Saturday, April 11, 2009

THE BIGGEST DAYS OF THE YEAR Memoirs of Fleming Lee, Chapter 7

In memories of childhood, holidays and other special days shine like beacons on mountaintops.

By the time I left J. J. Finley School after the sixth grade, the tides of the year were so familiar that they affected my moods for decades afterward. Classes began in September, a dismal imprisonment relieved by the certain hope of resurrection in June, when summer vacation would bring glorious freedom. In between, the captivity was made more bearable by the Thanksgiving-Christmas season, which was preceded for weeks by a psychological state akin to that of a racehorse straining against the starting gate.

But first came Halloween, a festival which must seem particularly odd to observers from other planets. Why would children become preoccupied with dead bodies, imaginary monsters, and scary old women in pointed hats, and look on that night at the end of October as a gala occasion? The main event was, of course, going around the neighborhood dressed as a pirate or a skeleton and collecting candy. And there were sometimes Halloween parties, which featured bobbing for apples (my technique, probably illegal, was to take the apple in my mouth straight down and pin it to the bottom of the bucket so my teeth could sink in, my head entirely under the water), or trying to bite into an apple suspended on a string.


My most interesting memory of Halloween is a custom that I believe was originated by me within the world I knew. My brothers and I would write letters to The Halloween Witch — a sovereign hag of our own imaginations whom we occasionally reported glimpsing as a fast-moving black speck below the October clouds — and then build a bonfire in our back yard and send the letters on their way. Dropping our sheets of paper into the flames, we would raptly watch their magical transformation into smoke and flecks of soot which would rise above the crackling fire and spiral into the air until their verbal incense was caught on the breeze and disappeared across the sky. Before long, the content of the letters would reach The Witch on her distant mountain peak (we had never seen a mountain), and she would be greeted with such sentiments as, “Happy Halloween, please don’t scare us too much,” or “I hope we see you fly over our house on your broom,” or “Please write to me and tell me what it is like to be a witch, my address is. . .” After all, since witches don’t leave presents there was not a lot of material for correspondence.

In recalling the witch, it occurs to me that while children often treat imaginary beings as if they were real, it's so not much that they become convinced that any creature they are capable of visualizing really exists in solid form like a squirrel or a butterfly as it is that their minds have not yet built up a firm conceptual wall between “real” and “imaginary.” When they imagine elves or The Halloween Witch or Pegasus the flying horse, or say that when it rains God must be wee-weeing, they are playing, and in a way not really believing, but they also have the same ambivalent attitude toward what adults call “reality.” They do not really expect to encounter a giant around the corner, or a dragon in the vacant lot next door, but (if they are in Florida) they also have the same attitude about the Windsor Palace and the gondolas of Venice.

There was one personage, however, in whose solid existence I unequivocally believed, and that was Santa Claus.

MY CELLULOID SANTA AND SLEIGH (1930s, Japan) (Click to enlarge)

Christmas and summer vacation were antipodes, the highest points of the year on opposite ends of the calendar, generating equal amounts of ecstatic anticipation. I would get so excited about Christmas long before December 25th that everything else became microscopic in comparison. For awhile each day took a week to pass, and then each hour took a day to pass. Meanwhile the stores were blazing with lights and decorations — at least they waited until after Thanksgiving then — and various pseudo-Santa Clauses began to appear in stores and commerce-boosting parades. My parents responded to my puzzlement at this plethora of Saint Nicks by explaining that they were just his helpers — ordinary men dressed up in Santa Claus suits to hug children and relay Christmas lists to the real Santa Claus. This was, of course, the perfect explanation, for it left the true Santa Claus sacrosanct in his polar fastness, where he and his elves were busy preparing for the fabulous nocturnal trip.

Some of my friends said that their parents had told them that Santa Claus was a spirit, and that he couldn’t be seen — which helped explain how he could get around to all those houses all around the world in a single night, and which also spared a certain type of adult from the guilt of lying and promoting future disappointment. But I knew that Santa was a real, solid, fat, bearded person. The “spirit” story smacked of ignorance and Sunday School. After all, while lying awake on Christmas Eve nights, had I not myself heard his sleigh bells tinkling, and even the tapping of reindeer hooves on the roof?

Were not the fruit cake and Coca Cola left invitingly on the coffee table consumed by Christmas morning, only a few crumbs remaining as testimony of Santa’s living hands at work in our own house?

I do not remember — despite the eventual whispered doubts and brazen taunts of a few schoolmates — ever reaching a point at which I definitely lost my belief, and so I must still believe. Similarly, perhaps there were not unintelligent ancient Greeks who were able to believe somehow that Zeus and Minerva walked and lounged about on top of Mount Olympus, as real as grapes, when presumably a long hike would have revealed the contrary.
Of course I had to ask my usual questions: How could Santa Claus, being fat, get down our narrow chimney? (If necessary, he would come in through a window or door.) How could he go to so many houses in one night? (He’s magic, and time is a mystery anyway.) How could his sleigh possibly carry so many presents? (Don’t worry about it; it just does. Magic again?) Whatever the plausibility of the answers, the fact remained that Santa Claus came to our house each year and ate cake and brought presents, and the whole world would hardly have become so excited had he been only a myth or a case of mistaken identity.

