Christmas Past

Header photo of Adliswil by Parpan05 (Own work), CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0  via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s post comes from Cynthia in Mahtowa.

Christmas is not one of my favorite times of the year, Memories are loaded with emotional and physical loss – each of my parents died, I received divorce papers, old reminders of the difficult maneuvering after my parents separated and divorced and remarried. Then there was exhaustion after the long hours working in my father’s retail business wrapping presents, followed by a six hour drive to southern Minnesota to be with grandparents, my parents smoking and arguing what seems like the entire way.

But one Christmas I love to remember: the year I was in Switzerland.

After my first year teaching I quit to travel in Europe. I ended up staying with a family in the small village of Adliswil just outside Zurich. They lived above their tearoom and bakery but also had a home up in the mountains near Einsedeln. The month leading up to Christmas they made candies — delicious Swiss chocolates, many with nummy hazel nut cream. (I thought they were called Moor’s Caps/Moorenkoppen, but I can’t find what I remember them being on the web…so memory being what it is…who knows what they were called.)

Not only did they put up with me, but they graciously allowed me to invite a college friend who was studying in England to join me for the holiday.

On Christmas Eve we drove up to their mountain home. The tree was decorated (did I help decorate it? I don’t remember) with real and lit candles. Interestingly my friend remembers many more details of the holiday than I do, but this we both remember: There was snow. In the evening, we walked somewhere I don’t recall and on our way up along the mountain road a man was riding a bicycle down the road yodeling. A perfect Swiss moment.

Do you have a favorite Christmas memory?

32 thoughts on “Christmas Past”

  1. As I’ve written before, my mom was nuts about Christmas. Her Christmas celebrations were awesome, with an awesome array of lovingly chosen gifts. And while I remember getting two particularly spectacular Christmas gifts (a gazebo for the cabin and a computer/printer/monitor setup), what I remember best are the rituals she created to organize the gift giving. Anyone who ever saw one of her Christmases was amazed at how she styled the giving of gifts. It was excessive, but done with so much love it was beautiful.

    But, actually, what I adored about Christmas was the gift-giving. I worked at it all year, researching gifts and planning them, especially the gifts I gave my daughter and erstwife in our “family Christmas” on Christmas morning.. My favorite Christmas memory of all was the year I gave my erstwife three gifts that were so surprising but good that that Christmas became a family legend.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. My sister and I sometimes talk about that point where the gift giving was more fun and important than the gift receiving. I was just 12 the first year that was true for me. Long “research,” as you say, was part of it.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Our mom had a nest of beautifully-decorated little boxes in graduated sizes. The smallest one was about 2″ by 2″. We knew that the smaller the box, the bigger the gift would be. And, of course, this was the last gift after all others had been opened. Given that Mom’s highly-controlled gift opening process involved each family member opening one gift at a time so all of us could see what the other person got, it took at least two hours before only the little box remained. If the gift was money, it was always for a specific purpose written on a note. One year my gift was an upright piano. She’d bought a doll house sized piano to put in the little box. Another year, it was a doll house bathtub.

      She kept this tradition going until age 73, when she had a series of grand mal seizures that left her mind at the level of a small child. From then on, Christmases were held at my house, then my daughter or son’s homes. Without her directions to open one gift at a time, we all tore through them at the same time in mere minutes. And, of course, there were no little boxes. I still have the nest of boxes, but lacked the income to give my kids that one big surprise.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I was afraid someone would ask. They won’t sound that exciting if you don’t know the psychology of the people involved. Plus we didn’t have much money.

        Two things about our home bugged my erstwife. One was our toilet seat, an unusual item since the toilet was an extremely rare shape and size. 99.9 % of toilets have the same size and shape. Ours was the odd one, so we couldn’t buy a replacement seat, even when the old one began to fall apart after six decades of use. Well, I found one.

        The other frustration was our stove top. It had become so deeply scarred from decades of use that it could not be cleaned up. I found out that I could buy a replacement for it, a brand new top.

