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A vignette of Christmas past

By Yvonne Nyenhuis

Fri, Nov 30th, 2012
Posted in All Commentary

By Yvonne Nyenhuis

During the Depression, my Father, Mother and two older sisters, Althea and Evangeline went to live with Mom’s sister, Aunt Ora in a large Victorian house in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania. She inherited the house from my grandparents and needed help maintaining it.

We mounted the steps to the veranda and went through the front door where we were confronted with an oak staircase leading to the second floor. To the right was a room on the north side of the house which would be our family living room. There were two upright pianos. My Mother was an accomplished musician and gave piano lessons. There was a fireplace, a large, firm, wine colored sofa and a fake oriental carpet. My mother saved old woolen coats and rags and sent them to the Olsen Rug Company where the wool was processed and woven into carpets. Dad kept a fire burning cold winter evenings in the fireplace. Mom loved to sew and embroider and watch the flames curl around the logs while my father read to her.

On the South side of the hall was Aunt Ora’s living room filled with plants and sunlight and presided over by “Dicky bird,” a yellow canary. The fireplace in that room was used on special occasions.

This home was the perfect setting for our family, for parties and celebrations. Leaves were put in the oak table in the dining room to accommodate extended family and friends.

Thanksgiving, there was a twenty-pound turkey basted to perfection. Stem glassware held fresh fruit salad. The centerpiece was a basket shaped like a cornucopia with pomegranates, oranges, apples and grapes spilling from it in profusion. The light from orange candles reflected on the sterling silver and the white damask table cloth. There were whipped sweet potatoes topped with toasted marshmallows, French cut string beans in cream sauce, crisp flaky rolls, and red port to drink. For dessert there were pumpkin, apple and pecan pies topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.

After Thanksgiving it was time for my sisters and I to stroll with Daddy down the railroad tracks following the Pennypack Creek and winding through the woods. Dad carried a basket on his arm and a small trowel. We searched for flat rocks, bits of ferns, moss and small plants. A favorite tradition, each year, was re-creating the Christmas Representation. Dad built a wooden box about four feet long, open on one side and with another box extended out the back, a sort of stage. Mother clothed dolls about four to six inches high in bits of fabric to represent Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. There was a tiny figure wrapped in white linen, the baby Jesus. The wonderfully realistic flock of sheep were eighty years old. They were china with wool coats that had worn thin over the years.

In November, Aunt Ora began baking Christmas cookies. There were brown and white pinwheels, rich nuggets dipped in powdered sugar, chocolate balls, lacy molasses cookies and of course cut outs of trees, wreathes and Santas. My sisters and I carefully arranged tiny red cinnamon balls, white peppermint candies and green holly leaves, sprinkled with red and green sugar and filled in areas with icing on the cut out cookies. We took pride in our artistry. The process went smoothly for the most part. There could be a problem. The oven was heated by wood or coal and it wasn’t easy to regulate the heat. One time the cookies burned. The kitchen filled with smoke. Aunt Ora flew open the window yelling loudly in Pennsylvania Dutch, “Doner-vitzen-all!”

Christmas morning we would bound out of bed and scurry down the stairs and stare through the broad doorway into our living room. We were greeted with the smell of pine and the warm glow of colored lights that permeated the early morning haze. The Christmas tree rose majestically to the ceiling, twinkling and proud. A mountain of gifts were piled at the base, resplendent in brilliant red, green, blue, silver and gold wrappings. The stockings we had hung the night before were bulging with mystery and promise. We were allowed to take down our stockings and investigate their contents before Mom and Dad were awake.

When they came down in their robes, we filed into Aunt Ora’s living room. Dad got a fire going in the fire place. The - Bible - was open on a table. In the center was a red satin marker with the Lord’s name in Hebrew. I lighted the red candles on either side of the Word. Dad lifted the paisley curtain on the Representation to reveal this year’s scene. He began to read. “And there were in the same country shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night ---”

We prepared for the rigors of the day with a hearty breakfast. Then came the moment we had eagerly anticipated for weeks, the excitement of finding what was contained in the boxes with the bright paper and ribbons. There were sets of things to make; beadwork, embroidery, paints, dolls, books and perfume, jewelry and new clothes. The noise level grew to a deafening roar punctuated by squeals of delight, laughter and everyone talking at once. When the din subsided, Mom took her place at the piano and with great gusto, we sang carols.

Dinner time was gaining on us. The table groaned under the weight of good things to eat. The center of the table was decorated with pine boughs, pine cones, red berries, shiny ornaments, and included red candles whose flame sustained a warm glow over all. Those who hung around for supper were invited to snack on leftovers and play cards.

Holidays are created with a loving heart. Traditions carried on from year to year help us bridge the generations. Every year the sounds of bells and Christmas music, fragrances of pine and incense, the lights warming the dark, reminds us there is still love in the world. As we shop, we see our neigbors walking with a lighter step and smiling. “Merry Christmas to all!”

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