Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Childhood Christmas Memories

When I was a child, my Daddy always brought our Christmas tree home on December 15th, my birthday. He cut the tree while he was out hunting for quail in the woods of Alabama. Usually he brought back a good mess of quail (a mess is what you would call a bunch of - like a mess of turnip greens.) Anyway, back to those quail my Daddy brought home: my Mother would coat the quail breasts in flour and fry them until they were golden brown. She served them with hot home-made biscuits and gravy - and maybe a sliced tomato or two.

I'll bet you have never eaten a quail, have you? Most people now-a-days haven't. Today, quail are considered gourmet, and cost big bucks. Back then, we had them often in the fall and winter, during hunting season. My Daddy loved to hunt. He raised hunting dogs, too. German Short-haired Pointers. They are called "pointers" because when they smell or sense a quail, they will stand perfectly still on 3 legs, raise one front leg, and point their nose and tail.

My Daddy's goal was to have a hunting dog that had the DNA, or genes - we had never heard of DNA back then - of every American Field Trial Champion dog from 1954 onward, in it. After 40 years of working on it, shipping and receiving dogs from all over the country, he almost did it. He raised a dog, which at the time had the genes of every American Field Trial winner except one. He never treated his dogs like pets. They were serious working dogs. Because of my Daddy's work, hunters all over the USA have excellent hunting dogs today.

But, I digress: The evening of my December 15th birthday was spent decorating the cedar tree Daddy had brought home. Unless my birthday fell on a weekend, my Sister and I were the tree decorators. My Mother worked from 2 PM to 10 PM Monday through Friday. How would you feel if you did not get to see your Mom except on weekends? You can imagine how my Sister and I felt. My Mother went to work before we got home from school; and we went to bed before she got home from work. When we were young and in elementary school, she would get up in the morning to make our breakfasts, but when we got older, she would continue to sleep. My Daddy, who worked from 6 AM to 2 PM Monday through Friday, was our major caretaker. When he went hunting, we stayed with our grandparents. They didn't even have a TV! And they listened to the radio only 1 hour a day. The rest of the day they spent reading the Bible (Grandpa) and crocheting (Granny). So, my Sister and I did a lot of reading while we were at their house. There was nothing else to do.

Decorating the tree was a small compensation to me for my birthday being so close to the gift-giving holiday. "Back in the day" parents either did not have the money to, or did not feel obligated to, satisfy all gift yearnings of their children. If your birthday was close to Christmas, you just had to suck it up and make do with a cake and a token gift until the big man came down the chimney. At least that is how it worked in my family. In fact, it was rare to receive any type of toy other than on your birthday and at Christmas. So Christmas was a really big deal.

The other thing that irked me about my birthday gift was that my little Sister got a gift on my birthday, too. Since I never got a gift on her birthday in May, I thought this was quite unfair. "She might cry," my Mother said, "if you get a gift and she doesn't." I thought to myself: "I might cry in May, but no one seems to think about that aspect of the gift-giving spectrum."

Though it was put up on December 15th, our Christmas tree always was taken down before January 1st. This was a must, or bad luck would nip at our heels all through the coming New Year, Mother said. I think she did not like having HER living room looking less than her ideal, which definitely did not include a big (though never big enough for my taste) cedar tree. Having our Christmas tree up for such a short time made it seem even more special. All lit and glittery with thousands of silver icicles, it encouraged worship, if not for its beauty alone, but for the promise of presents to come. While the rest of the family watched TV in another room, I would make my own pretend TV production. All lights off in the living room, only the tree lit, I would sing carols, play the piano, and dance and twirl in front of the tree, pretending I was part of the Perry Como or Andy Williams Christmas Special.

Today, I hate the commercial aspects of Christmas. That, and the fact that cedar fever makes central Texas a rotten place to be during December, has helped me create a tradition of being out of town during the joyous time of year. In 2003, we spent Christmas Eve as the only passengers in the first class car of a Swiss train riding all over the snowy wonderland of Switzerland, with a stop in Interlaken. Christmas Day, we holed up in the La Scala Hotel in Frankfurt, eating from the hotel breakfast buffet and from the nuts and crackers we had squirreled away for emergencies; in 2004, we were in Alabama for my Dad's funeral (NOT part of the tradition); in 2005, 2006, and 2007 we were in Hawaii. This year we will be in Austin: the grand kids are in San Antonio now, not Hawaii; and even if we wanted to travel, darling husband can't right now.

I don't decorate for Christmas anymore, except for putting out a little lighted ceramic tree that one of my co-workers at Abbott Labs made, and that I won in some kind of raffle for charity. I try not to cook. Been there, done that, washed those dishes. Thank goodness for daughters and a daughter-in-law who like to cook; and for restaurants that stay open on Christmas Day (unlike in Frankfurt.)

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