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Christmas on Greenspring Avenue

Memories of Christmas from 1949 to 1962

Mom’s birthday was August 24. On August 25, she started baking for Christmas. The first thing on her agenda was the fruitcake, because it was best if it aged three or four months. In September, she started baking cookies. She made several dozen Pfeffernouse, followed by several dozen Springerle cookies. Then, there’d come a short hiatus from making Christmas food, to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner. After Thanksgiving, she was back at it again, this time in earnest. She made almond macaroons, sugar cookies, an almond strudel and Longmeadow loaf cake.

After Thanksgiving, we started receiving Christmas cards in the mail. That was a sign to me that it was time to start decorating the house. My first chore was to vacuum the downstairs, and to wax the dining room floor. After those things were done to her satisfaction, mom would allow me to begin hauling out decorations. We kept a short step ladder handy, behind the door to dad’s workroom, and it was hauled out of hiding, for me to use to reach the exposed beams in the living room ceiling. There was a container of thumb tacks kept handy in the living room table.

It was a large table, such as might be seen in a library, with a wide shallow center drawer. It was part of a set of “Mission” or “Craftsman” furniture that had been my great grandfather Stagmer’s. A straight high–backed arm chair, a low-backed rocker, and a couch, or settee completed the suite.

After attaching all the cards to the beams, I would open the dough box and haul out all the room decorations. A small sprig of mistletoe, tied with red ribbon was the first thing I’d put up. It was to be tied through the holes that had been drilled in the beam when the room originally was wired for a center ceiling light.

That fixture … well, it wasn’t really a fixture. When we moved into the house in 1949, there was a wire dangling from the ceiling that terminated in a light bulb socket, with a turn switch on it, and a brass escutcheon where the wire came out of the ceiling. Anyway, all that disappeared the day Mom and Grambooth tore the ceiling down.

It was a balmy day that must have been near the end of the school year. I can’t imagine my mother and her mother in law tackling a project such as that in the fall, with the holidays looming on the horizon. The school bus stopped in front of Carol Keller’s driveway, and as I stepped from the doorway, I looked across the field toward my house. The house was entirely enveloped in light grey smoke. I could barely make out the outline of the corner boards and eaves. Certain the house was on fire, and in a panic, I raced across the field as fast as my legs would carry me. When I got to the well, about twenty feet from the house, it became obvious that what I was seeing was not smoke; it was dust. I stood by the well, panting, until I got my breath back, and while I was standing there, a board came through the living room window, breaking the glass.

“Darn!” my mother exclaimed, loudly.

I walked ‘round to the front, and up the three steps to the porch. The living room windows were all propped open. They had no weights, and dad had cut boards that we used to use to prop the lower sash up when it was warm outside. The front door was standing wide open, and there was white dust pouring out of the windows and the door. There was a small pile of boards, covered in whitewash, lying out of one window and across the edge of the porch. I looked in the door, just in time to see my mother and grandmother pry the door off the opening to the fireplace.

“What are you doing?” I asked, dismayed.

“Your grandmother and I decided to uncover the fireplace,” mom replied. She said it nonchalantly, as if that was a perfectly normal thing to do, and that anyone might do such a thing any day of the week.

“Yes, but what happened to the ceiling?” I asked.

We decided to expose the hand-hewn beams,” she replied. “Aren’t they neat?” she continued. The excitement was obvious in her voice, and I knew from experience there was no use arguing. Whenever I argued with mom, she always won.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess.” I was a lot less excited about the whole process than she was, but then I saw something I had never seen before in any old house. “What’s that hole next to the fireplace?” I asked.

The fireplace itself was like any fireplace: a large opening with a slight arch, all lined in brick, and surrounded with a wall of stone set in mortar. Everything was covered with a thick layer of whitewash. But next to the fireplace opening, about three feet away, there was a square opening in the stone. It was like a little shelf, or cupboard, about a foot square, and a foot or so deep. Mom and Grambooth thought it might have been intended to be used as a little food warmer, but once we got the fireplace cleaned up and usable, it quickly became evident the little alcove never got more than just barely warmer than the room, even with a rip-roaring fire in the fireplace. I suspect it was intended as a handy place in which to keep rags for handling hot cooking utensils, or possibly in which to store tinder and flints, in case one needed to start a fire from scratch.

