December 1989

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Christmas on the Bluff


Shirley McNulty

Then the days grew shorter. Cold was creeping in. The only heat in the bedrooms was from the stovepipe running through. I was allowed to dress behind the kitchen stove where it was toasty warm.

After the wood was in the shed came the best of all, the shopping days. The men went to town for the heaviest of overalls, woolen shirts, underwear with wrist-length sleeves and ankle-length legs, footwear for the deep snows to come, and lined leather gloves.

Then it was Mother's turn and she made the most of it. She bought, not yards, but bolts of unbleached muslin sheeting which she used not only to make bed sheets but also to sew into aprons and articles of clothing. Mother made full-length aprons with matching or contrasting bias binding that covered the raw edges and decorated the pockets. It was so much fun to search and decide which one to wear. The weekly boiling, with kerosene added, gradually bleached the muslin to creamy whiteness and the weekly washing on her ribbed scrubbing board erased much of the cloth's first harshness.

After Mother had bought muslin and sewing supplies came the very best part of our shopping, buying the ingredients for Mother's famous English plum puddings. In those days the candied fruits didn't come diced in boxes. The citron was in melon-shaped rounds and the oranges and lemons had only their juice squeezed out. Nuts were still in their shells and sticky grapes came in layered bunches.

Mother did her sewing during daytime when I was in school, but the dicing of the fruit went on for weeks in the evenings, it seemed, and we got sore fingers and tiny cuts as we diced the pieces into smaller and smaller bits. I was given the job of spreading the clumps of raisins with their sticky sweetness which meant constant licking of my fingers, which Mother kindly ignored. My brothers could be persuaded to crack nuts only if they were allowed to constantly sample.

Finally came the day when all the ingredients were combined with spices, and shaped into cannon balls of all sizes! Each was carefully wrapped and tied in torn fragments of wornout sheets and committed to the copper wash boiler for hours of boiling. They would need only reheating to be ready for their place of honor at the Christmas dinner.

Mother's Christmas presents were ready: an apron and a plum pudding for each of her married daughters, for her sisters-in-law, and a few chosen neighbors.

Christmas was a family affair, a welcome break in long days of winter labor. It would be many years before I would see a traditional creche, hear a world famous choir, sing Christmas anthems, or see a city decorated.

At Christmas time those years I was the only one on the receiving end. My usual Christmas presents were an extra pair of warm gloves, two or three new pretty pinafores to wear over my school dress, a box of crayons and a coloring book, and very occasionally a Flexible Flyer to replace the one I had outgrown.

There would be homemade treats around the house—a plate of fudge, cookies, and in the evening popcorn or those small, sweet chestnuts so soon to disappear forever before the onslaught of an imported plague. Hickory nuts, too, were not to be despised, and there were always bunches of raisins.

One difference that marked our celebration of Christmas from that of our Yankee neighbors was the English food we enjoyed.

Christmas Eve brought an annual treat of "finnan haddie." This was smoked, salted haddock in large pieces. Freshened for a day by soaking in water to remove the excess of salt, Mother fried it and added a cream sauce. Dinner on Christmas Day was a typical English dinner. It included a large roast of beef with crispy sides and pink slices to suit everyone's taste, accompanied by large servings of Yorkshire pudding. The dessert brought memories of the weeks of chopping fruits and the days of boiling plum pudding. Now one of Mother's best was garnished with a brandy sauce which was set aflame just before it was placed in the center of the table.

But one Christmas when I was about four was never to be forgotten. The family were gathered around the small tree in the parlor decorated with a few "boughten" balls in addition to the homemade chains of red and green paper. (I still have a very battered pear and apple which are added every year to my grandchildren's store of beautiful ornaments.)

We were watching the tiny candles flame, with a bucket of water and a dipper close at hand. Everyone was present except brother Arthur, who was still at the barn, when suddenly outside the kitchen door there was a chiming of bells, a clatter of hoofs, and a voice crying, "Whoa, there! Merry Christmas to you all!" And suddenly there was Santa himself in full array, whiskers and all! He presented me with a package, bade me be a good girl during the coming year, and disappeared as quickly as he had come with much shouting and jingling of bells.

When I tore open the package, it was to be the most beautiful doll in the world, with real hair, eyes that opened and shut, and arms and legs that could be made to move! It was to be the only doll I was ever to have or want, and I cherished it for many, many years.

At the height of my joy and excitement, the kitchen door opened and brother Arthur came in. I ran to him, sobbing, "Where were you? Santa Claus was here, really here and you missed him! What took you so long? You missed Santa Claus!"

It would be many years before I had the slightest doubt as to that good Saint's existence. Hadn't I seen him, talked to him; didn't I have my doll as proof?

1989, Shirley McNulty
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