Like I’m sure it was for most kids, December 25th has always been one of those benchmark dates on the calendar. Alongside my birthday, and the last day of school, it has always been a measuring point for the year. And for good reason, as I’m sure I’m not alone in enjoying the gift-giving, gift-getting, food, and fellowship that the magical holiday brings. So in this special edition of Retro Ramblings, I want to share some of the things I think of when I think about Christmas.
For me, the highlight has always been about the time I get to spend with family. Especially my Dad. All through my years of growing up, my Dad traveled. He would be gone for roughly 300 out of the 365 days of a year. But his work always slowed down in December and he had a lot of time at home that lined up so well with our Christmas break from school. And while he himself never got overly excited about Christmas, he did so many little things to make it special for me. Things that most would not think are overly special but so special to me, that I’ve tried to do the exact same things for my daughters every year now.
There is so much nostalgia built into the holiday season for me. So many different things about the holiday that trigger vibrant memories of some of the happiest times of my life. So here in this article, I want to share with you a lot of the little things that I enjoy during the Christmas season, their origins in the past, and some of the strong memories associated with them.
(In no particular order)
MY COUSIN TIM COMING OVER ON CHRISTMAS MORNING TO SEE WHAT I HAD GOTTEN
Every year around mid-morning, my cousin and his parents would stop by to see what Santa had brought, and to show off some new toy he had gotten as well. He and I would play with whatever new things we had while the parents sat and talked, drank coffee, and just enjoyed each other’s company. The fireplace would have a nice crackling fire in it while some low Christmas music played in the background. It was just a wonderful setting for enjoying the mid part of the day.
In recent years, my daughters had the pleasure of being visited every Christmas morning by their great grandparents, who would come see what they had gotten for Christmas and join us for a simple breakfast of orange cinnamon rolls and ham…..just like we always enjoyed on those Christmas mornings so long ago.
THE TOWN CHRISTMAS PARADE
One of my favorite days of the year…seeing the vehicles decorated for Christmas, seeing Santa Claus riding into town high atop a town fire truck, and then following him to the local grocery store to get a treat bag. That bag usually consisted of an apple, an orange, a few pieces of strawberry candy, and a full-size candy bar. The whole town would usually show up for the parade and treats, even though that number was roughly only about 600 people. It was a day that I can think back on and not really remember anyone being anything but happy.
Before the days of sitting on your couch and doing your shopping online, my mother and I would load up and head to the next town over where all the department stores were. Roses, Kmart, Magic Mart, Singletons….we’d hit them all. When I was younger, my Mom would put back her loose change all year, and at Christmas, she would let me roll it and use whatever was there to buy presents for her, my dad, and my brother. I would scour the aisles of those stores looking for that perfect gift. Usually, it ended up being about the same thing every year though.
For my Dad. it would be a new hammer, a new utility knife, and blades, and a new tape measure….things that he used every day in his work and always needed replacing several times a year anyway. For my Mom, it would be new dish towels and dish rags, and some sort of glass bowl container thingie to go along with them. And for my brother, it was usually a set of car wax and protectant or something of the sort since he was driving then and was always cleaning his car.
But I loved the chance to go shopping for presents from myself. My Mom and I really enjoyed that time out together, just the two of us. We’d do our shopping and always stop at McDonald’s for a couple of Big Mac meals before heading back home.
These days, I take each of my daughters out separately to do their shopping with them, and just as my Mom and I did, we stop to have lunch together. I’ve been fortunate to be able to enjoy this experience from both ends of the spectrum as the kid with his Mom, and now as the Dad with his daughter.
TRIP TO THE GREEN STAMP STORE
Like most mothers in the 70’s and 80’s, my Mom kept up with her Green Stamps all year round… pasting them into the books and storing them in a kitchen drawer until time for Christmas shopping. She would get the catalog and pour over it looking for things she could pick up that would make nice Christmas presents. One day each December, she would gather all her stamp books, and we would make a trip to Bristol for her to do her Green Stamp shopping. I’m not really sure if I ever got anything that came from there. It seems like my memories of presents from there were sets of dishes or glasses that she would give to the folks whose names she and Dad drew for the family get-togethers. But, of course, I wouldn’t really have known what I got from there. Who knows, maybe a great many of my toys through the years came from Green Stamps.