        One night in July my erstwife showed me what she said was her favorite photo in all the world. It showed a London bookstore during the Blitz, a place that took a German bomb. Three men are seen shopping for books in the ruins. Since my erstwife was in the book business, this photo showed how highly some folks treasure books. The photo was in a somewhat obscure book published in France. The next morning I wrote down details of the book. I knew my wife wouldn’t remember having shown this to me, for she had been seriously buzzed on scotch the night before. I tracked down the publisher. They found an English speaking staffer, and I negotiated a purchase of a copy of that photo to be framed and shipped to me. You can see this photo. Do a Google search with the string “London bookstore after bomb” and click on Image. It’s the photo with the three British dudes in hats perusing books in the shop.

        My other gifts were more conventional (jewelry, books, CDs).

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I don’t have ONE day.
    In my childhood going out to the barn on Christmas morning to help with milking and chores had a special feel. I am not sure why. It was an unreligious household. In part it was that it would be a day off from work, the only day off during my school vacation. Wood for the next winter had to be cut, But i liked being out in the woods in the winter with the horse. so a day off was not really as much as a reprieve as it may seem.
    The barn in the winter had a special ambiance. The windows were thick with frost, condensation caused by the animals. It was a muted light. Then the animal warmth. But that day it seemed a bit moreso of whatever it was.Boots all excited to see us, to let him out to hunt and do his rounds and then come back in to be my truest friend. The animals looking at me waiting for hay, and grain for the milk cows and the horse. It should have felt like every other day, but it had a different sort of feel for me on Christmas. It was, I suppose, something spiritual, but it had nothing to do with religion.
    Later when I was a pastor the 10:30 at night service in the little church nine miles up the North Shore was invigorating. Families home and at the service enlivened me and everyone. In a small church on Holidays the congregation is one family. Everyone knows everyone else’s kids very well. Several of my former students were there. Sandy and I would put out ice luminaries along the walk up to the front door.
    The simplicity of the decorations were part of it. A seven-foot tall spruce tree decorated with ornaments made in years of Sunday schools and by the Ladies Aid, which is what they still called themselves. Every thing in the church was made by people in the church except the communion vessels,
    We usually had someone with us that night, various people, but especially an 80-year-old woman, a town character, She would come to the service with us and be welcomed in, despite her colorful reputation.I find the grand services of our big church off-putting. But that’s just me. I want a simper approach.
    OT: Sandy has gone seven days since the surgery with all positive results.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Clyde, I know exactly what you mean about doing barn chores on Christmas day.
      For me it was always the evening; after milking and giving them hay before going back to the house. They all got an extra scratch on the head and the barn definitely had an extra peacefulness about it for some reason. Just like you said, something spiritual; a connection.

      There was something cozy, calm and peaceful on those extra cold nights. We had exhaust fans to keep the humidity down in the barn, but as they were on thermostats, if it was really cold they’d be off, so the only sounds were the cows rustling about in their stalls. And they all looked comfortable and peaceful.
      I still miss that.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. As a child, I was tortured by the presents under the tree. I would spend hours (or at least several minutes a day) shaking and feeling my gifts, trying to guess what they were. Lest you think my parents gave us tons of gifts, the protocol was – for each child – one piece of clothing, one book, and one toy.

    Well, one year, when I was maybe 8 years old, my dad gave me a camera. I had never thought of getting a camera and didn’t even know that I wanted one, but it seemed a mighty fine gift.

    I think my oldest sister had a brownie camera and I had tried to use that a couple times, but seeing the image upside down in the viewfinder and looking through it while holding it down by my waist drove me batty. This camera was one where I could hold it up to my eye, look through the viewfinder, and see things right side up. It was marvelous. As soon as I could, I bundled up and went outside to take some pictures. There was snow on some brambles outside our house which struck me as pretty, so I took a shot of that. I remember when I got the prints back that I liked that shot, but felt weird because I didn’t know anyone else who took pictures of things like that.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. My dad worked in a factory that made stuffed toy animals, giving him access to odd things. My folks used to load up gift boxes with several chrome jingle bells. If we shook a present to figure out what it was, all we heard was one heckuva lot of jingling.

      Later my mother devised an unbreakable system (her own version of the Nazi Enigma). Gifts had no names on them, just numbers. The numbers were keyed to a master list only my mother knew about. Using this list my mother could arrange to have the right gifts delivered to each person to be opened on Christmas. She used the master list to determine the order in which gifts were unwrapped. Whatever you got when you opened the first gift you knew that the next gift would be more spectacular, and it would be surpassed by next after that. The final gift would be the smashing surprise, the thing you couldn’t believe you got.

