Christmas, Peace and a Soft Wool Dress by Heidi Thurston

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The aroma of the Christmas goose drifting from behind a closed door, mingling with the scent of pine from yet another quickly closed door. Coats and boots dripping with melting snow, falling on my feet and the hallway runner. Large mysterious packages quietly slipped through a door behind which nothing but velvet darkness lingered. A soft green wool dress swirling in a darkened hallway and patent leather shoes reflecting white silken knee socks. These were all part of a very special night in Copenhagen in 1945, the first Christmas Eve after World War II had ended.

Earlier, leaving our apartment with armloads of gifts, my parents and I had eased into the warm seats of an awaiting taxi and watched the holiday lights reflect on the black exterior of the moving car.

As the auto rumbled through city streets, we observed hurrying crowds bustling from store to store on last minute errands, while others, like ourselves, were carrying gifts wrapped in bright Christmas paper. All were dressed in warm coats and mufflers and everyone were headed for the homes of family and friends in order to share with them this exciting evening.

This was THE big night and it all began with the new dress, sewn from soft green wool, embroidered in red and white holiday flowers and made especially for me for this occasion. The very feel of the gown, as it fell softly around my knees, held promises of a wonderful time at my grandmother’s home where, in addition to my father’s mother, we would be joined by his bachelor brother and maiden aunt.

Traditionally, every Christmas Eve began with amber-colored sherry, sparkling in antique, crystal goblets and the bell-like clinks as five adults toasted, while a smaller glass, bubbling with red soda tickling my nose, helped heighten my festive mood.

Grandmother studied cooking in France. On this night, she served succulent goose, mouth-watering red cabbage, tiny potatoes browned in butter giving them a caramel look and a tempting aroma.

When all this was devoured, it was my turn to help in the kitchen. With a starched, crisp, white apron wrapped around me, protecting the new green dress, I stood on a small stool, chest just above the counter, and beat the metal whisk until small peaks swirled from the ice cold, heavy cream. This would be smoothly blended with fruit, nuts and rice into the rich, traditional Danish dessert.

After the holiday meal was over, I would sit on the kitchen “hot-box” filled with musty newspapers and country-fresh straw, where previously the dishes had been kept warm. Seated, I sang Christmas songs for my grandmother while she prepared steaming hot coffee for the adults and warm, delicious cocoa for me.

Then, after what seemed an eternity, my father and uncle would call from behind the sliding doors leading into the previously closed off living room. As the doors squeakingly receded into the walls, they revealed a dark fir, shining with lighted candles, gold and silver ornaments, saved from years past and now reflecting my bright eyes.

My grandmother and my father each took my hands as we joined up with my mother, uncle and great aunt, and slowly circled the stately tree. Old Danish hymns rang out in bass, tenor, and one small soprano voice while thin tinsel strands fluttered from the fragrant branches like silver rain.

Later, as a feeling of peace fell on the room, I sat on the smooth carpet, family and presents all around me, and watched the flames in the coal stove sputter against the glass window.

At the age of five I was too young to know that some day the green woolen holiday dress would become an important part of my memories. I would recall that this was a time when the tiny kingdom, the home of Hans Christian Andersen and The Little Mermaid, had again returned to a fairytale land; coming out from its long years of darkness and into the lights. The presence of the Nazi regime would be gone, but not forgotten; the King would resume his daily ride along the streets near the harbor, and my mother and grandmother would again take their Sunday stroll through the walking street in the inner city.

I would remember this time, as I still do, with a warm heart and recall that this Christmas Eve in 1945 would forever symbolize peace on earth and good will toward men.heidi-xmas-montage

Christmas Leftovers by Chuck Thurston

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Yesterday my wife and I took down the Christmas decorations: The evergreen and ribbon swags on the windows, the wreath on the door, the garlands around the mailbox and inside on the fireplace mantle. We had put up only a small ceramic tree this year, since we would be out of town with family and weren’t planning on doing any entertaining ourselves.

All that remains now is to go over the many Christmas cards we received and read those that had comments or newsletters – the better to respond to our dear family and friends and make plans to get in touch with them soon.

Some artifacts are sure to remain behind. The great musician Louis Armstrong was raised in an orphanage and didn’t get his first Christmas tree until he was forty years old. He was so enthralled by it, that he asked his wife to bring it with them when they left for a tour. As his wife tells it:

I kept that first little tree until way after New Year’s, putting it up every night and taking it down every morning, in a dozen hotels. And then when I did take it down for the last time, Louis wanted me to mail it home. It was a real tree, not an artificial one, and I had to convince him– I really had to convince him– that the tree would dry up.

When we decorated our cabin for Christmas a few years ago, one of the things that didn’t go back to storage was a tin angel we had hung on the wall. I convinced my wife that it was as good as any picture we might find to put on that empty wall space. We had been looking at it for some treatment or other – and angels aren’t Christmas-specific any more than pumpkin pies are unique to Thanksgiving. You can have a slice any time of year – really!

