Celluloid Gifts: Past to Future
By: Susanna Euston
Memory doesn’t serve me well at times. I’m not like my husband who recalls myriad minutia from childhood and every other stage of his life: this place, that person, and happenings as if they were transported into present time. I’m always amazed. And jealous.
So, keeping this deficit in mind, presented here may be recollections of several holidays cobbled together. Or maybe just one. I’ll never know for sure. The ritual described herein was a common occurrence during my brothers’ and my younger years, for Christmas or birthdays.
I do recall that extra-good behavior became mandatory in the weeks leading up to Christmas, no matter the year. Turkey-time would pass and instantly we would be at our polite best. The idea, long perpetuated by myth, of Santa leaving coal in stockings of wayward children kept us focused and full of alacrity as we strove to prove our worth to that rotund, rosey-cheeked icon. After all, he was all-seeing and all-knowing—at least according to rumor. So…
Make the bed. Check. Chew with mouth closed. Check. Say, “Please” and “thank you.” Check. Don’t beat up my pesky little brother. Check.
Like most children who celebrate the holiday, we counted down the days. It felt excruciating as the weeks, days and hours crawled by like molasses on snow—stuck almost at a standstill.
The fabled day did arrive, finally, but not before Dad, Mom and we three kids searched for and carted home that year’s “perfect” tree. From cultural and family traditions to shopping, the holiday’s aura held us in its thrall. We loved the activities leading up to it: Strolling through stores decked out in glittering, holiday attire; selecting precious gifts, then secreting our treasures in colorful papers and ribbons; singing and caroling; delighting in stories about the nativity or Santa; chuckling at Snoopy in his Santa cap and ice skates or Dennis the Menace, up to his usual antics. And, there was Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, a wonderful 19th century story by Mary Mapes Dodge celebrating the gifts of family love, devotion, and giving, not to mention caring about those less fortunate, year round, not just during the holidays. Saint Nicholas, a real fourth century Greek saint, arrived for Dutch children on December 6th—nineteen whole days before our visit from Santa (you can imagine what went on in our minds about that…).
The materialism of Christmas aside, there was altruism involved in our run up to Christmas. Transporting ourselves into the tradition of giving provided an infusion of inspiration that lasted until nearly the next year when we were reminded, once more, of the importance of those values and were again inspired to live them.
A few days before the holiday, Dad set up the tree in the living room. He added strings of big, now old-fashioned colored lights; carefully hung elegant red glass balls in graduated sizes; then enlisted our help to add the tinsel, which we awkwardly applied one-by-one to the end of each branch. This technique was supposed to more realistically mimic the real thing. Truth is, then, I didn’t care a whit about authenticity. The plodding process stifled my childish energy in the extreme. Nevertheless, according to Dad, there was one way to do it, and only one way. What was a six year old to do?
Growing up, my inner imp always wanted to stand with back to tree, and just heave the silver stuff over my shoulder to see where it would land. As an adult, in a fit of open defiance, I tossed the darned tinsel on my own first Christmas tree. It felt good, in the moment, to defy authority—until I saw the mess it created. So that rebellion lasted for exactly five minutes since I quickly learned that neatly placed strands were far prettier than yucky, undisciplined piles on branches. Oh, well, so much for a lifetime of angst over something so trivial: A metaphor, perhaps, to be applied to other long-simmering resentments? For most, I eventually learned the “whys” and let go of my pique. Turns out that parents really do have some good insights…
As Dad put finishing touches on the tree, we draped greens adorned with little red balls and other ornaments on mantle, tables, and doors. A papier maché Santa, his sleigh and antlered friends held a place of honor on the coffee table, and a little creche scene resided on the sideboard, away from our small hands. Mom, always ahead of schedule, worked in the kitchen to ready the holiday feast.
The train set appeared and quickly spilled out of its boxes. On the floor, sprawled on our tummies, we connected two sets of tracks to encircle the tree. One for our old fashioned train, the other for the newer, sleeker model. Next we recreated the little New England village, then added the engines and cabooses, linked with cars in-between, to the tracks. Excitedly my brother, that day’s chief engineer, flipped the switches and the trains sprang to life. Oops! Crash! At the first curve the older set ended up on its side. After slight adjustments, the train resumed its travels again. We all took turns at the switch. Hours passed as we delighted in this annual treat; the aroma of balsam and spiced cider hovered in the air around us.
Later in the afternoon, we artfully placed our gifts for one another between tracks and tree, with the overflow nested in a nearby chair. Santa was, of course, left room for his delivery.
The night before Christmas was full of activity as we bathed and got into our pajamas, wrote our letters to Santa, selected snacks to leave for him and his elf—and, oh yes, for Rudolph and pals—then were shooed off to our rooms.
More than once we kids conspired to stay awake, with plans to sneak down the hall into the living room and catch Santa red-handed as he delivered our goodies. But that never happened. Instead we rapidly sank into slumber and slept until, oh, about 6 A.M.
One by one we would awaken, the first prodding the others. My parents always heard us. Their voices behind closed door ordered us back to our rooms.
More excruciating waiting…
It wasn’t until I was a parent that I fully understood their lack of interest in hopping out of bed before dawn. And I must admit, much to my daughter’s chagrin, I followed suit…
But, more importantly, and much to my then chagrin, they continued to sleep until they were good and ready to greet the day. Or perhaps they picked up on our vibes and gave up, and finally got up. At any rate, they did arise and last minute preparations began in earnest.
Lest you think we then leapt into the room with wild abandon to open our gifts like normal kids, let me correct you. Nooooo. Christmas morning in our home became a major production. It was movie time and we were the stars.
Mom orchestrated our appearance—combed hair, selected appropriate garb, coached us. Dad worked mysteriously in the living room. Before long, bright light poured from the door. Then it went dark. Dad was putting the finishing touches on his setup. “Flood lights,” on stands, dotted the room to provide plenty of light for the mid-20th Century equipment—devoid of anything automatic—that he used. It seemed to take forever to get the illumination arranged to his satisfaction.
In the meantime, unlike my brothers who remained stoic, at least outwardly, I melted into the misery of yet another plodding process. My young, already “type A” personality had endured enough. By the time we got the preliminary “heads up” from Daddy, that he was almost ready for us, rivulets of tears flowed down my face.
Mom brushed my face with a tissue and gave me a hug in understanding. When the final signal came, she lined us up and coached us again on what to do and when. Eyes red, I sucked it in and, as the oldest sibling, proudly led the single-file procession into the room. My brothers resolutely followed behind. We strolled into the embrace of the glaring lights, which shone as if from small suns. Both movie and “still” cameras whirred and clicked.
There before us our beautiful Christmas tree stood, garbed in its glorious decorations, with trains and village beneath. Gifts from family and Santa dotted the scene. We walked in, turned to the cameras and smiled, then followed directions about which gifts to go to first. Unlike today’s talkies, home movies then didn’t include sound, so expression was important. The photographer and director—my father—could shout out instructions with impunity. It was controlled chaos at best.
On the bright side, we were relieved to finally have our Christmas morning. Later, Mom served our traditional dinner with turkey and gravy, cranberries, orange ice and other holiday treats. Our day was picture-perfect, and we tumbled into bed that night, exhausted but contented.
All these years later I look back on those times as a treasure. Really. My inner child survived and, as the official family photo geek, I carry on Dad’s tradition as I record family activities for those to follow. My daughter (who calls me “the paparazzi”) and nieces also delight in recording their family and travel experiences—now with sound—wonderful visual memories that will flow to future generations.
©2011 Susanna Euston. All Rights Reserved.