      And sometimes she would do a Columbo. You would be glowing, sitting in your pile of presents, and she’d suddenly remember, “Oh, gee, shouldn’t Steve be getting one more? I almost forgot. Steve, why don’t you take a look in the back bedroom? There might be one last one there.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A couple come to mind:
    1) I am the middle of three girls. One year when we were still quite young, instead of individual gifts for each of us there was one very large box that had our names written in glitter. Oh, the speculation! It turned out to be three Chatty Cathy dolls, which provided us endless hours of entertainment pulling the neck cord and hearing what they had to say.
    2) Not sure of the exact time frame – late 50s or early 60s – when flocked Christmas trees were all the rage. My Mom was a huge fan of them. For several years we watched in amazement as she hooked up the flocking bottle to the blower end of the canister vacuum cleaner and turned our green live tree into a wonder of white. Sure was messy, though.

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  5. Thank you, Dale, for the photo of Adliswil…it sure has changed since the little village it was in 1965-66 when I was there. The only photo I have is a post card of the tea room/bakery/Konditorei that I cannot find. I didn’t have a camera with me so bought post cards…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t have a particular Christmas that stands out. I think the Christmases when I was in my 20’s and early 30’s were my favorites. After my nieces were born Christmas became more about having the right toys for them. I know for many people having kids around heightens the magical feeling of the holiday, but I wearied of the tamagotchis and beanie babies and whatever the requisite kid thing was for a given year.

    Christmas Day still has a different feel to it than other days of the year, but I’d like to be able to return to a time when there was less busy-ness in the season.

    Music is always an important element. It would not seem like Christmas without it.

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  7. I remember Christmas as generally wonderful. My mother hated Christmas. She said it was always so much work for an elementary school teacher in the weeks leading up to the holiday. The real reason she hated Christmas was that she lost a child at 7 months gestation when her appendix ruptured when she was pregnant at Christmas in 1949.

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  8. I agree that my most memorable Christmases involved kids. When Joel was three Michael built a crane that he could sit on and really lift something… I remember sewing Care Bears that he liked at the time. I remember that he was excited by these, but a later Christmas when his cousin was with us was really more FUN. And the big family gatherings when Husband’s family was still getting together were really fun when the kids were little. (More fun if I wasn’t hosting.)

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    1. Kids, especially little ones, can make Christmas much more enjoyable. Our Christmas Eve celebrations, the tradition I started the year following the Christmas Eve I described below, were so much fun when we had two or three little ones.

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  9. Lovely post, Cynthia. I knew right away when I saw the picture in the heading that it was from somewhere in Europe; those steep, red-tiled roofs gave it away.

    For me, Christmas has been a mixed bag over the years. My childhood Christmases were too erratic to have produced a lot of fond memories, except for the ones spent at the boarding school. Those were pure magic. My adult Christmases were all over the map. Some joyous, filled with cheer and others, sad and lonely.

    I do have some memorable ones in the mix. The year I had separated from wasband was a sad affair. I had been in the Twin Cities only a short time; didn’t know very many people here, and certainly didn’t have any friends. Perhaps that Christmas Eve stands out as the most memorable. I have told this story here years ago, so for those who read it then, please bear with me.

    I had been attending We Care meetings (support group for divorced people) for a few months, and decided to attend their Christmas Eve meeting in Minnetonka. Unlike most people, I was not busy. Had no shopping, gift wrapping, cooking or anything else to do, so I decided to squander as much time as possible by driving to Minnetonka via Lake Street.

    When I arrived at the meeting, only the couple facilitating it and four sad looking men had showed up. There we sat, munching on Christmas cookies and drinking non-alcoholic punch, trying without much success to cheer each other up. One of the men extended an invitation the rest of us to join him at his house for a cup of Christmas cheer after the meeting. Everyone accepted the invitation; it was obvious, no one had anything else to do. However, by the time we were ready to leave, one by one, each of the other three men had come up with some excuse for not going after all. I was in a state of panic. I had never met any of them before, but somehow the prospect of going home alone with a man I knew next to nothing about seemed more ominous than going with four of them. On the other hand, I felt that if I, too, now declined to go, I would be sending a message that I didn’t want to send, namely that I didn’t trust him or feel safe with him.