We helped Mother make fruitcake before Christmas. Because that had to be done early so that the cake could develop its full flavor, sitting around the dining room table cutting up the candied fruit with sticky scissors was – along with decorations going up in the stores and around the town square – one of the earliest signs that the momentous season was underway.

Mother would say, “Christmas is just around the corner!,” and she would quote Mom Belle, who always said, “Christmas on the hill!”
With the fruitcake curing in a cupboard, about two weeks before Christmas we would drive to Blitchton to get our tree and gather holly and mistletoe. As we opened and closed gates and bounced slowly across fields, grass and brush scraping noisily against the underside of the car, Mother would recall how, when she was first married to Daddy, she was startled when he would just turn their car off the road and take off across a stretch of Blitchton countryside — stumps, stones, and all — as if they were on a Sunday drive. He knew the terrain so well that he could avoid the pitfalls and obstacles which would have ruined another car.
When we saw a particularly nice looking clump of mistletoe high in an oak tree (mistletoe always seems to grow very high, as if avoiding human clutches), Daddy would use his shotgun to shoot its stem from the tree, so that the whole cluster would come tumbling down, perhaps even into somebody’s arms. That might bring back other memories — as when Daddy first took Mother bird hunting, and left her behind some bushes with a light shotgun, telling her to shoot when she saw a dove or quail flying. When he later heard her gun let out a blast amid a flurry of wings, he hurried over and found her flat on her back where the shotgun’s kick had deposited her.

We would never, of course, be satisfied with the first well-shaped evergreen tree we found. This meant traveling back and forth over several bumpy fields to settle the question which of the favored two or three to take. We would ponder the decision while having our lunch around a fire which both heated our can of pork and beans and roasted our hotdogs. Finally we would make one last motorized foray into the wilds, and Daddy would take out his old handsaw and cut down the winner. With the tree sticking out of the trunk of the car, we would make one more stop to cut a few holly branches, rich with red berries, and then head for home.

My birthday was a week before December 25, and our tradition was that the Christmas tree was decorated by my birthday if not before. Unknown to us were such customs as waiting until Christmas Eve to decorate the tree, or, worse still, children going to bed on Christmas Eve without a Christmas tree, only to find one decorated when they got up Christmas morning. There was enough agonizing waiting to be done before Christmas without having to wait for the Christmas tree too.

On Christmas Eve, after supper we always had boiled custard and fruit cake as we sat around the fireplace and listened to Christmas carols. Then the children would be shepherded to bed with warnings that Santa Claus might not come if we stayed up too late. Much too excited to sleep, I would lie and listen intently, determined this time to hear some unmistakable sound of Santa Claus’s visit. It did not arouse my suspicions if soon after we went to bed I might detect bumps or rustlings from other parts of the house, because we knew that Mother and Daddy gave presents to us and to one another and had to get them under the tree before Santa Claus came.

Certainly Christmas Eve was the most sleepless night of the year. When I was very young, in St. Augustine, I had been caught on the stairs headed down to the livingroom at three in the morning, but before I was hauled back to my bed I had seen enough to shout, “He’s been here! He’s been here!” As far as I know, after that none of us violated the rule against wandering about the house, partly because it would have spoiled the precious moment of surprise when we all arrived under the tree at the same time.

No doubt I did fall asleep at some point on Christmas Eves, but my lifelong propensity for early awakening was greatly inflated on Christmas morning, and I would greet any hint of dawn’s light with loud coughing, and creaking of my bed, in hopes of encouraging the rest of the family to wake up. Each minute after darkness began to fade from the sky seemed endless, and I could not imagine why everyone else wasn’t also wide awake. The fact was that we always got up early on Christmas morning, and if I had slept as many hours as I usually did I would have had no waiting to do at all.

After brushing teeth and washing faces at a frantic tempo, we three brothers would gather at the top of the stairs in our pajamas and wait for the signal, crouched for the race. To lessen the chance of injury we were placed in order and required to run down the stairs in single file instead of all at once. The one who had gone first the preceding year would be at the back of the line this year — although it hardly mattered, since we would all arrive at the livingroom within half a second of one another.

“Merrrrrry Christmas!” my father’s voice would finally boom from below, and we three boys would avalanche down the stairway, skid through the turn in the front hall, and shove our way into the magical room. Then we were frozen for an instant by the spectacle of the presents under and around the tree, whose multicolored lights enhanced the mystical transformation.

If some special, large present was visible, there would be a cry of glee as we dove for the tree. To avoid territorial wars and confusion over which presents went to which child, on Christmas Eve we always used strips of ribbon or crepe paper like the spokes of a wheel to divide the area under the tree into three pie slices. When we went bed on Christmas Eve our territories were empty except for boxes received in the mail from grandparents and aunts and uncles. In the morning they were full of gala packages. Of course we insisted on each area being identified with a name written on a sheet of paper. Otherwise how would Santa Claus know which area belonged to which boy?