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The Nisse is the leprechaun of Danish folklore. They are mischievous elves that have the capacity to do you a good turn or a decidedly bad one. The Danes placate them at Christmas to influence their better nature by laying out the traditional treat – a bowl of porridge with a lump of butter in it. The butter is important. Without it, a nisse might conclude this was an oversight deserving of his chicanery. For farmers, the next year might bring a failed crop, a sick cow, a broken piece of machinery. A pair of scissors might go missing, or a favorite shirt. One must take care to stay on the good side of these imps.

Danish nisse porridge

The Danes frequently place little paper cutouts of nisse all over the house at Christmas time. I suppose this is to let them know they are welcome guests in the household. When decorations are removed after Christmas, the paper figures are gathered up and put away until next year. Invariably, one in some little-used corner is overlooked and left in place, perhaps discovered later when the area is dusted. It’s left in place, so as not to invite trouble.

As I type this, one is looking down at my keyboard from a bookcase along one wall of my office. He is a jolly little fellow reading a book by candlelight – very appropriate for a writer’s work place, I would say. After finding him some few weeks after Christmas many years ago, I left him there. There he is and there he is going to stay. I don’t know if he has made my writing any better or worse, but I am taking no chances.

Danish bookcase nisse

 

A Farm Boy’s Christmas by Chuck Thurston

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Once upon a Christmas, in the 1940s, my four brothers and I hardly dared to think about the biggest day on our calendar until the last of the Thanksgiving turkey was relegated to soup, hash or casserole. Two events seemed to signal that it was OK to unpackage the Yule spirit — the first radio airing of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and the arrival of the Sears Christmas catalog!

I can’t describe the thrill of finding this document in our rural mailbox. It would lie prominently around our house as the local newspaper printed its daily countdown — 19 shopping days until Christmas, 18 days…17…a countdown that fueled our delirium.

We boys were told to look at the catalog and make a few selections for Santa Claus’s consideration. We pored over it with shivering anticipation until it was dog-eared. Parents became more secretive. We would catch glimpses of strange packages, hear murmured conversations and were cautioned not to “snoop around.”

Early to bed on Christmas Eve, and so keyed up, we were sure we would never sleep — though warned that Santa wouldn’t come if he found children awake. Miraculously we drifted off.

On the magic morning we would come down the stairs and pass through the dark living room. We could see vague and enticing shapes under the tree, and sneak furtive peeks. Could we each identify that one “big” hoped-for present? We were doomed, though, to endure the torment of several delays.

Chores first. Hay to be put down from the mow, cows to be milked, chickens to be fed.

And then Christmas morning church service. Father Gaffney — who seemed ancient from the time I first met him, until he passed on — celebrated the Mass at a snail’s pace. We agonized as the last chords of “Adeste Fidelis” echoed off the old church walls and we left for our second trial — the obligatory visit to Grandma’s after church — a thorough joy on any morning but this.

We fidgeted as she got out sugar cookies and gave us our presents — most always socks or mittens…then homeward bound at last! We all piled into our ’38 Buick to negotiate the hills of northern Pennsylvania toward our small farm. As often as not, Bing’s longing was fulfilled, and the hills would indeed be white.

We shucked caps, gloves and coats, while our parents, oblivious to our agitation, insisted that we have a bite to eat. Finally, by now almost maddened, we made for the pile under the tree.

What wonders! Ice skates, baseball gloves, chemistry sets — and these were the war years. Invariably, there would be tanks with wind-up motors and caterpillar treads that would climb over piles of blocks. Airplanes, aviator’s helmets with goggles, trucks, ships, cap guns – paradise!

The old folks are all gone now — resting in those Pennsylvania hills — but Christmas is still a joy. Toys have changed — lots of plastic, and we lay in a supply of batteries, but a few things seem timeless. As I watch the mad scramble of grandchildren squealing their delight at the pile under the tree, a familiar melody wafts from the radio. I hear Bing croon, and I sing silently along with him: “I’m dreamin’…”

 

Chuck Thurston lives and writes in Kannapolis, NC.  “A Farm Boy’s Christmas” is excerpted from his book “Senior Scribbles Unearthed.”  His third book of Scribbles is in the works.  He can be contacted at cthurston@ctc.net, and you can find his stuff on Amazon.

The Days Are Just Packed by Chuck Thurston

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Toward the end of each year, my wife and I experience a strange cosmic phenomenon. Our calendar fills up in exponential leaps. The number of obligations increase in numbers beyond the time available for their attending to. Late October provides the first little road block. We no longer have to mess with children’s costumes, but we must still do some modest decorating and load up on Halloween candy. After that, we gear up for Thanksgiving, and are still dealing with turkey leftovers when the real tidal wave hits.

