it was a Christmas custom in the States to decorate one’s doors in this way. The presence of these evergreens, along with others is a symbol of the continuation of life.

Those who have celebrated the light festivals of the holidays have always decorated their homes with fresh pines, spruce, holly and mistletoe. With the prominent bare branches of deciduous trees, it would be only natural for them to see evergreens as representing hope for the future. The minds of people who lived in more primitive times would fasten on these as symbolizing a potential for a future that seemed distant and dim in the cold, dark days of midwinter.

The branches of greenery we place on mantles, over doorway, and use in table decorations were once thought to bring the benevolent spirits of the trees into people’s homes to bless them. There are many traditions from many countries concerning the use of greenery for the holidays. Mistletoe, the evergreen vine that is often hung over doorways has a long history as a symbol of peace, and later as an opportunity to steal a kiss, thanks to the evolution of a tradition.

The tree that we decorate with lights and other ornaments is another important symbol of the continuation of life. Various trees worshiped by the pagan religions were central to holiday celebrations. Our Christmas trees are part of a long line of traditions that goes back into the mists of history. Our decorations too come from a variety of sources, ranging from ancient Rome to Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Whether we are celebrating the Solstice, Hanukah, Yule or Christmas, what we are really doing is affirming the eventual return of life and light to a dark, seemingly lifeless earth.

A Wreath of Remembrance

winter-red-and-green          The season of lights, as this time of year could be called, holds many holiday traditions and celebrations. In my home we combined my mother’s German heritage with my father’s American one. We opened our larger gifts from friends and family on Christmas eve, while the stockings that held presents from Santa were opened on Christmas morning.

My mother had played the violin since she was a young child. On Christmas Eve after a light supper of finger food and sweets we gathered around the piano and she played carols while we sang. Silent Night was always sung in German. To this day I more easily remember the German words to this familiar carol. I remember once as people knelt for Christmas eve communion in the Episcopal church I attended then, singing it as I played on my guitar.

Recently as I listened to the wonderful Holiday concert presented by the Claflin Hill orchestra in Milford a rush of remembrance from other times and places swept over me. An image of my mother with her violin tucked under her chin standing by the piano in our dining room playing Silent Night floated into my mind. I felt nostalgic tears prickle behind my eyelids. As the strains of the lovely music flowed on, so did the memories.

My mother loved the lights and other decorations people put on and around their homes for the holidays. I remember one year we drove around together looking at the sparkly holiday homes. I could feel her joy as well as my own as together we appreciated the colorful displays of lights. Another memory surfaced of when my eldest was nearly a year old. Whenever we were in the car on a December evening I would hold her up to the window to see the glowing lights. Her first words at almost a year were her version of mine: “Pitty Light.”

Holiday memories are often tied to music. One year I was to be in the Christmas Pageant at my school, and sing a solo. I had come down with a sore throat and could barely croak. Somehow I got through it. I remember squeezing my best friend Sally’s hand, tears streaming down my face as I sang the best I could. Too, I remember how in the 2nd grade I was to play a little angel in another pageant and my parents took me with them to Florida, leaving the day of the play. I was so sad. Happily I also remember sitting in another school auditorium listening as my own children sang solos in their concerts.

Now many years have gone by, and many things are different. Each year brings new traditions into the mix, new opportunities to add memories and images to be woven into my wreath of remembrance. Old and new merge into a timeless sense of inner joy that brightens and burnishes the present moment. Although many familiar faces may no longer be visible at my table, or certain traditions available to share in the same way, these remain part of my holidays, and they bring their share of joy to the celebration.

By Tasha Halpert

Holiday Customs Make the Time Special

debs-mantle           My parents did not believe in getting too excited about Christmas until much closer to the date than most do now. They didn’t do a lot of shopping either, until closer to the time. I have heard some say they have all their presents bought and wrapped before December first! I remember ordering special things from the catalogue that came to the house some time around Thanksgiving, and feeling excited when my simple gifts arrived. As a child I only gave to my parents and later to siblings. Once I got to play Santa too, shopping in the dime store or Grants in Beverly for stocking presents was a great treat.