When I was still a spoiled only child in St. Augustine, my best presents were a Mickey Mouse rocking horse and a shiny little convertible automobile (things like that were metal, not plastic, in those days) that I could pedal up and down the sidewalk. Then, of course, my Lionel electric train for Christmas 1937, the Christmas gift that I enjoyed the most for the longest time -- with its track running through a landscape of cotton snow and mirror lakes. It emitted a scent of oil and ozone, while its whistle sounded above the rattle of the Pullman cars and boxcars and its headlight brightened miniature trees.


It seemed I had to wait forever for a bicycle, but when the Schwinn finally appeared gleaming next to a Christmas tree, it supplanted the electric train as the best present I’d ever had. Only the long-sought chemistry set, with which I produced real gunpowder, came near equaling it in later years.

Our grandparents and aunts and uncles always sent gifts. In my ungrateful childish opinion, the worst presents always came from my Aunt Legie, Daddy’s sister, who lived with her Scottish carpenter husband, Alex, in a house under an overpass in Ocala. They were poor, I'm sure. Each year I would open her soft and pliant gift and find two pairs of socks. Socks were bad enough — in fact all gifts of clothing were automatically and immediately thrown into a discard pile, from which they would be rescued and admiringly folded by Mother — but these socks were from a mysterious source which had fashioned them for something other than a human leg. Instead of stopping at a reasonable distance above the ankle, they climbed more than halfway to the knee, and as they had no elastic in them they would respond to gravity by sagging to the shoe tops as soon as they were hauled up to their full length and released. Even Mother could find no way for me to use them. Maybe she gave Legie a hint, because eventually she sent me a present that was even less welcome than socks: "Tom Brown’s School Days." School days in Tom Brown’s time were so different from mine that after two pages I put the book down and never picked it up again.

After all the presents had been opened, and all the candies and nuts had been shaken from the stockings — so fat with food and doodads that Santa Claus had to put them on the hearth instead of leaving them hanging from the mantel — we turned to cracking nuts and playing with presents, especially any toys which could be taken outdoors . . . and finally to thoughts of Christmas dinner, which we always had in the middle part of the day.

Sometimes we had the dinner at home, but more often we traveled to Blitchton and Ocala. The usual custom was to go first to Blitchton in the morning, and later travel the remaining thirteen miles to Ocala. We sometimes had midday Christmas dinner at Blitchton and sometimes at Mom Belle and Papa's, but we always visited both places on the Christmas trip.

I remember arriving at Blitchton late in the morning to find our cousins, Ann and Sim, being forced to wait until we got there before they could open their presents. What unimaginable torture! How stern was life on the farm. We from The University City, flushed with the joy of early-morning Christmas abundance, looked on our cousins as we might have looked on unfortunates in a penal institution for children. I felt sure they hoped we wouldn't come on the next Christmas so they could open their presents earlier.

I always had a feeling of something stiff and reserved about Christmas at Blitchton, in spite of the hugs and gifts and good food – somewhat like the old-fashioned wooden furniture in Gramma's parlor where we sat while presents were distributed – hard, uncomfortable, high-backed, fitted with white, lacy antimacassar. When possible, I would flee to the porch swing, a wooden bench suspended by light chains from the ceiling, where it was actually fun to sit.

In Ocala the atmosphere was more relaxed, more modern, more familiar. Whether we had Christmas dinner at Mom Belle and Papa’s house, or at Martha and Hugh’s, I felt more at home than on the farm. I don't know how to describe the difference, but an example would be the voice of Bing Crosby caroling through the warm house, which was furnished with comfortable, soft chairs and sofas and cushions reminiscent of Mom Belle's wonderfully enveloping perfumed hugs.

Once, at least, there was an effort to combine Blitchton and Ocala in a single holiday meal at Gramma’s house. I don't remember much about it, and I would assume it went fairly well, except that Mom Belle remarked afterward that Daddy’s mother was “quaint,” and Daddy complained angrily to Mother about the remark, “Who does she think she is?” It was one of the few occasions when I ever saw Mother with tears in her eyes.

Compared to Christmas, Thanksgiving was a mere prelude, and simply an excuse to eat prodigious quantities of turkey, bread stuffing, cornbread dressing, boats full of gravy, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, corn pudding, green bean and almond casserole, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and Mother's family's favorite, ambrosia (fresh orange slices mixed with coconut). . . a menu which would be repeated with a few variations on Christmas Day.

Then came the long, arduous climb over the barren rocky range of January, February, March, and April . . . until May brought June into sight in the distant valley below, and blood flowed faster at the prospect of a whole summer of freedom.

Photography by Julia and Fleming Lee.
Entire contents of this blog post copyright 2009


  1. I love these memories of Yours. In Sweden all children meet Santa Claus, or as we call him The Christmas gnome, on Christmas eve. That makes it even harder to explain how he can be at so many places in one day :-)

    If unlucky santa is rather drunk when he comes to the last home, because many families has a tendensy to give him a Schnaps when he has dleivered the presents :-) :-)

  2. Thank you, Cranelake! We must continue to study how The Christmas Gnome/Santa can be in so many places at once.

    I think that Schnaps is a much better treat for Santa than Coca Cola!

    I hope you've seen that I have visited your wonderful blog.