In lieu of my own Christmas column this year, I offer an account written by my mother, Mary, in 1938, when I was two and my brother, Alan, was five. It was written for her mother, who was tending to a sick relative in Vista, CA, and was thus unable to join us for Christmas. The “Bambino” referred to was a little round majolica plaque of the Christ Child, which had for many years hung in the patio of her parents’ house — Julia Sneden
ABOUT CHRISTMAS, 1938
by Mary Kelsey Brown
It really began weeks before, of course. We made decorations for Aunt Julah and Grandabbie; and Grandma cooked and cooked and dipped and dipped hundreds of prunes; and Mary practiced carols and wrapped packages; and a pile of mysterious bundles on the closet shelf got bigger; and there were decorations in the house; and we had our picture taken.
But the Real Stuff began Christmas Eve. Orrin came home early. We loaded all sorts of lovely colored packages into the car, all with berries and ribbons on ‘em, and shiny with cellophane. Off we went, singing carols as we drove.
Judy’s favorite carol is Baby Deezhus, which means Martin Luther’s Away in a Manger. Next she asks for Free Kings, which means We Three Kings of Orient Are. Alan is pretty fond of that, too, and sings it vociferously on key on the low notes — but he never wants to stop without singing Silent Night and King Wenceslas.
We had an oyster-stewy supper, and Orrin tacked up the stockings. And the children were both so tired they sat in his lap instead of on the piano bench while we sang our carols. Judy was asleep before the good page trod in his Master’s footsteps, but Alan managed to stay awake awhile, and tuck his presents in the family stockings. He said he “couldn’t wait,” but he was asleep like nothing at all, in a minute.
The first thing we heard in the morning was the knocker. “What’s that?” said Mary, raising up and casting an astonished eye on the clock. It was seven-thirty, and not a peep from either child! Another knock. Grandma [Orrin’s mother] fled to Alan’s room, trailing bedclothes. Mary grabbed a bathrobe and opened the door to Morris T. Seems he was pretty lonesome and homesick, being one of a family of ten, back in Virginia, and he craved young’uns. He was asked over here to Berkeley to breakfast, “but that family hasn’t any children.” So he came here first to see ours in festivity.
In a few minutes, Alan was awake, and he took the shiny chromium horn from the top of his stocking, and Orrin took the harmonica from the toe, and we all went in and blew Judy, not down, but up.
Then bathrobes and slippers and pineapple juice for everybody, and we all sat in our own chairs, and Orrin handed things around. [Here follows an embarrassingly long list of presents from our large family of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, godmothers and godfathers, and friends].
“Sanny C’aus tum see Daddy teeoo?” asks Judy when Orrin opens a tie.
“Sho’ nuff, Sugah,” says Morris, who is doing all Judy’s opening for her, and having a hard time distracting her from each one, to see the latest.
Grandma has stockings and powder and soap and The Sat. E. Post and candy and snapshots (of Guess Whom?) and a photo and stamps and a gorgeous green glass jewelry clip from Woolworth’s, bought with Alan’s own money (he had a quarter left from his birthday expenditures, which he enjoyed spending all by himself. His own judgment).
Alan gave Judy a windup baby. It crawls when wound, or did, Christmas Day. Alan gave Orrin a candy cane. He gave Mary a mixing bowl (with Daddy’s help).
A lull while we clear away papers, burn some in the fireplace. Daddy and Morris drag in the Yule log, and set it ablaze. Alan plays the harmonica, and Judy puts rubber panties on Baby Bunting.
Morris has to go to his nine o’clock breakfast. We give him stuffed prunes, Judy bestows hugs, and he drives off amid much waving and calling.
We return to the fray. The little old radio is rendering carols — The Stagg Chorus. Here are colored blocks for Judy in a grand sturdy burlap bag, and a water pistol (shux!) for Alan.
