Childhood Christmases: Progressive Decoration

The modern way seems to be to put all your decorations up right after Thanksgiving. In fact, this year, for the first time, I saw a number of houses with exterior lights up a week or two before Thanksgiving. One in particular, on Lancaster Drive in Bella Vista, is a gaudy display of flashing lights that serve more to distract the driver than thrill the viewer. Alas.

Then, the day after Christmas, the decorations are all taken down. Many people put their used, natural tree at the curb, waiting for someone else to deal with their waste. The house returns to normal. Most people with outdoor lights will leave them up until New Year’s Day—even the gaudy one on Lancaster.

Growing up in the Todd family, it was not so. Mom and Dad said it was English tradition that Christmas decorations went up the day before Christmas and stayed up till Epiphany. Yet, it wasn’t quite that way. I few decorations went up earlier, but always in moderation, and always in the same order.

First was the candles in the front windows. We had four windows in the front of the house, and one on the east side close to the street. Each of these windows were given a single electric candle. They went up about three weeks before Christmas, and with a twist went on at dark and off before bedtime—but early enough to let the heat dissipate so we could pull the shades all the way down.

Actually, even before the candles went up, Christmas cards that came in became a decoration. They began shortly after Thanksgiving. The first was always from Aubrey Pooley, a man from the church. Dad ran a wide ribbon across the doors of the secretary in the dining room and paper-clipped the cards to it. When that was filled he hung string in the wide archway between the living room and dining room and hung cards on the string. They were always beautiful, and were a decoration before any other went up.

We got the Christmas tree, always a natural one, about two weeks before Christmas. I think I wrote about that in a previous blog post. If I did and I can find it, I’ll come back and add a link. If I didn’t write about it, perhaps I will between now and Christmas. But, the tree didn’t go up. It went into our detached garage in a bucket of water. Then, about a week before Christmas, Dad moved it to the basement to let it “get acclimated to the heat” of the house. It didn’t go up until Christmas eve.

The manger scene went up next. Maybe a week before Christmas we made room for it somewhere in the living room (I think). But, it had only a few animals in it, and maybe one shepherd. Mary and Joseph were put as far away from the manger as they could be in that attached living room/dining room combo. Over the course of several days they would journey to Bethlehem, arriving at the manger on Christmas eve. We added the baby, more shepherds, and a couple of angels. The magi weren’t there yet. They showed up far away in the house, and began a journey that would have them arrive at the manger on Epiphany.

So it came down to Christmas eve, and in a flurry of activity all the other decorations went up. We brought the tree up from the basement, cleared space for it somewhere in the living room, and decorated it, complete with a mixture of light types and colors, including the old style bubbly lights. And don’t forget the lit Santa and snowman that sat under the tree, or the spire that went on top. This was a dad and kids task mostly, and more on that some year in a dedicated post. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Mom was working on a number of things. The most time consuming of these was the candy house. I’m going to see if I can find a photo of it to scan and add. I won’t say a lot about the candy house and all that went with it, for that’s a post in itself.

The rest of our decorations were a mixture of things gathered over the year. There was the vinyl Santa face we taped to the mirror in the living room. I think we scattered ornaments on various surfaces. The candy house, once completed, was moved to the dining room table and all the characters were placed around it. And, of course, Mary and Joseph made it to Bethlehem some time that afternoon.

Looking back, I don’t know how all that was accomplished on one day. Mom was sick with the illness that would take her life when her children were teenagers, but somehow found the energy to do all this. And, of course, make Christmas cookies. Dad worked nights, and if Christmas and Christmas eve fell on Monday through Friday, he had to work. So he would be sleeping in the morning and would be gone by 7:30 p.m. Yet, together they got it done.

Of course, as we children got old enough, we would help. It was great fun to add frosting to the candy house and drape it like icicles. But actually, the decorating wasn’t necessarily done. Since the tree went up so late, only a few presents were under the tree when we went to bed; but when we got up Christmas morning there were many.

I have one clear memory from one Christmas. I guess I was around 10 years old. It was a Christmas eve Dad had to work, so he was gone when we went to bed. I remember waking up one Christmas eve. Our bedroom door was shut most of the way; the light was on in the kitchen behind it, and I could hear Mom’s and Dad’s voices. It had to be sometime after 4:00 a.m., because back then that was the time Dad got off work. I didn’t get up to see what they were doing, and drifted back to sleep.

The next morning I got up, went into the kitchen, and found it transformed with many more decorations. Red and green crepe paper ribbons had been twirled and attached from the light in the center  to each corner of the room. Other decorations were also up, though my memory fails me on specifics. But I remember the streamers. They had worked a long time to put those up.

So Christmas morning would dawn in the Todd house with that house looking much, much difference than the previous morning. Rather than a month-long time of decoration, we had mostly 12 days. Looking back on this, it was a magical time, and I cherish the memories. My adult practices are different, in a world of different expectations, but the Christmases of my childhood are not lost.