Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Our scraggly tinsel-covered tree is standing proudly in the center of the living room as my sister and I watch the bubble lights to see whose choice will bubble first. These aren’t the cheap plastic bubble lights they make today, they’re glass ornaments filled with some liquid that was probably highly toxic and flammable. But the liquid held its color and they worked beautifully for years.

The stockings are hung by the cardboard chimney and the painted paper fire is glowing from the light of an orange bulb attached to the back of it.
The Christ Child is in the manger surrounded by a conglomeration of figurines my mother has put together over the years, each one purchased from Lamston’s five-and-ten at a cost of 15-20 cents.  At one point I think we had about 6 Wise Men, 10 angels and 15 shepherds, along with two St. Joseph figurines.  (When my mother found a St. Joseph she liked more than the original one, the first St. Joseph was demoted to a shepherd.) Some pieces were plastic, some were china.  One angel was missing his nose and a camel had a chip that looked like one of the shepherds’ dogs had taken a bite out of his leg. (I found this identical manger on the Internet, missing the other 30 characters we had!)
My sister and I are past the stage of believing in Santa, so my mother has put all the gifts under the tree tonight, ready to open after church tomorrow morning.  Almost all our presents have come in the mail from the Sears catalog. Clothing items arrived without gift boxes, and since my mother thought it was beyond ridiculous to buy empty boxes, she wrapped everything without a box. This made it easy to take inventory of how many “fun” presents you had and how many were boring clothes. (Although sometimes you were fooled into thinking a semi-soft package with an interesting shape was a stuffed animal—only to be fooled by a pair of fuzzy bedroom slippers.)

My mother didn’t care for jewelry or perfume or fancy clothing items.  Raised on a farm in New England with eight kids in the family during the Depression, she thought it was the height of luxury to receive gifts such as an electric knife or the latest mixer or God help me, a new steam iron. 

For us kids, Colorforms were the hot item. We would sit for hours arranging these soft plastic cut-outs on the cardboard scenes, using something called imagination.
My father keeps shaking the gift I’ve proudly bought with my allowance and says he can’t wait to find out what it is. (It’s a blue toothbrush.)
All is right in our world.

Flash forward to Christmas 2011: The media and the merchants tell us that to have a good Christmas we need a perfectly shaped artificial pre-lit tree, a Fontanini manger that costs more than my parents’ first car, and if we don’t have a real fireplace then we need an electric one that has an artificial glowing fire that crackles like a real one. We should forgo the Thanksgiving holiday to stand on line all day waiting to grab the latest electronic wonder items for our kids, and then toss the keys to a new Lexus in a perfectly wrapped gift box for our spouse. Meanwhile, we’re inundated with ads for the latest anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs to help us make it through the “stressful holiday period.”
Maybe if we just turned a deaf ear to these messages and realized how much we enjoyed the holidays before we started to try so hard to make them “perfect,” we could again enjoy them without the danger of having a nervous breakdown each year. There’s only one thing I would change—I’ll take a fuzzy robe in place of that steam iron.

And so as tiny Stretch exclaimed:
 “God Bless Us, Every One!”


curram said...

OMG, Colorforms...haven't thought of those in years...I don't think they were making them when Katelyn was the right favorite "Miss Cookie's Kitchen" with cabinet and refrigerator doors that opened!

Cathy Scibelli said...

I totally forgot about "Miss Cookie's Kitchen!" That was great!I think I'm going to have to change the name of this blog to the Iconic Writer and designate you the Iconic Muse! lol

curram said...

I love reading your stories...they dredge up memories for me that have long since been buried.

I was in Walgreens yesterday and wandered down the Christmas aisle. We saw packages of tinsel and the person I was with didn't think they made it anymore...thought of you, obviously!

Samantha said...

Cathy, how well you said what I both remember and believe. I think that one of the gifts we writers (I am just starting out, late in life) hope to give our readers are the words that ring true for them as well as us. You do that here. brilliantly, and I'm happy to discover your blog.
To understand what I mean by what I remember, I invite you to read my post on another blog at
I hope that url works, it should. It has a link to my blog. I am really surprised to have learned in the past few days how many of us shared the same kind of poor-folks Christmases, and didn't tell our stories until now.
I'm happy to have met you through your blog!

Cathy Scibelli said...

Thanks Mary! I'm glad you enjoy the blogs--and please keep writing to me with your own memories, they give me great ideas for my posts. That's funny about the tinsel. I was surprised to get similar comments from a couple people who thought they don't make tinsel anymore. I used to have to go to places like the 99 cent stores to find it, but I saw it in quite a few stores this year, maybe it's making a comeback.

Cathy Scibelli said...

Thank you Samantha! I will definitely check out your blog, it sounds like we have similar backgrounds and views on life. And don't worry about starting your writing career "late in life." I just started really writing in earnest about two years ago after a bout with breast cancer made me realize that the time to follow your dreams is the present moment.

Glen said...

Thanks for the great memories from a seemingly simpler time. I remember the same kinds of experiences from Christmases of my youth. While a lot of that magic is lost in all the commercialism you pointed out, I'm hoping that there is still a little bit of that old Christmas feeling in the experiences of kids today. I know they're a lot more in tune with the retail world and everything is so technology-based these days (computers, video games, cell phones all connected to the web...), but I'd like to think that some kids still wake up early on Christmas morning and wonder at all the great presents under the tree that were left by Santa. One can hope, right?

Cathy Scibelli said...

I'm betting your girls have that sense of wonder, along with some great old-fashioned values, thanks to you and your wife. One day they'll be writing blogs like this.

Linda said...

Hi, Cathy, what fun your blog post is! I so enjoyed recalling so many things I'd forgotten about my own Christmases past. :)

Thanks for the comment you left over at my memoir blog. I look forward to getting better acquainted with you and your blog in 2012.

And thanks to Samantha for introducing us to each other.

Linda Thomas

Cathy Scibelli said...

Thank you Linda! And I'd like to join you in thanking Samantha for "introducing" us. I've had more time today to look further at your memoir blog and I can see I'm really going to enjoy following your postings. Thanks for helping my New Year get off to a positive and exciting start! :-)

Samantha said...

You're welcome! I am so happy to have introduced you. Here's to the wonderful power of networking . . . . .!

Lucy.south said...

Wow, I sure missed a lot of time with you during Christmas. I had colorforms too! The one I remember the best was about the weather and how to dress. I so loved it, since Romper Room would talk about the same kind of weather stuff and I knew what to wear, woo hoo.
I was soooo spoiled by Santa Claus. My parents were all about the struggle throughout the year, but celebration at Christmas was so very important. This year I lavished the gifts on my grandchild as my children did not want to be given gifts they could not afford to reciprocate. This was bittersweet. I had such a simple Christmas, silent and holy. My grandchild attended Midnight Mass and God gave me such a beautiful gift looking into her soul that night, oh my gosh. She is a sweetheart of love and tenderness. So, although simple and different, it may have been my best yet. I worry at times about why my offspring do not plan for the festivities of Christmas as their generations before them, but I am reminded that all is in God's time and they are in His hands now.

Cathy Scibelli said...

What a beautiful story about your Christmas with Hope. I'm glad you made it such a special celebration for her, especially this year when she had to go through the holiday without her Mom. She reminds me so much of you, every time you post a picture of her on Facebook, it's like I'm looking through a time mirror, seeing you as a child.

And I understand how you feel about your kids not celebrating as we did, it's sad to see the ways in which society has been changing lately. But just keep praying and leave it in God's hands, as you said. We'll understand it all someday.