Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 23, 2012

Shiny tinsel, frustrating wreath highlight early Christmas memories

By SAMANTHA PERRY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— Smothered with long, glistening icicles — some hung daintily from needles, others slung upon branches in clumps from tiny hands — the Christmas tree gleamed with a hodgepodge of iconic holiday emblems.

Large, multi-colored lights — that neither flashed nor blinked — reflected off a generous covering of shiny silver tinsel, beckoning young ones to approach.

Unlike many of today’s perfectly coordinated theme trees, this heavily decorated fir reflected the culture, spirit and mood of the times — the early 1970s.

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I saw the tree last week when, just for a moment, I closed my eyes after peering into our dining room. I envisioned it as it was 40 years ago — a living room for a family with five kids.

The tree stood near the radiator for optimum viewing, but this also caused it to dry out. Mom was constantly moving packages and crawling under the branches in an attempt to stem the dropping of needles. We kids would try to help her out, but we invariably spilled more water on the floor than we poured into the stand.

The Christmas tree was a source of holiday magic, and its arrival signaled the start of the holiday season. Back then, in our community, families did not go all out with their decorations as many do today.

Christmas cards from friends and family would be taped on the frame of the kitchen door. One need not look at a calendar to see if the holiday was drawing near; once the entire frame was covered with cards it indicated Christmas Eve was imminent.

Mom also took great pride in decorating the front door with shiny red foil and a festive wreath. Although beautiful to look at, this particular decoration also precipitated the annual Mom versus The Wreath battle. Usually, less than a day after hanging the wreath it would fall off the door. Mom would carefully hang it again, and once again it would fall. This process was probably spurred by five kids slamming into and out of that particular door a dozen times a day. Mom’s frustration after a week-long wreath war would generally prompt us to use back and side entrances for the final few days before the holiday.

The only negative part of Christmas for us was that the banister beside the long stairwell in our home was always covered with holiday garland, preventing us from partaking in one of our most favorite, yet forbidden, activities — sliding down the banister and crashing into the giant newel post at bottom.

(Why we enjoyed this particular activity I’ll never know, because on each occasion it generally involved some sort of pain for one of us — from falling off the banister, “No Mom, I just tripped walking down the hall,” to a brutal collision with the newel post, “Really Dad, he screamed because he fell walking up the steps.”)

As outdoor decorating became more popular, I pleaded with Mom to put some lights up on our house. Her response was practical: Because we lived so far from the main road, no one would see them unless we covered the entire house.

I didn’t see why decorating the “entire house” was a bad idea but, then again, I was a child and not the one who would have to tread carefully while stringing lights along the fourth-floor roof.

On Christmas Eve, the final holiday decorations would be brought out. A bright red and green tablecloth would be placed over the kitchen table and Santa-shaped candy dishes — filled with homemade fudge and peanut butter balls — would be placed throughout the house.

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Few kids in coal mining families expected to get numerous high-priced gifts for Christmas. But the lucky ones would receive at least one special present — a bicycle, a G.I. Joe or, in later years, maybe a Barbie townhouse. There was also an array of other goodies stuffed in stockings or hiding under the tree in red and green paper, waiting for the “self-stick” bows to fall off with the slightest touch.

Comic books. Crayons. Lip gloss. Barrettes. Mini basketball hoops with foam balls. And, of course, the customary gift of socks or underwear from the aunt or grandparent with a penchant for practicality.

In the weeks prior to Christmas, we would spend hours pouring over “the catalogue” — a retail store’s giant book of gifts that was as large and heavy as a stack of three modern-day telephone books.

We didn’t expect to receive all the gifts we perused in the catalogue, but it was fun to dream.

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The first night the tree went up, we would all gather in the den and gaze at the glimmery symbol of love, family and holiday spirit.

Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa and older siblings got “platinum” seating — a spot on the sofa or in an easy chair. The remaining kids sprawled on the floor near the tree or huddled beside the radiator for extra warmth.

Sometimes we talked about the upcoming holiday — wish lists and Christmas Eve plans. Sometimes we’d debate the magic and physics of Santa and his ability to deliver gifts to children across the globe in one night. And sometimes we’d sit in silence — gazing at the tree, luxuriating in the warmth of family.

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I open my eyes to find myself back in the present. There is no shiny tree in the dining room, no garland adorning the banister, no red foil or wreath on the front door. With long work days in December — and no kids — decorating falls low on the priority list.

But as I stroll through my house I can still visualize the sights and sounds of those long-ago Christmases. Holidays when family time and simple pleasures trumped high-priced gifts and fancy decor.

It’s a memory that remains as the most priceless gift ever.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.