Despite the fact that these days Christmas catalogues come in the mail long before Thanksgiving, giving gifts is only one of the many rituals and traditions associated with the holidays. We had a few very simple ones, and my parents didn’t make a big deal out of decorating. These days most of us have much to do as the holidays approach. There are the cookies and other special foods to think about. The entertaining of friends and family is another ritual. Many businesses have staff parties and a lot of people entertain in their homes. These gatherings are not confined to the holidays themselves but take place throughout the time from Thanksgiving to the New Year.

The traditions and customs of the holidays have been accumulated over the centuries from a variety of different countries. In America now more than ever we have a melting pot of nations. While many of us grew up with primarily European customs derived from a combination of pagan, Christian, and Hebrew stories, myths and historical remembrances, the addition of African American, Spanish, Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern and related peoples from other parts of the world has enhanced our holiday observations.

Like Christmas tree ornaments taken each year from attic or basement, today’s families pick and choose what to keep, which to use, and what to discard. The little paper cutoouts children made in kindergarten, the funny ornament Aunt Bessie gave us, the fragile glass bird carefully passed down from generation to generation are all part of the decorating rituals. Fashions may change and what looked cute once may look rather dated in the light of a new generation. The same is true of observances and rituals.

Regardless what we choose to do or not to do as the holidays come around, what really matters is the meaning of the act, the memories associated with it, and the good feeling it brings to the heart. For some it’s midnight mass and singing carols that warms and enlivens, for others it’s the Chanukah, or the Yule or Solstice feast that brings gladness and renews the spirit. At the darkest time of the year, as we participate in them, the bright memories that surround our holiday customs bring a sense of light and joy to the heart.

Tasha Halpert



Keeping Christmas Merry

By Tasha Halpert

Twinkles 3 (best)When I was growing up no one around me thought much about Christmas until after Thanksgiving, and even then mid December was when we would begin shopping. Once I knew the reality of Santa, I was eager to participate. I was taken to the Five and Dime in Beverly. There I would purchase stocking presents for my parents with my saved up allowance. My gifts were always practical: Pond’s Cold Cream for my mother, pencils for my dad. I usually made their presents for under the tree–Santa only brought the stocking gifts.

We didn’t put up the Christmas tree until the day of Christmas Eve. It stayed up until January 6. Elaborate house decorations were not part of our tradition, however we had lovely ornaments saved from year to year along with the real metallic tinsel that made the branches bow nicely. I do not remember much stress associated with the holiday, We had a few friends over on Christmas eve with simple snacks and went to a relative’s for Christmas dinner.

How nice it would be if today’s Holidays were as simple and lacking in stress as they used to be. I’ve had some thoughts on how to help that happen. For instance, it’s hard when the holidays bring back thoughts of those who are no longer with me. I remind myself to be grateful for the time we had together. Then I tell myself, be thankful for those who are with me still.

Music lifts my spirits. Playing Christmas carols, not to mention the lovely classical music written for this time, brings me back to myself and helps me remember what the holidays are really about. I especially like to play Christmas music while wrapping presents or preparing food. I prepare food ahead during the holidays, and I often combine kitchen tasks. Since I’m already in the kitchen, I chop vegetables for soup while I bake Christmas cookies.

Family traditions can be onerous. It is best not to “should” on yourself during the holidays. Instead, make new traditions of your own, more appropriate to your current life and lifestyle. One of mine is to bake cookies for those who have been helpful to me during the past year: My garage mechanic, the kind folk at the library, the postman, my hair stylist.

Here is one of my easy cookie recipes you might enjoy making and sharing. Jiffy Jam Delights: Bake at 375 for 10 minutes on a well greased cookie sheet. Makes 30 to 36 delicious cookies in a half hour from start to finish. Ingredients: 1/2 cup Butter, (no substitutes please),1/3 cup Sugar, 1 Egg, 1 Tsp. Vanilla, 1/4 tsp Salt, 1 2/3 cups all purpose Flour, 2/3 cup Jam (raspberry preferred by us. Method: Beat butter, sugar well. Add egg, vanilla salt. Blend in flour. Drop from a teaspoon onto greased sheets. Make a dent in the tops of the cookies and fill with a half teaspoon or so of jam. Bake only until firm and dry to the touch. Cool before eating. Jam is very hot.