Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

Christmas is still celebrated, though in a largely secular form, in many cities and towns. Here's Court Street in Athens, Ohio in 2014. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

The Excitement of Christmas Back Then

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 11:37 PM

Nice notes having arrived about my reminiscence last week, I thought I’d continue with some family traditions that were once common but that seem now to have all but disappeared, and some community ones which in many places have suffered the same fate.

Among my Christmas duties was helping my father build whatever presents he was building that year. He was a skilled cabinet maker with a love of and affinity for fine wood. The rafters in the garage were crisscrossed with long, wide, thick slabs of rough-sawed walnut and cherry and oak, all there to season. He wouldn't dream of using wood that hadn't dried for a decade or more. Good wood gets very hard in that amount of time, but it also gets very stable.

Sometimes the projects would be simple: Knickknack shelves for my grandmother, whom he (and everyone else) adored, and who adored him, or a glass-fronted mahogany wall-mounted museum box for my grandfather, so he could mount the sharpened-almost-to-nothing kitchen knife they had received as a wedding present, with a card mounted next to it that read "Retired after 50 years service." These cabinets were always made with the greatest of care and with masterful craftsmanship. But none matched the sewing box he made for the older of my two younger sisters (I’ve never figured out a way to identify her more succinctly), who had recently become interested in sewing. It was to be cherry wood, with two piano-hinged doors, a handle at the top, and on a stand with scrollwork feet and dowel center supports. As was the case with everything he built, it was his own design, roughly sketched on a piece of scrap wood but with an exquisitely detailed drawing that existed in his mind.

Night after night we worked on it, my job being carefully to remove any saw marks with a sanding block, which was tedious, though it was simple enough that the mind could wander without reducing the quality of the work. We talked about a variety of things, but the great pleasure was in simply being there, working together. Once the pieces had been cut, at the table saw in the garage, we took the project to my grandparents' basement next door, which was warmer, and where we would escape detection. The result was gorgeous and was meant to last several lifetimes. My sister loved it and I think has it still.

While this was going on, my mom would be at home crocheting Afghans. She would do this pretty much year-round, when she had time late at night to sit in front of the television or otherwise relax. These were made by crocheting five-inch squares which were then sewn together. It took hours and hours and hours to make one, so they were given as gifts only to very special friends and family members. Many is the evening I spent sitting on the couch, snuggled up with one wrapped around me. I can feel its woolly scratchiness even now. They were difficult to make, but my mom was a master with crochet hook and yarn. The recipients were always happy come March, when the finished products finally got delivered to them.

There were municipal activities as well, which were largely centered at the Fire Department, located next door to the police station. It was the firemen, I believe, who maintained the elaborate fabric-over-heavy wire ornaments, four feet tall, that would hang from the street lights along Broadway. The firemen must have stayed up all night, because they weren’t there on Thanksgiving but were all in place the next day (which was not yet called “black Friday,” a term straight from the fiery pits of Hell in my view).

That wasn’t all the firemen did. They also collected, from several places where the donations could be made, used and broken toys. These they carefully restored and repaired for distribution to the little boys and girls from poor families. It almost brings a tear now, but it was unremarkable at the time. The fire fighters did very good work, and the toys, bikes, and so on were at least as good as new and often better. This was before the big national campaigns to get people to donate new toys. (It was also when toys were often made of wood and metal, not just plastic, and therefore could be repaired.) They couldn’t fix everything, but they could fix a lot.

Oh, and the firemen also responded to fires, which increased in number this time of year. Some people were starting up their furnaces for the first time in the season, resulting in flue fires and the like, and not everyone was careful about where the Christmas tree was placed, or the condition of the wiring of the lights, or keeping it watered. (A total aside: My grandparents had the coolest Christmas tree lights I’ve ever seen. In several bright colors, they looked like eye droppers. They were filled with some liquid and, after they had been on awhile, the liquid bubbled in the eyedroppers and added movement that was mesmerizing. I think they ultimately went to cousins in Pennsylvania. I hope they’re still in use. And I guess they weren’t unique to my grandparents.)

The Friday after Thanksgiving came the Christmas parade. There were a few parades in our town each year and they largely resembled each other, with just a few distinguishing features. Common to all of them were the high school marching band — we had just one high school, but it was very big — and local business people in cars all decorated for the occasion, the businesses’ names featured prominently. The fire trucks were in the parade. So were the Shriners in their Fezes and their little cars, driving in complicated geometric patters as they somehow made their way up the street. I never grew out of being amazed at how well they did this. If I’d been more inquisitive I would have watched more carefully and tried to figure out how they did it so well, but I’m glad now that I didn’t — better to have preserved a childhood mystery.

Actually, I think the only thing special to the Christmas parade was the presence of Santa Claus atop one of the floats. But that was enough.

There was also a beautiful creche somewhere in front of a government building — people weren’t yet suing over that kind of thing. If it harmed any one in any way, it went unrecorded.

After the parade, downtown was crowded, too full of people to get anything done even if we’d had anything to do, which we didn’t. So mostly we’d walk around, dodging grownups, looking at ridiculously expensive items we would not receive for Christmas, and most especially running into friends. Other kids you’d see every day in school became subjects of excitement when encountered downtown after the parade. I don’t know why, but let’s leave that a happy mystery, too.

The enthusiasm was partly due, I think, to the fact that on the day after Thanksgiving Christmas seems very far away. There was something in the air, anticipation and delight, but its focus was out of reach. It wasn’t centered on getting stuff, but on the excitement of Christmas itself (though the idea of opening presents was pretty attractive, too).

We weren’t impressed by the Saturday morning kids’ shows’ advertising. The toys offered there were nothing to get excited about. I figured then and still do that these were aimed at children who lived in big cities and were thus deprived of a rich, full life. And television wasn’t that important.

No one had a color television set, and anyone who did would have been disappointed. We watched the NBC peacock and the announcer’s claim that a show was “brought to you in living color on NBC” in shades of gray, except then the Ozark Airlines DC-3 to Jeff City was overhead, during which it was shades of gray static. I remember going with my mother and sisters to Andrews Furniture one Saturday morning to watch the Shari Lewis Show in “living color” on an actual color teevee the week the local station began broadcasting in color. (The store was owned by Senator Andrews. He hadn’t been elected to anything — that was his name. This would have created problems had he ever sought public office: Imagine “Mayor Senator Andrews” or, come to think of it, “Senator Senator Andrews.”)

Anyway, the color picture looked awful. It might have been the fault of KOMU-TV or of the television set, or the antenna. Wherever the blame resided, the picture was not much better than that obtained by those who fell for the ad in the Sunday newspaper supplements which promised full color from your black-and-white television. This turned out to be a screen-sized sheet of transparent, colored plastic divided in thirds, with blue across the top, a kind of garish orange in the middle, and green at the bottom, which you’d tape over the screen of your set. I knew a few people who had gotten those and, being a polite child, I never asked them what in the world they had been thinking. Though I would have overcome my manners to ask the same question of the parents of Senator Andrews.

I see I’ve strayed from the subject of Christmas. It’s a common problem.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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