You know the drill – shopping, office and house parties; baking cookies; Christmas and Hanukah and Kwanzaa celebrations, each according to his and her own. Cards and candles and lights and ornaments and lists of things that have to be done.

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Somehow amidst all this, we have found time to write our yearly Christmas letter and get it off to selected friends.

Of course, the yearend turmoil is only the capper on what is usually a busy year throughout. We have three grown children, seven grandchildren and three greats. Keeping track of their comings and goings is a delight, and we feel lucky to participate when we can. We are mindful of our own needs for rest, relaxation and the right amount of exercise so we can keep up. We hit the Y most weekday mornings, and along with our reading and writing, we throw in an occasional cultural outing to keep our brain cells tuned – movies, theater, concerts – you know the drill.

All of the activity that we think close friends would enjoy hearing about goes in the letter.

For many years after graduation, I kept in touch with my high school English instructor and student counselor. He was a writer and encouraged my efforts. Whenever Heidi and I would visit my old hometown, we would drop in on Clyde and his wife Elizabeth – both in their late 80s. Elizabeth would always bring out a pot of tea and a plate of cookies. Clyde was invariably sitting in an easy chair in front of his fireplace. We would chatter about this and that – careful not to overstay our welcome.

This practice continued until they were both well into their 90s. On one of our last visits, Clyde mentioned they had just gotten our Christmas letter. “You are certainly very busy people. Aren’t you lucky!”

Both of them were largely housebound at that time. They could only re-enact the activities of their earlier years in memory.

Clyde’s remark has stayed with me to this day. Whenever we are tempted to think that many of our obligations are hassles – we pause to reconsider. What’s the alternative? Soon enough we may be spending much of our time in rocking chairs listening to the mantle clock tick. For now though – aren’t we lucky?

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             Chuck and Heidi Thurston share tidbits from their lives in this blog.  Their books are available on Amazon.  They are incredibly busy, but your phone messages will be answered, your notes responded to, the doorbell answered if you catch them at home.    There is always time for family and friends.

Prescription: A Little Christmas by Chuck Thurston

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An old friend of mine once said, “After sixty, it’s just patch, patch, patch!”

Our patchups started in February, and it was one thing after another for the rest of the year. My wife was already in physical therapy for one kind of structural failure, when we put the final dings in the fender in early November. As a matter of fact, we pretty much obliterated the fenders and much of the rest of our van when a vehicle running a stop sign struck it almost amidships. That was only the first wham. The second occurred milliseconds later when it was driven across the road and into a brick wall marking the entrance to a suburban development. Take that, mortals.

Well, parts flew and air bags deployed and seat belts cinched tighter than we thought possible. The moments after are a blur. I staggered out and walked around Vito (our name for our Chianti red minivan) and helped two or three onlookers hoist Heidi out of the passenger seat and onto her walker. Sirens wailed in the distance and very soon deputies, state police, ambulances and fire trucks were all in attendance and their uniformed crews took charge of the whole shebang. Vito was a pile of scrap, but he had sacrificed his vehicular integrity in our behalf. Take that, survivors.

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I won’t go into details of the next several weeks, but we discovered that they were filled with plusses and minuses – and both sides of the equation were bad. We added hospital stays, doctor examinations, lawyers’ meetings, vehicle haulaway and writeoff, visiting nurses with ointment application and dressing changes, insurance claims, and a hundred other little details downstream of an accident like this. We subtracted tickets to the Nutcracker and a Panther’s game; visits to friends and family, our daily workouts at the Y – we scrubbed Thanksgiving at our cabin and Heidi was convinced we were about to bag Christmas, when a most remarkable thing happened.

Early in December, we got an email from old friends, living in Long Island, who were going to be in North Carolina on some family business. They allowed as how they might have a chance to drop by, and would phone us in the morning to firm plans up. We had not told them of our accident and they were shocked when we gave them the details over the phone. They were sympathetic in the extreme, and told us that when we got back into hosting mode in the early spring, they would have to drive down to see us!

This was the first time since the wreck we had considered our lives in a timeline that extended beyond the next doctor’s appointment. There was a future, beyond our present troubles, and we owed something to it!

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Look, even if we didn’t go to great lengths, we had window swags, a door wreath and some other Christmas decorations in the cellar. Once those were in place – what the heck, let’s decorate the mailbox and the outdoor porch light. Outside taken care of, it only made sense to buy three or four poinsettias and spot them around the living room. Well now – they’d look a whole lot better if the garland for the mantle was put in place; and didn’t we have a little ceramic Christmas tree with twinkling lights and a little train circling it to music box carols? To be sure we did.

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That was more like it. We bought Christmas cards and mailed them out. We displayed the ones we received. We watched a few Christmas specials on TV. Our bodies are still not completely healed, but our spirits are well on the way to recovery. Take that, post-calamity funk.

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