Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Past: Carols, Cookies and Cash

I used to "do" Christmas--I cooked traditional dishes, gave parties, bought presents and generally partook in the chaos and stress of Christmas 30 years ago. This morning I was remembering the time I took the astronomical amount of $200 cash in my purse to shop at Macy's, and how nervous I was that I might not make it to the store without being mugged. I tried my best not to look as if I had $200 cash on me and forged ahead, two blocks from where I lived on West 34th to the giant retailer.

The year must have been 1973. I had gotten my first American Express card in 1972, and I had a Macy's charge card before that, but for some reason it made more sense to me to budget Christmas separately and pay in cash. Not a bad plan, but probably unusual even for those ancient days. I had two daughters and a husband to shop for, and the girls were 11 and 12 in 1973.

Christmas from my childhood included old English and French carols, which we sang at that odd school I went to. Solemn, medieval stuff, like "Lullaby of the Christ Child," in a minor key, with lines like "Thousand seraphim/Thousand cherubim/Soaring high above the little Lord of Love." My favorite was the joyous French one, "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," but I also loved "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Away in a Manger," oh, all of them, I guess, even "Jingle Bells" with the part about "we--we got upsot!" I still love the Christmas music that has to do with the religious side of Christmas, I don't know why, it's imbedded in the spirit of Christmas to me, just like the smell of a fresh fir in the living room.

I noted in the early 70's the phenomenon of the secular music piped into the stores. The most popular seemed to be "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which I supposed was played so relentlessly because it was actually about shopping.

Cookies were my personal contribution to the Christmas mood. I love baking, and there is nothing more rewarding than baking crispy rich cookies and decorating them with two little girls who want to use purple icing and combining the red and green to come up with an unappetizing brown. You try to show them, but you honor their personal taste, such as it is--and the cookies are going to be wonderful anyway. The smells of cinnamon, apple pies baking, the racks of cookies in all shapes and descriptions, always add to the spirit of the season. I even made my own egg nog to wash them down. I've always abhorred the packaged version.

As to cash, that's a thing of the past, I suppose. Nobody moans that too few people bake cookies that they mixed from scratch, with fresh butter, eggs, sugar, flour and spices. The bought cookie dough works as well. Everybody loves "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." probably as much as "Silent Night." Okay. And paying for presents with money ($200 at that) has gone the way of the dinosaur. But some little vestige of the Christmas the old-fashioned way sticks with me.


Steve said...

Those are wondeful memories Mary Lois! The one concession for me these days is store bought cards... I always made my own, and did caligraphy for years. Time is the beast. I still cook everything from scratch, get the live fir tree, and decorate as though many people will be seeing my efforts (they are gone now). But I insist on keeping Christmas in my heart.

Mary Lois said...

Some day I'm coming to Salem and have Christmas with you, Stephen! As for me, I'm ready to visit with the grandchildren and let one of those little girls who made the cookies with me take care of Christmas! But I just whipped an egg yolk into some half-and-half with sugar, bourbon and rum and sipped a lovely impromptu eggnog!

Jerry Andersen said...

I remember when you guys lived on W. 34 St. Down near 9th Ave.,as I recall. At least in those days you could shop in the 34th St. Macy's. Now it is chock-a-block with tourists.

Mary Lois said...

That was when I walked to Macy's with $200 in my purse! I'm pretty sure I gave you and Kathie some of those cookies. I still go to Macy's when I can, but it is a different place now. Oh well, everything is.

steelhead said...

So sweet. Did you "do" Christmas this year (past the remembrance of the time when it was sacred)? How did it differ?

Mary Lois said...

I did nothing on my own for Christmas, but was a passenger in the one in Kingston, where my daughter lives. Next year I'll have a little get together or two, and buy a poinsettia or something. I did miss it a bit.

Daughter and family do a minimum of the commercial thing, have a lot of friends and get togethers. It's lovely. The only thing I missed was the carols. Her new boyfriend has what he considers a huge collection of Christmas music, but it's all hillbilly, rock and roll, rhythm and blue, and then some madrigals. Not "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or "Silent Night."Just didn't quite work for me, and it was constant. Food was good however and the mood was warm and low pressure so it was fun all around, even for Grandma.

Nan said...

I'm so late coming to this post, but it is wonderful, Mary Lois. And I do make cookies only from scratch, and do have a real tree. Tom has mentioned that his students don't know the carols, only the songs. Well, that's gonna happen if people don't go to church, I guess.

Mary Lois said...

In my day we sang the carols in school as well as church. It's so moving to me to hear them, to sing them with others--the heart of Christmas. I can't see the harm of school children singing some of the beautiful traditional Christmas music at that season, no matter what their religion (or their family's religion).