When Dad got home from work, he was pretty upset about the broken window pane. It was original to the house, complete with bubbles in the glass, and thicker at the bottom than at the top, from having been in the window for over a hundred years. But he was pretty happy about their having opened the fireplace, and having exposed the hand-hewn ceiling beams.

Over the next ten years or so, working on the ceiling became an on-going summer project. We had to scrape the many layers of whitewash off the beams, cut pieces of sheet rock to fit between them, and use joint compound to fill the odd spaces. As I said, the beams were hand-hewn, so were neither exactly square, nor perfectly straight. Each summer, mom, dad and I, sometimes working together, but more often working individually, scraped whitewash and applied joint compound. That ceiling wasn’t finished until after I moved out, when I was eighteen.

After dad took the light fixture down, and put outlets in the floor to plug in lamps, there was a pair of half-inch diameter holes left in the center of the center beam, where the metallic-sheathed Type BX cables had been. So that was where we always hung the mistletoe.

After the mistletoe was hung, I donned my jacket and boots, and armed with my mother’s kitchen shears and my Boy Scout knife, trudged out into the woods to gather crows foot. Sometimes I’d let my little brother, Jim, accompany me, but he was mostly a pain, because he was only three or four, and had a hard time keeping up. Usually instead, I’d get together with my friends, Bob Englar, Jim Yuspa, and Simeon Markline to gather crows foot. Like all boys in their early teens, we had a grand old time on those forays. The woods were our playground, so we knew them quite well, and weren’t likely to get ourselves into any trouble. Returning home with armloads of crows foot, we’d divvy them up between us, each taking some to his respective home. We also used to trim branches from the blue spruce and the Norway spruce that stood at the south end of the house, They were each about thirty feet tall, and had been planted much too close together, so there were always plenty of stunted branches to be cut out, where they grew together.

Mom and Dad took charge of putting up the greens; I suppose that task was a little too demanding for a young boy’s aesthetic tastes.

Eventually, Christmas eve would arrive, and Dad, Jim, (and later, when he was old enough) Richard, and I would go out to the east side of the field to cut a tree. There was a row of scrub white pines along the property line between us and the neighbors. They had probably been planted, as my father used to say, “by the birds”. There was no rhyme or reason in the way they were situated; they were just sort of helter-skelter and growing every which way. We always tried to choose the straightest one, but dad was more concerned with their having enough branches close enough that he could get the lights on the tree without having any dangling between branches. Many years later, my wife used to refer to them as “Charlie Brown trees” because they resembled the little forlorn one in the Peanuts Christmas cartoon. But as kids, we didn’t mind; to us, they looked just as good as any Christmas tree.

When we got the tree back to the house, we kids had to stay out of the living room while dad got it set into the stand, and the lights put on. AS I got older, I began to realize just how difficult that chore was. I do recall one year, when dad went back down to the property line, and cut a bunch of branches, then proceeded to drill holes in the trunk of the Christmas tree, to install branches where he needed them to be able to string the lights.

For the first few years we lived there, when Jim was still a baby, the tree was installed in a bucket filled with sand. But the year Jim was three, he got a tricycle and a wagon for Christmas, and we all got a new puppy. She was the most patient and docile animal I have ever known. Jim manhandled her tremendously, and insisted on having her ride in the wagon, while he towed it around behind his tricycle in the living room. That year, the tree got knocked over three times. We named the dog “Patience”. She lived with us until after I moved out of the house.

The following year, dad got a regular metal tree stand, and screwed it down to a piece of plywood, three feet on a side. He also installed screw eyes in the east wall and south wall, to which he attached a cable that wrapped around the top of the tree trunk. The tree never again got knocked over.

After dad had placed the lights on the tree, we would eat supper. Christmas supper always consisted of herb bread, potato soup, and tomato aspic, made with pieces of ham in it. For dessert, we had Longmeadow Loaf cake, fruit cake, Christmas cookies, and homemade eggnog. After dinner, we’d all gather in the living room, and decorate the tree with all the ornaments.

