December 2, 2012

REPORTING ASIDE: The joy of Christmas in a single gift

Kennebec Journal Staff

Like many central Mainers, I stepped out of the house the day after Thanksgiving and headed into the maelstrom that was Black Friday.

I don't do that every year, but the opportunity arose to go shopping with my sister, Jane, and that can't be bad on any day.

We went to three stores -- a large-ish department store, a mid-size retailer with good quality stuff and a discount store that typically offers hit-or-miss deals.

What struck me was the huge amount of stuff, much of it plastic, that people buy. Where do they put it? How long does it last before it's tossed in the dump, dirty and broken and ultimately buried with tons of so much other junk?

When we were kids in the '50s and '60s, we got presents for Christmas, but nothing like what we're seeing piled high on shelves in stores nowadays.

Traditionally, my sisters and I would sit on the couch a few weeks before Christmas and pore through the Sears Roebuck catalog, mesmerized by pictures of clothes, toys and other gifts.

We each could choose one thing from the catalog and tell our mother what it was. She, in turn, would order it if it was in stock, and if we were lucky, our gifts would be wrapped and under the tree on Christmas morning.

For some reason, we chose costumes one year: Laura asked for a blue ballerina outfit, complete with shoes and a sparkly thing to stick in her hair; Jane wanted a majorette outfit with a baton and white tassel boots, and I asked for a nurse uniform, complete with a blue cape, white cap and red bag containing fake medical instruments.

My mother never told us if the items were available, so we didn't know exactly what we were getting and that added to the suspense as we counted down the days to Christmas.

When we were very little, my grandmother gave us two dollars apiece to buy Christmas presents and that seemed like a lot of money back then. We traipsed through Woolworth's and McClellan's stores in downtown Skowhegan and bought multiple gifts priced at five and ten cents each. We bought all sorts of treasures such as pencils, rulers, little toys and candy.

It was the thrill of the hunt, the secrets we kept of who would get what and the wrapping and placing of presents under the tree that was so exciting.

And of course, my father's annual trek to the woods on snowshoes to get the Christmas tree was a thrill. We would decorate the tree with old glass ornaments and tinsel and lie on the floor, admiring it. But the best part was inhaling that beautiful evergreen scent for days on end.

Our Christmases were simple, yet elegant. The tree itself was magnificent in our young eyes. We listened to "The Messiah" on the record player and watched the Nutcracker ballet on TV. We always had ribbon candy around, and mixed nuts in their shells and those little hard Christmas candies that come in a round tin. Someone was always making sugar cookies and fudge and if we were lucky, divinity.

As I recall, presents were not the biggest draw for us kids. It was the tree, the music, the stories, people returning home from far away and the delicious smells that wafted throughout our house.

My mother made a killer fruit cake, a stollen yeast bread with sweet almond paste filling and a white, sugary frosting mixed with chopped maraschino cherries and walnuts. She also made Spanish cream, a delightfully light pudding-type dessert served in individual stemmed cups and topped with a spoonful of whipped cream.

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