I don’t know about you, but Christmas is an emotional time for me. I can’t help it… all this jolly music, the decorations, the lights, the jolly attitudes at the Post Office… I don’t care if they’re forced… I love it. I love it all. I have my share of toddies and egg nogs, I sing along with some of the Christmas songs on the radio, I watch Rudolph and The Grinch and love them as I did those many years ago. And I remember Christmases past.
All my memories of Christmas with my family are good. I know it’s not that way for everyone. I don’t remember any strained emotions among any of us during the Christmas Holidays. There was some tension around New Year’s, sometimes, as there were occasional fights in the bar on New Year’s Eve. We always had extra help on that night, and Dad could handle everything, anyway.
The only Christmas tension I remember was when I was 14. I wanted a Santa Fe electric passenger train that year. I’d been scoping it in a catalog for 4 months. Mom knew all about it, of course, and sent for it for me. Dad had gone to Peru 3 months earlier to work on a big construction job down there, and Mom and I were alone for the first time at Christmas.
Christmas morning came and I opened my train, and… and… it wasn’t a Santa Fe train. There was a note inside that said they were out of Santa Fe trains, but because I lived in Montana, they thought I might enjoy a Northern Pacific train instead.
Well. I was not happy. The Santa Fe train was silver, with the coolest red stripe going down the engines, while the Northern Pacific was a semi-drab two-tone green. Mom went downstairs and made herself a mimosa while I put it together. I got it running, and it was pretty cool. I was mumbling under my breath that “I’d been rooked.” Mom was in the bathroom, putting on makeup and combing her hair. When she came out, I was still grumbling “I’ve been rooked.” Her eyes flared. “If you say that one more time, I’m putting it back in the box and sending it back where it came from. Now that’s enough!!”
Yup. That was enough.
Mom would decorate the bar every Christmas, as some of their patrons didn’t bother to do anything at home, or simply didn’t have the money. My mom taught me how to decorate the tree when I was about 6, and for the next 10-12 years it was a source of great pride to me to decorate our “upstairs” tree. Mom would decorate the big bar tree downstairs and I’d do the one up in the apartment. She taught me to space the ornaments and lights in just a certain way, so everything would glow and twinkle off each other. She taught me how to double-hang the tinsel, very close together, so that when done, the tree would absolutely shimmer.
It would take about 4 hours of an evening just to do the tinsel. I would be drinking a pop that Mom would bring me, put all their (six, I believe) Christmas records on the record player, and listen to that music while I decorated. If, for some reason, I was not already in the Christmas spirit, the tree decorating did it, every time. We listened to Percy Faith, The Ames Brothers, which, by the way, is still a great album to listen to. Fred Waring & his orchestra and chorus, which I always loved, and, of course, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Good stuff.
My family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas day, as the bar was open on Christmas Eve, and I’d always go to bed early. You know… “So jump in bed and cover your head, ‘cuz Santa Claus comes tonight.” And I always did, with that song in my head. We would open our presents on Christmas morning, then Mom would fix a nice dinner for us, as the bar was always closed on Christmas day. Don’t remember if it was turkey or not, but I
think it was. I would be upstairs in the apartment playing with my new toys, and Mom and Dad would go downstairs, have a drink or two and prepare the meal. I remember going downstairs to get a Seven-Up or something, and be in the darkened bar… it was so neat to me, the shades pulled and only a few little lights on in the bar… the atmosphere was magical to me on those rare days. One of the main lights on those holidays was the Great Falls Beer Sign that was also the bar clock… it resides in my kitchen now, and the light warms my kitchen deep at night just as it did in my folks’ bar those long years ago. The train? It’s upstairs in a box. Still runs, too. No, I wasn’t rooked.
One Christmas eve Mom came up to tuck me in, and put another log in the wood stove. I was probably eight, still believing in Santa, but on the edge, and she told me that tonight might be a special night. I was about to tell her I already knew that, when there was a thump, thump thump on our roof, right outside the apartment window. Mom gasped and said, “Oh, I’ve got to go downstairs now, honey. I think Santa’s here! Good night. Merry Christmas, Stevie!” Well. I believed for one more year. Found out way later that Dad had been outside, and had thrown up a couple of chunks of wood up on the tin roof… worked like a dream. God, they must have loved me so much to do some of those things.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you all. I’ll fire up this blog a few weeks after the new year. Until then, be cozy and enjoy.