Mary has been noticing the lovely wreath out on the patio, but tactfully refraining from comment, thinking Orrin forgot it, or means it for table decoration or something. From the side, the Bambino was obscured by the gorgeous red satin ribbon. Orrin asks her to go out and get the wreath, and she discovers the Bambino and the inscription. Wiping her eye on her sleeve, she brings the Baby in, to get warm by the fire, before we install him formally and permanently on the patio.
Here’s a dress for Judy. “Put ‘t on! Put ‘t on!” she insists. So we do. Perfect! She is very strutty over that “sass(h).” And here’s a lovely heirloom blouse from our generous Aunt Martha. Judy wants that on over the dress, but we dissuade her,
Alan is waving his peacock feathers about. Judy insists on having one in her hair. And here are Records! Lots of records! And a ball for Alan and a windup bird for Judy, and a game for Alan, and a boy on a tricycle windup for Judy.
And — 0, wonder of wonders — a pearl necklace with bracelet to match — Hattie Spear to Julia Carolyn [aka Judy]. Oh My! They are as if glued on her, from now on. Can we possibly descend to food after so much excitement? Why, look at that clock!! It’s practically time for lunch. Let’s have brunch — no, Tiffin: waffles and vegetables and fruit and hot chocolate milk. And an early nap.
Alan is allowed up early to watch Mary make the Christmas pies for the family dinner over in Marin tonight: Three mince pies. Yum! It makes the house smell nice.
Alan and Grandma read Christmas books. Daddy reads the paper. Mary presses pants and dresses. More music on the radio.
A brief brushup. We hate to wake Judy up. Alan peeks in. She’s lying there, wide awake, without a sound. “Sing a Baby Deedjhus,” she greets Mary. We sing.
We all load ourselves up and pack ourselves in, dressed in our best. (“Don we now our gay apparel,” we sing, as we put on our brother and sister outfits.) We leave Grandma with her brother for a short call, and attend some of the children’s Carol Service. Judy becomes too vocal and questioning during a lesson. It’s late, and we have far to go. We slip quietly out, continuing the carols as we pick up Grandma and cross the Bridge in the dusk.
The Baldwin’s house is all decorated too, and there’s a sweet little tree, all glittery. Everybody talks at once. Much squeezing, followed by more presents! There’s an aluminum tea set for Judy, which she amazes Mary by knowing how to use, and a real Eversharp pencil for Alan.
We have mulled cider, nice and hot, and then dinner — turkey + everything. The children are at a card table, and behave reasonably well. We’re most too full for the pies. Afterwards, the children are allowed a little play, but the boys are drowsy. We sing a few carols, waiting for the trunk line to Los Angeles to be free. Before our call goes through to Vista, Alan is asleep on the couch, Murray in Kate’s lap. We pour them into bed.
Judy has had a nap, a long one. She stages gymnastic shows in the centre of the floor. Someone asks her if Santy Claus brought the little china Madonna (she insisted on bringing it over). She explains: “Aunt Marfa b’ought it to Dudy. Aunt Marfa came downa shimney, b’ought it to Dudy. An’ Grandabbie b’ought sings down a shimney too. Dudy was s’eep.” (Well – we told her Santa Claus would...and then we told her this was from one, that from another, all there together!). Finally, she is firmly forced into bed. We hear her voice caroling gaily for quite awhile. We sit around and talk. Margaret entertains her boyfriend in the kitchen, letting him wipe the dishes! They have a radio out there, and evidently much fun. Sounds of hilarity and swing music come through, but the dishes get done.
We gather ourselves up, and begin to leave. It takes awhile. Alan doesn’t wake as we roll him out and onto the seat of the car. But Judy is bright-eyed and chipper, throwing kisses, and keeping a slightly hoarse Mary singing half the way home.
Mary and Orrin read over the string of Christmas cards, looped across the mantle, before they go to bed. Maybe we’re grown up, because the cards seem the best part of Christmas, almost. And our Bambino-in-majolica, and our Bambini-in-truth.
We light our black tin candlestick again tonight and set it on the window sill. We go to sleep watching its flicker.
“Then be ye glad, good people
This night of all the year
And light ye up your candles
For His star it shineth clear.”