LOVE, WAR AND CHRISTMAS
By E.E. Kennedy
|Our family, circa 1955. That's me on the left.|
I grew up in a very Christmas-friendly family. My mother, especially, made sure we enjoyed all the traditions and frivolities associated with the holiday. I believe it stemmed from her own childhood in the Great Depression, where a minister and his wife raising three children had very little to give each other.
Even when she became an adult, WWII shortages and rationing made things we consider common today almost impossible to obtain. “What do you want for Christmas?” her elder brother asked her one year during the war. “A box of Kleenex and a streakedy-stripedy piece of candy,” was her sarcastic reply. Sure enough, that was what she found when she pulled off the wrapping, and she never forgot her disappointment. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons she made it her mission to make our Christmases memorable--and then some.
Mommy, as we called her, was scrupulously honest the rest of the year, but when it came to Christmas, she didn’t hesitate to lie, sneak and make up stuff, all so we’d have a breath-taking Yuletide morning. “All’s fair,” she would say, paraphrasing an old cliché, “in love, war and Christmas!” Santa was one such prevarication. She wanted us all to believe in the old guy. Once, I found a cache of small toys in a bedroom drawer and asked her what these were. “Oh, Sugar, Santa must have put them in the drawer for safekeeping,” she said. “Let’s leave them there and see who he gives them to later.” I bought it. After all, I was only a kid.
We lived in Northern New York State, near the Canadian border. My mother was a wartime transplant from the Deep South—Alabama—and brought traditions from there, such as a delicious fruit dish called Ambrosia, consisting of oranges and shredded coconut. (Nothing else; she was a purist.) If it snowed, we made “Snow Ice Cream,” which seemed to also come from a popular southern recipe. A big bowl of fresh snow was doused in milk, sugar and vanilla and eaten quickly, before it melted. Another tradition was called “Christmas Eve Gift,” where the family member who said it first on Christmas Eve won. There was no prize, just bragging rights. Even today, cousins and aunts call us on the phone and yell “Christmas Eve gift!” when we answer, just to get the drop on us.
Though you could cut her Dixie accent with a knife, she embraced the “Yankee” traditions, too. She made tourtiere, a dense and extremely rich French Canadian meat pie. It became the Christmas Eve meal. She pulled out all the stops, using heavy cream and adding my favorite, mushrooms, to the filling. In order to keep up Santa’s globe-trotting reputation, Mommy and Daddy would travel to Montreal to get candies from around the world for our stockings. (I have no idea when they had time to do this; perhaps when were in school? After all, the big city was just an hour away.) I especially remember some wonderful hard candies filled with exotic fruit preserves—quince, for instance. I’ve never encountered quince outside of a poetry book, but we had quince candy!
I remember decorations that I don’t see much of today. On a table in the living room, there was a little kind of gold-colored contraption involving a candle, which would slowly whirl little angels around in a circle and there were also thin strands of a silvery substance called tinsel which we draped generously on the tree to represent icicles.
|This was before my little sister was born. |
We look serious, but we were just back from the midnight service and were ready to get to sleep!
(Please also notice the tinsel!)
Of course, the real reason for Christmas was never very far from our minds. We would round up our friends in the neighborhood and stroll from house to house, singing “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” in well-meant harmonies. My mother was always the one who had hot chocolate and cookies ready for the singers. And we never missed the midnight candlelight service at our church. It was the one time we were allowed to stay up that late. We would each bring a “white gift,” a canned good wrapped in white tissue paper that would be given to the less fortunate.
I think my favorite Christmas Eve memory was at the conclusion of those midnight services when we would emerge from the warm sanctuary, our feet crunching on the ice and the moonlight sparkling on the surface of the newly-fallen snow. The stars would twinkle in the inky sky and I would wait until the very, very last minute to blow out the candle I carried as “O, Come All Ye Faithful” still rang in my ears.
Right before we went to bed in our new flannel pajamas, Mommy would gather the three children in the living room and my dad would read the Christmas story from the Bible. I don’t remember much about the gifts we got the next morning, but the warm, safe feeling and the joy of receiving the newborn baby Jesus into the world rings down the years in my memory.
As writers, we are instructed to write about what we know. Those who knew my mom will recognize her in Amelia's descriptions of her own late mother. And although my mother struggled with health issues during much of her life, she ended it well: loving God, always thinking of others and firmly fixing herself in the memories of her grandchildren as the "Pixie Dust Grandma." So, thank you, Mommy, for the wonderful Christmas memories. When I write my mystery series, I can't help but make it cozy. Now you know part of the reason.
Ellen Edwards Kennedy, aka E.E. Kennedy, is the author of a cozy mystery series about a high school English teacher. The stories are set in the Adirondack region of NYS, where she grew up. The fourth one in the series, Incomplete Sentence, will be released February 1 by Sheaf House Publishers. Ellen and her husband live in North Carolina. Her website is www.missprenticecozymystery.com