There were many ornaments made of plastic, metal and paper, which we boys were allowed to hang. Some of the glass ornaments were ones mom and dad had gotten their first Christmas together, and a few were ones that had been passed down through the family for several generations. There were also one or two that my Uncle Boyd had made, the year he worked in the glass-blowing factory. Needless to say, the glass ornaments were all hung by adults. It was a very big deal when at age sixteen; I was allowed to hang a few of the less valuable glass ornaments.

After the ornaments were hung, we’d all gather around as Mom read aloud The Night Before Christmas and King John’s Christmas, by A. A. Milne. After she had done that, we all hung our stockings from the beam nearest the fireplace. Once all the stockings were hung, she’d read Bobby Jo’s Stocking to the youngest, and we boys were all off to bed.

While we slept, Santa, in the form of Mom and Dad would fill the stockings, place the tinsel on the tree, and place all the wrapped presents beneath, except for the ones that were going to Catonsville. Dad was the middle child of three, Mom the eldest of six siblings. Both pairs of grandparents, and all the cousins, aunts and uncles lived in Catonsville, so there was always a big stack of presents to be delivered to them on Christmas Day. They were all piled atop the library table.

On Christmas Day, like many children, we three boys were up at the crack of dawn. We were allowed to open our stockings, and play with the toys therein, but we were not to touch anything under the tree. We had all been to art galleries and museums enough to know to “look with your eyes;’ not with your hands”, as we had been admonished many times. But the stocking toys were sufficient to hold our interest.

When the kitchen clock had its long hand on the twelve and short hand on the eight, we were allowed to go to mom and dad’s bedroom and wake them. Hey wpo8umld come down to the living room in their pajamas, and open their stockings. They were always so surprised at the things Santa had brought them. It wasn’t until I was much older, and living on my own that mom told me she and dad filled each other’s stockings, in separate rooms, so they would have a surprise, too. After stockings were opened, we all went back up to our bedrooms, and got dressed for breakfast.

Christmas breakfast always consisted of strawberries, which mom had frozen the previous summer, scrambled eggs, and sausage. Christmas was the only day of the year in which we had sausage, so that was always really special. Also, with the eggs and sausage, we had the strudel mom had made, and usually, a small piece of Longmeadow loaf cake.

After breakfast was eaten, and the table cleared, and all the dishes washed, we all trooped into the living room and opened the presents from under the tree.

I doubt that any of these Christmas memories are unusual, or out of the ordinary, but they are very different from the Christmases I now spend with my nieces and nephews. They are all old enough to remember some of the traditions mom tried to instill, though, so this little essay is really for them.

If you want to make Longmeadow Loaf Cake, here is the recipe. FIrst, though, copy it out with the ingredients in columns. (For example the first line is 4tsp. lard, 1lb butter, and 1tsp. nutmeg. Each of those items should be in a separate column. Do the same with the rest of the recipe, so that you have three columns of ingredients.
 
Longmeadow Loaf Cake

(from D_________'s family at Longmeadow, MA)

For 4 loaves:

4 teas lard lb butter 1 teas nutmeg

4 teas sugar lb lard 3 teas almond extract

2 cups milk 5 cups sugar 2 teas lemon extract

2 cups water 9 cups flour 1 cup citron (1/3 lb)

2 yeast cakes/2 T dry 1 teas salt 2 cups raisins (1 lbs?)

5 cups flour 8 (1 cup) egg whites, whipped

Combine first column of ingredients, scalding milk. Let stand 2 hours.
Add second column ingredients, creaming butter, lard and sugar before adding. Beat well and let rise overnight.

In morning add remaining ingredients, with egg whites whipped. Mix thoroughly. Put into pans lined with paper or greased well (sprayed with Pam spray instead*) and let rise 2 hours. Bake in 325 degree oven about 1 hour or until done.

Recipe for only 1 loaf:

1 teas lard 6 Tbls butter teas nutmeg

1 Teas sugar 2 Tbls lard teas almond extract

cup milk 1 cup sugar teas lemon extract

cup water 2 cups flour cup citron

yeast cake teas salt cup raisins

1 cup flour 2 egg whites, whipped

Note: I recommend adding chopped nuts; 1 cup per loaf.
*Emma Sue

Emma Sue is my mother's youngest sister, and only 18 months older than I, so Sue and I are more like siblings than aunt and nephew. I had misplaced this recipe, and only just got her to email it to me. 12/26/2012

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