    We walked to the parking lot together, and he told me to just follow him. When we arrived at his house, a duplex, where he was renting the upper unit, he said to me before we entered: “Perhaps I should warn you,” and the he changed his mind: “no what the heck. Let’s just say that I’m different.” You can imagine what all went through my mind, and it was not without trepidation that I climbed the stairs to his humble abode.

    There, in his living was his decorated Christmas tree, all lit up – nailed to the ceiling. Around the base of it, wrapped gifts had been somehow fastened there as well. He explained that his world had been turned upside down that year when his wife left him, so decided have an upside down Christmas as well.

    He spent a couple of hours making drinks of hot buttered rum, balloon animals, and telling me of his marriage’s demise. He was a house painter, a member of Schriners Clown Club, and a free-lance musician. I left his house a few hours later with a large grocery bag full of balloon animals, and an invitation to join him on New Year’s Eve at a house where his band was going to play. He later bought a clown supply and magic store on West 7th in St. Paul. We had sporadic and casual contact for several years. He was a nice man, and I think we were both grateful to the other for having salvaged the pieces of that Christmas Eve.

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  10. One favorite Christmas memory involved no gifts. We bought the cabin on the shores of Lake Superior in 1986. That year we had our usual Christmas celebrations, then drove north to have a final Christmas party in the cabin. As we had not been up there in winter, everything was exotic and memorable. We hiked into the heavy woods across the gravel road that led to the cabin. Finding a nice balsam tree, we cut it down and dragged it through the snow to the cabin. It filled the cabin with a delicious coniferous odor. We decorated that tree with ornaments we made from colored paper. The wood stove was up to the job of keeping the place comfortable. The weekend had an old fashioned feel.

    Unfortunately, a winter storm moved in. The drive home involved a long stretch of state highway 13. In that area, 13 is oddly high, sitting well above the land it traverses, and the shoulders on both sides are steep. I had to do about 40 miles of that road with 13 as slippery as a skating rink. By the time I got us to big highways that had been plowed I was shaking with fear. After that we rarely felt brave enough to visit the cabin in winter. Still, it was a sweet weekend.

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  11. I remember as a child (7 or so?) a Christmas when we drove to Eagle River, in east-central Wisconsin, to visit my mom’s sister, husband, and a cousin Rich, a year older than me. They owned an old-fashioned grocery store on main street and lived in an apartment above it. Looking back, I can’t imagine where we all slept, but it was a homey and delightful Christmas memory. A photo exists somewhere of a fairly large tree with lots of gifts underneath. Eagle River is now known as the Snowmobile Capitol of the World…
    http://eagleriver.org/play/snowmobile/

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  12. Memorable lead up to Christmas story.

    My wasband was very very frugal — and holidays did not loosen the purse strings. One year we got our tree at Frank’s Nursery. The seriously discounted trees were piled up, still in their plastic wrap, at the back of the big lot. It was freezing and I can still see him in my mind’s eye, standing atop the big pile trying to sort through them.

    Fast forward a few years. It was the holidays and we had been separated for about a month. I was having a bad weekend and feeling like maybe he was the best man I would ever “get”. That Sunday morning I got up early and feeling like I needed to get out of the house, I went down to Bachman’s to look at trees. Nobody else was up yet and the two teenaged boys working the first shift on the lot figured it would be better to be very attentive to me than to stand around freezing. They stood up every tree, twirled each around, discussed the pros and cons of short needles vs. long needles. They sawed off the end of my chosen tree and tied it on my car. I paid way more for it than I had ever paid for a tree, but all the customer service made it worthwhile. As I was dragging the tree into the house it started to snow and that was the day I knew I was going to be just fine on my own.

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  13. The Christamses, mostly spent at home, tend to run together. I have a memory of a New Year’s weekend when I traveled up north with some friends. We had a cabin on the Cut Foot Sioux trail, a large cabin with many beds and a massive stone fireplace. It was very, very cold. We brought cross country skis and jigsaw puzzles, and lots of food. I think about that weekend frequently around the holidays.

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