One of my earliest is lodged in the glorious scent of a freshly cut tree, of being small enough to wriggle under its lowest branches and gaze upward through the maze of needles and see the colored lights cast their annual glow upon the many ornaments and the carefully hung, slender, shiny lead icicles.
I had little to do with the whole business. Dad brought the tree home, fetched a galvanized 12-quart bucket full of wet sand and, with a trowel, dug a socket in which the trunk would rest for the next two or three weeks. The bucket lasted until its bottom rusted out in the ‘50s.
About gifts in those days: In the waning years of the Great Depression, most gifts were inexpensive and practical. Just as the young Capote complained, my Bro, Stan, and I were disappointed when opening a deceiving box, which held nothing more than socks or underwear. (Bah!)
Money was still tight. My doctor father often accepted crates of oranges, gunny sacks of firewood, and dressed chickens or rabbits in lieu of payment for his services. That rabbit somehow went out of fashion: Mom fried it Southern style, and, as the old line goes, it tasted just like chicken.
When we were older, Dad turned us into holiday entrepreneurs. Among his numerous backcountry patients was a dairyman named Walker, whose grazing land included the San Diego River bed, where sycamores grew, and, in them, so did mistletoe. We had permission to open (and close) certain gates and work at bringing home a trunk full of the juice-dripping parasite that, perforce, causes humans to kiss one another when caught standing under a sprig. We would set up shop on the sidewalk, near our back door.
Mom had bought a spool of narrow red ribbon, and we’d tie small bunches together for our annual (and sometimes, puzzled) customers.
“Wouldja like ta buy some mistletoe?”
Response: “What’s mistletoe?”
We: “Well, ya hang this up over a doorway, and when someone stands under it, someone else can kiss ‘em.”
The (usually male) customer: “Oh, boy, I’ll take a bunch!”
Most women understood the very green leaves and the sticky berries and also bought a bunch, simultaneously thinking of husband or boyfriend, as well as a favorite aunt or uncle. It was just good, clean holiday fun. After each sale, a quarter landed in our cash can, providing funds for small gifts.
As for Christmas shopping, Mom was the purchasing agent, and, since there was a good deal of Dad’s Illinois family in San Diego by then, it was not just buying, but also wrapping and all the attendant chores, cards, tags, etc.
Dad’s shopping was pretty much limited to gifts for Mom. Since he had been incurably smitten with Mary Oakley from the start, and had almost lost her to TB in l936-7, he settled for nothing less than an abundance of Christmas gifts for her, and at other times, as well.