Christmas (and Christmess) memo-ries

‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the blogosphere …

Not exactly poetry.

But in these final days before the holiday, our feeds on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest (and more I’ve never heard of) are all about Christmas. This year has already provided a bumper crop of new discussions – the racial heritage of Santa is a memorable example – in addition to ongoing concerns about the war on Christmas, the pros and cons of The Elf on the Shelf, reports on the holiday shopping season, backlit photos of gussied-up families and sugary confections, suggestions for the perfect gift in every price range, and advice about how to avoid holiday weight gain.

The digital onslaught got me thinking about the newspapers of the past, and particularly about those “original mommy bloggers” – columnists who wrote about family life during the 1960s and 1970s. What did they have to say about the holiday season? Was it as idyllic as we now remember when we unpack our pasta-studded ornaments from childhood?

My mother – Margaret Miller – was one of those original mommy bloggers, and I decided some excavation of her columns was in order. What was she writing about Christmas almost half a century ago? Would her ideas be at home on my Facebook feed today?

Well, yes, to some extent they would. I found many m.m. memos written during the Christmas season, and lots of the columns were perfect for social media. The search for the perfect Christmas toy. The rush to get everything done in time for the big day. The complications that a freak storm can wreak on holiday plans.

Of course, many of the topics had their own timely translations. In one column, the high-tech gift request was a knitting machine. Instead of finding the perfect present on Amazon, Mom recounted our intense fascination with the Sears “Wish Book” catalog. And an ongoing challenge was finding time to inscribe handwritten notes on Christmas cards and get them into the mail on time for postal delivery.

One theme that Mom wrote about several times was our annual quest for the perfect photo to include in holiday cards. In these days of selfies, Instagram enhancement, Facebook albums, and professional family photo shoots, it’s hard to recall how challenging getting a “good” picture was just a few short decades ago.  My mother described the ordeal as one that got progressively more difficult over the years as the count of daughters went from one to four:

More Chistmases, more cards, more girls arrived. Also more temperament and tears at picture-taking time. And if we snapped the shutter when everyone was cheerful, someone always wiggled. We learned to arm ourselves with piles of animal crackers for bribes and to shoot a whole roll as fast as possible. And it seemed to me an annual Christmas miracle that every year we had one – and only one – presentable picture to mail around the country.

I remember those photo shoots very clearly. There was always the challenge to find a day when we were all available – including photographer Dad. There was the question of clothing – we were sometimes dressed in our finest and sometimes dressed thematically. The year we all wore marching band uniforms was particularly hideous, as I recall. There were Dad’s attempts to do something a little “different” each year. One year we gathered in a huddle above him and he shot the picture from below – the (literally) exploding flashbulb made for a particularly scary photo shoot. Mom wrote one year about how “one shot we tried for variety showed four heads of blonde hair being brushed. As it turned out, that was the best picture of the girls, expressionwise and composition-wise, and probably will go out to the world.” Mom was most impressed, however, with the fact that we managed to locate four hairbrushes in the house at the same time.

Photos, food, frenzy. The surface focus of the holiday season 45 years ago, just as today. But then, as now, there are also calls for calm. For quiet. For looking and listening. Here is Mom’s call from an m.m. memo in December of 1968:

Quite unintentionally, my typewriter and I coined a new word this holiday season. One of the many times my fingers tapped out “Christmas,” they made it Christmess. I decided it was a great word, and I’d add it to my vocabulary. But with no thought of irreverence, because I consider it not at all the same as Christmas.

Christmess is a good description of the long hours of shopping that can be needed for just the right gifts. But Christmas is the delight that just-right present gives someone you love.

Chrismess may be the too-often repeated “Jingle Bells” piped through stores and public places. But Christmas is the glorious music that never loses its freshness when sung by young voices and in church on Christmas Eve.

Christmess is the ever-present accumulation of paper and ribbon scraps as a whole family wraps and wraps. And of course it’s the might bedlam after everything has been unwrapped. But Christmas is the glow of tree and faces in that all-too-brief moment in between.

Christmess is the hurry and scurry and rushing about and too much spending that we’ve lived through once again and certainly will be upon us next December. But Christmas is the spark of love that can last right through the year.

Not that much has changed.

1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed this one, Kathy! As you flesh it out for the book, you might think about “Christmess” and how it ties to privilege (I was thinking particularly around class and consumption) and what different kinds of Christmess you could bring in from contemporary examples to map with your mom’s great ones. Also, I loved that you referenced Elf on a Shelf, and it could be really interesting to think about the Elf on the Shelf work and parents/guardians and tie to 60s/70s examples of this. Great post!

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