ANDES TOFFEE CRUNCH THINS
This may seem like a weird inclusion, but back in the late ’80s, when Dad would come home and be there for a couple of weeks through Christmas, he would always bring in fresh pecans from Georgia that we would sit around and snack on while watching all the Christmas shows. Along with the pecans, he would find Andes Toffee Crunch thins. They were like the traditional Andes mints, but in a gold foil instead of the usual green, and they featured a toffee flavor instead of the mint. He would keep them in a little bowl next to his chair in the living room, and we would snack on them alongside the pecans on those cold nights right around the holiday.
For whatever reason, my memory singles out that one particular candy as some kind of symbol of Christmas for me. Every year, I scour all over looking to find a box of these things, and most years I’ve had luck. It’s another thing I’ve done to transfer my own nostalgia to my daughters. I put out a bowl of the Andes Toffee Thins next to my chair, and my girls and I will snack on a couple of them at night this time of year while watching some Christmas special on TV.
FAMILY CHRISTMAS PARTIES
Growing up I had huge families on both my Mom’s side and my Dad’s. My Mom was one of eight children, and each of those 8 had a couple of kids. My Dad was one of fourteen! And each of those had multiple kids as well. I had tons of cousins and would see various ones of them throughout the year, but the family get-together on Christmas Eve meant that ALL of us would be together at one time. We ranged in ages from like 7-20, so there wasn’t a huge disparity there.
On Christmas Eve, we would start out by visiting my Mom’s family. It was always a simple dinner menu of Ham, some veggies, mac and cheese, and a plethora of desserts. The folks would sit around in the kitchen while all of us kids would be in the living room. We’d hoop and holler and go through the presents under the tree, waiting for one of the adults to come in and play Santa Claus. Usually, it was my uncle Ernest who had a booming voice and was quite intimidating. He would walk in and get real loud, telling us all to get away from the tree or he wouldn’t be handing out anything. He’d then torture us by going through and finding all of the adult presents first and having us run them to the various recipients. He’d finally get through with that and move on to us kids.
With both families, there were so many kids that we drew names. You could count on getting one present from whoever got your name, and a little something from the grandparents as well, which was usually a shirt of some kind. Before we would leave for the other party we had to go to, my uncle Jack would go out on the front porch and start lighting off Jumping Jack fireworks and that always got all the kids in an uproar. That is a tradition I need to implement in my own family’s Christmas. I remember how much fun that used to be running from the unpredictable fireworks.
Then we would head over to my Dad’s parents for that party. You could always count on plenty of finger foods and desserts there like sausage balls, cocktail wieners, ham biscuits, cakes, pies, and homemade candies. We would draw names there too and that meant a couple of more presents before heading home. A few of the presents I got in those years stick out in my mind, so I must have enjoyed them quite a bit. I remember getting the G.I. Joe S.L.A.M. Tank, a Three Stooges VHS Tape, and a Popeye VHS tape at various times.
These days, my family and I visit my wife’s family on Christmas Eve, and I sit and watch my kids running around with their cousins just like I used to do. And even though I seemed to hate it as a kid, I’m just like my uncle Ernest. I go in the living room and tell the kids to quiet down and start picking out presents for the adults and have the kids deliver them before they get any of their presents. Life has come full circle I guess, lol.
WATCHING CHRISTMAS MOVIES, SHOWS, AND SPECIALS
What holiday season would be complete without watching a few old favorites? In my house, the TV is tuned to TBS for the whole 24 hours that A Christmas Story is on, and yearly viewings of Christmas Vacation, It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, Ernest Saves Christmas, Jingle All the Way, Smurfs Christmas Special, and Mickey’s Christmas Carol are a must. There’s been plenty of them to choose from through the years, and I’m sure we all have our favorites.
For most kids, presents are the main event of the holiday. I have to admit that all those years ago that’s what my Christmas revolved around. We were never rich by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time, I was never left wanting at Christmas. However my folks pulled it off, they always gave my brother and me a great Christmas year in and year out. I always seemed to get high-dollar items as the “big thing” for Christmas, and that set a bar within myself to do the same for my daughters. I work in my woodshop year-round as a second job to be able to sell enough hand-crafted items to get that extra cash to go above and beyond for them this time of year.
