1. Santa Mugs: You know those ceramic mugs, which, back in the 60’s, were probably manufactured with lead-based stuff and highly toxic if you put anything hot in them? They were bumpily shaped like Santa’s head and garishly painted, so that his eyes were unnaturally blue. After a few hand washings, bits of paint would flake off, and by the second or third Christmas, I was drinking out of a blind, olfactorily-challenged Santa with perhaps only a few teeth left. I still like those mugs anyway, and I think they’re a little more durable and less toxic these days. I remember that when the Santa mugs came out during my childhood, Mom was tolerable towards me, and I might even get hot chocolate or hot apple cider. It was the only drinking vessel I wanted to use – for juice, milk, water, anything. These days, the kids can have hot chocolate or cider whenever they want, as can I, but I still like a good Santa mug for the weeks leading up to Christmas and a little while afterwards, too.
2. Curling ribbon: I first met curling ribbon sometime in the 70’s and loved it right away. Those fancy folded over bow events were beyond me, but even I could put scissors to one side of curling ribbon and arrive at something festive and frothy! Hurrah! A signature gift decorating method is born! I like the way it makes me feel – like a little kid all over again, when I curl ribbon, and nowadays there are so many more colors and reflective surfaces and widths that it’s even more fun than ever.
3. Looking up through the tree at the lights from underneath: I like the tree just fine, but when I was little and before the gifts were put under the tree, which was usually Christmas Eve, I’d squiggle my little self under the tree and look up into the branches at the lights, kind of like looking behind the curtain, y’know? There would be the knobby, rough trunk and some of those big, old, heat-producing lights. One of my favorites was a pink blinker. The glass on it was transparent and it was a dark, fuchsia pink. I could see the element in it, and the blinking was a little erratic, so I would play tiny little head games to see if I could look away from it before it blinded me.
Other lights were nice, too, with their colored frosting that was sometime a little chipped away, and I liked seeing what the decorations looked like in the “other” order, if you know what I mean. I could smell the pine sap (and check the water level), and it was somehow private and quiet. My family used to make fun of me, and I suppose I can’t blame them. They’d come traipsing through the family room, and there would be the tree with my feet and legs sticking out from under it. Must have been a funny sight. I know I’m not the only kid who ever tried it because my kids have done it, too, without me ever having reminisced at them. I just smiled and backed away to let them commune with the tree.
4. Gingerbread men and houses: You knew we’d get to food eventually, right? Gingerbread men and houses only taste right at Christmas time. I can eat gingersnaps in July and actual gingerbread any time, but the men and houses are just exactly right at Christmas. I found a great gingerbread recipe a few years ago that makes the perfect gingerbread man, at least in accordance with how I always thought they should be. When the kids were littler, I’d make about two dozen naked gingerbread men the week before their vacation from school started. Then I’d make plain white frosting the weekend before and store it, and when they were home all day, I’d cover the table in waxed paper, color up bowls of frosting in many different colors and haul out paintbrushes from kid watercolor sets. I had cinnamon hearts, little silver and gold decorating balls, raisins, gumdrops, all kinds of sprinkles and jimmies, and I’d set them to work.
They’d make one for each grandparent, one for a friend, and so on. They were a riot – sometimes we had space monster gingerbread men, other times Mr. Gingerguy was totally blue and depressed, and sometimes we’d put stuff on him so that he was dressed in drag, or, really, Mrs. Gingerbreadperson. Some were works of surreal art with no faces or features, but they had lots of multi-colored swirls and exclamatory spots and dots. Sometimes the gingerfolk were physically challenged by having lost a limb, but we decorated them anyway. After the frosting dried, we wrapped them in Saran Wrap and tied the top with curling ribbon (of course!) and would drive around to give them to friends and family. We hung some on the tree. It was big fun.
We’ve also done houses, and my daughter and I especially like doing those. If we can’t get the house sides to stand up right, we just put a box inside and continue to glue stuff on with frosting anyway. They can get pretty extravagant and wild. One year, Spawn made a Gingerbread House of Horrors, using little Lego figures with their heads pulled off and left near a tiny Lego battleaxe, and the snow near it was stained with red frosting. There were candy skulls fashioned out of nearly dried frosting, and a reindeer had committed a number of digestive insults in the yard with Tootsie Rolls. It was still festive (and funny as all heck).
5. Oranges: One of my mother’s pithy tales from her own childhood, which was during the Great Depression, was about how they were so dreadfully poor that the only time they ever got navel oranges was at Christmas time. Her mother put out a “goodie box” with nuts, some hard candies, a couple of big red apples, and just enough navel oranges for each of them to have one. Of course, it was “Santa” who brought the goodies, but her Mom put out the box on Christmas Eve. My Mom did, too, and it was the only time of the year we got any navel oranges either.
They always smelled so good – I can remember them shining away in a box full of nuts, a couple of red apples (which, as we lived in Virginia, were never in short supply), and I just loved to smell them so much that I almost hated to eat them. But I did, a few days after Christmas, with the peel spurting orange scent into the cold air, overpowering any other food or other scents; I’d watch the spray in a sunbeam in the kitchen. Every segment was a delight (until the year Mom bought juice oranges instead and the seeds were an icky surprise), and I really, really savored those oranges. We don’t “do” a goodie box, since I’m a big advocate of fresh fruit being available at all times. Navel oranges, the big, fabulously delicious ones are still only available during the cold months, and for me, the smell of oranges in the air still means Christmas, no matter what the month may be.