Just a Thought: A Christmas Collage By Janice Lane Palko

This year I will celebrate my 53rd Christmas, and I guess I have enough years under my belt to wax a little nostalgic on Christmases past.  It has happened gradually, but Christmas has changed a lot over the decades.  When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, the month of December was a magical time of preparation leading up to the big day on December 25.  Each morning during Advent at St. Athanasius in West View, where I attended grade school, a different homeroom went to the office and sang over the scratchy loudspeaker, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  Every time I hear that song now, (my favorite is B. E. Taylor’s version) I’m transported back to my desk, counting down the days until Christmas.  In first grade, Sr. Lois putting up a manger and handed us slips of yellow paper.  We were to write a good deed  we had done each day on these slips of “straw”  that were placed in the manger as the bedding on which baby Jesus would rest. 

 The mothers of the children there took turns cooking our lunches in the cafeteria, and for Christmas they always served us a complete turkey dinner.  As I got older, my circle of friends and I began to exchange gifts.  Hot ones were Love’s Baby Soft Cologne and Lipsmacker lip-gloss.  One year I got a frankincense and myrrh candle—it smelled terrible.  At my class party in 1972, we played records, and that was where I first heard John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over).  Forty years later, I still love that song. 

 At home, the arrival of the Sears Christmas Wishbook catalog was one of the best days of the year.  My brothers, sister and I would fight over who would get it first.  I remember lying on my stomach for hours paging through it circling things I wanted—everything from Snoopy Sno-Cone Makers to cowgirl suits.  My paternal grandmother, Grandma Aggie, worked at Sears and one year she got me one.  It was robin’s egg blue and had white fringe on the skirt’s bottom and across the shirt’s yoke.  Pearl snaps finished off the Western look.    

 My mom used to the clean the house from top to bottom starting in the beginning of December as if Joseph and Mary themselves were expected coming to our house to give birth.  And then, when the house was in order, we decorated.  I often wonder at the people who put up their trees on Thanksgiving if their houses are clean?   I can’t put up my decorations unless I’ve cleaned.  Old habits die hard.

 Usually, we spent Christmas Eve in Etna with my mom’s side of the family, and after Grandma Aggie was widowed, we used to bring her along too.  I believe it was Hass Electric on Butler Street that turned their whole storefront in to a Christmas scene.  It was mesmerizing.  The spread at my grandma’s wasn’t fancy–chip and dip, pretzels, and cheese balls and crackers, but it was fun.  I remember my grandpap letting my brother smoke his first cigar with him when he was about 16.

 It was a trial to try to sleep on Christmas Eve, and one year my mom found me lying under the coffee table around 2 a.m. just staring at the presents under the tree.  I always got a baby doll or Barbies when I was young, and looking back I realize that I was big into crafts too.  One year I made macramé purses, another I molded candles, still another I made homemade soaps, and then it was on to oil paints and calligraphy pens.  It’s a wonder I’m not living in New Mexico selling beads.

 It was always so hard to tear ourselves away from those toys and go to church.  But I loved Christmas Mass because all the songs were Christmas carols, and I knew all the words. 

 Most Christmas dinners were spent at my Uncle Paul’s house.  They had seven kids so there were people and kids everywhere.  They set up two tables for dinner—one in the dining room and a kid’s table in the big foyer.  Even though it was a big deal to make it to the adult table, a lot more fun was had sitting at the kid’s table.  

 I don’t remember spending the days after Christmas at the mall returning gifts and shopping for bargains.  We spent our holidays visiting friends and relatives, celebrating with them all the way to the New Year.

 Now, decades later, I have two trees, each with different themes and certain color schemes.  I scour cookbooks to delight my company with delicious confections, and I have special Christmas plates and gold-toned cutlery.  Although everything looks a lot more stylish and is much more elaborate, I think over the decades, we’ve forgotten to make Christmas fun and how to really celebrate.  Sometimes you can get caught up in all the wrappings and miss the real joy.  Merry Christmas.  I hope you wade through all the trappings and find it this year.