You have to indulge me for a moment while I reflect back on some of my favorite presents I got through the years at Christmas.
The earliest present that comes to mind is the year I got Castle Grayskull. For some reason, I cried when I opened it. I’m not sure if it was happiness or what, but I literally cried. And there was the year of 1986 when my Dad exceeded all expectations of Christmas, and that year I got the Cobra Terror Drome AND the G.I. Joe Tomahawk copter in the same year, as well as the two pack of Tomax and Xamot that I had been wanting. The epic battles between G.I. Joe and Cobra were ratcheted up quite a bit from that point forward! You can read a full review of all those toys I got that year here.
And I can’t forget receiving my first commercial VHS tape, which was G.I. Joe. It only had one episode on it… Satellite Down! I still have the darn thing, even though I’ve not had a working VCR in years. As you can see, the case shows plenty of wear from taking it in and out to watch it so many times over the years.
The year I got my Super Nintendo…. I had been wanting it since I first saw advertisements for it. Being the holiday season, we made many trips to our local Kmart, and they had a playable display of it set up in the middle of the store. I would go straight to it and play the entire time my mom was shopping, and I made no bones about the fact that it was what I wanted for Christmas. A few days before the 25th, I told my brother it was what I really wanted. He told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t getting it. He said that it was too expensive and my Dad’s business had had a rough year, and they felt that I already had a Nintendo, so why would I need this Super Nintendo. I was crushed. But on Christmas morning, there it was! Maybe my parents told my brother that to throw me off, but whatever the reason behind it, actually getting it that morning made the whole letdown experience worth it. They had also picked up Final Fight and Captain America and the Avengers games to go along with it.
There’s been many more great presents, but those are the big ones that really stick out in my mind.
MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL
Now, when I give that title, what I am referring to is the original broadcast TV version of the entire special.
In my neck of the woods, it would usually show on a Sunday night at either 7 or 8 pm, and usually on NBC a few weeks before Christmas. The show would start with the short where Mickey and Pluto pick out their Christmas tree and find Chip & Dale living inside it. Next up was Donald Duck and his nephews having their classic snowball fight. Then we were treated to the sketch where Goofy learns how to ski. Following that was a musical number that featured most of the Disney family of characters skating on a frozen pond. Then came the main event. Their version of A Christmas Carol itself.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol was really well done, with great artwork. Today, I still sit and marvel at the backgrounds in all the scenes.
But this is about more than just the cartoon. For me, it’s everything that was a part of it. The commercials shown during the special were almost entirely Christmas-related each year. The McDonald’s, Coke, and Folgers Christmas commercials were all present. It was the fact that I would watch it with my whole family, sitting by the fireplace in the living room and eating popcorn, nuts, and those Andes Toffee Thins that I mentioned earlier.
This one is a complete package of happiness and nostalgia in my life as a kid and represents a feeling inside that I’m always searching to replicate. I don’t know why, but the memory of watching this each year is one of the most vivid and strongest memories I have of that time in my life.
For that reason, Disney met and exceeded its goal in producing this. It has touched people on a deeper level that just an enjoyable cartoon, it has become an emotional experience, and may be a big part of why I’m so darn fond of Christmas. This one night every year, with my dad being home, us as a family… it’s that happy place in my mind that you hear people talk about. It symbolizes so much of my childhood, and it’s the blueprint that I use when planning special nights with my daughters… hoping to capture that same feeling in them that I felt back then.
There are so many more things that I could go on and on about when it comes to Christmas. I could do that because so many of the happiest memories from my childhood are from the Christmas season. I think about Christmas all year long… making little plans in my mind here and there to make the season special for my kids. In my wood shop, I make 300+ wooden ornaments every year to sell and give away, all in the hopes of spreading a little Christmas joy to as many people as I can. I love it. I always have, and I imagine I always will. I hope my kids look back one day and feel like it’s as special as I do.
I hope your season is the most wonderful you have ever experienced to date. From my family to yours, Merry Christmas.