Strange Fruit; Flattened by Flapjacks; Lonely Daze. And Your Christmas?

Strange Fruit; Flattened by Flapjacks; Lonely Daze. And Your Christmas? December 18, 2008

Here are three things I most remember about my childhood Christmaseses (Christmasi?):

My dad always put an orange inside the bottom of our stockings. I never knew why. A reminder to eat right? Filler to buff out the stockings? That made the most sense—but why an orange? Why not balled-up newspaper, Styrofoam, or an actual sock? Why fruit? My dad had a tattoo of a butterfly on the top of his right foot. Perhaps he was encouraging my sister and me to be like he apparently was, and associate feet with Delightful Nature. Who knew? But I always dug finding that final, bright stocking-stuffer.

On Christmas morning, my mother always produced a massive pancake breakfast. I’d spend an hour or so ripping open new toys and becoming a frazzled basket-case of frenetic desire and excitement, and thengiven my core conviction that the whole point of pancakes was to avoid the rudeness of pouring a half gallon of syrup directly down your throat—would gorge on more sugar than the Trix rabbit consumes in a year. That done, I’d barely manage to hit my plate with my dripping fork before sliding into a thick, buzzy, immobilized trance. Each of my brand new toys strewn behind me in the living room would be calling my name—but I could barely hear them. I could barely hear anything; it was like I was floating on a sea of maple syrup inside some kind of bizzaro sensory deprivation chamber. Vision turned jumpy and narrowed; sound muffled, stomach feeling past due with quintuplets; nerves like a radio dropped in water … that was a big part of Christmas morning to me.

Without fail I would get up in the quiet dark of Christmas morning, tip-toe out into our living room, and in the colored lights of the tree sit and look at the unimaginable number of wrapped presents awaiting my sister and me. The magical beauty of the whole tableau was almost more than I could stand. Ending my swooning revel, I’d stealthily make my way back into my bed, where I’d then lay clinching the tops of my covers and counting the moments until it was reasonable for me to wake everybody up. How my sister could possibly be asleep on Christmas morning struck me—and remains for me—a mystery for the ages.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear any of your Primary Christmas Memories.

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  • hmmm……. getting up early.. like before 5:00 Am and oohing and ahhing over the presents. Apptempting to wake our parents up, but having to wait that extra couple of hours til at least 7. Then a round of hot chocolate, and breakfast. Never opened presents until at least 8….. too much temptation.

    My grandfather on the hand was always awake when we went to his house. He has this insane rule that people need to be up at 7. 6 preferably. He used to put apples, and nuts in our stockings.

    One year my dad was digging up the back yard, so that christmas everyone got a lump of coal in their stockings. except him. he always made christmas fun- even though he sucked at buying presents. damn it John….. now you got me missing him. grr.

  • Dan Harrell

    1940's. Angel hair (spun fiberglass) on the tree with bubble lights and glass ornaments. Bing on the Victrola (78's) singing "White Christmas". Yorgi Yorgeson singing "I Just Go Nuts at Christmas".

    Fruitcake (I'm one of three people in American that actually like it) and ribbon candy were staples. A Whitman's sampler (chocolates) for Gram, ties and shirts for Gramps were the norm. Dad got tools and Mom got clothes.

    Me? I got everything I wanted because I was an only child of an only child (my mom) until I was nine.

    Then, after the frenzied package attack, came the turkey dinner with all the fixings in the afternoon, followed by a food coma for several hours.

    Ah, those were the days, young enough not to need stretch pants, but old enough to do serious damage to pumpkin pie and fresh whipped cream.

    In years to come we would have an aluminum tree with a multi colored light wheel. An artificial tree would replace the fresh cut tree, but the food coma would continue each year, followed by leftovers for days.

  • "Without fail I would get up in the quiet dark of Christmas morning, tip-toe out into our living room, and in the colored lights of the tree sit and look at the unimaginable number of wrapped presents awaiting my sister and me. The magical beauty of the whole tableau was almost more than I could stand. Ending my swooning revel, I’d stealthily make my way back into my bed, where I’d then lay clinching the tops of my covers and counting the moments until it was reasonable for me to wake everybody up."

    I still do this today, even though I am the one that put most of the stuff under the tree.

  • Wow. This is awesome stuff. The dad doing the fake coal; "food coma"; sneaking out as an adult to marvel at the pre-opening scene. Fantastic. Each so touching. Thanks so much.

  • My dad spent time in the late 30s at Scofield Barracks in Hawaii (before the attack on Pearl Harbor) as an Army chef for a colonel. What carried over from this experience was the crazy Hawaiian music he loved to listen to.

    The rule in our home on Christmas morning was that my sister and I had to wait until my Dad played Christmas music before we could come downstairs and open our presents.. and it was especially crazy when my Dad played a Hawaiian Christmas song.

  • When I was probably about 10 I read about the orange in the stocking being good luck–one of the bazillion obscure Christmas traditions of past days, or other countries, or something.

    So I told my mom about it, and every Christmas since then we have had a dang orange in the bottom of the stocking. Which would be great if my mom were better at picking produce.

    IF I decide to do the orange someday, I think I'll switch to clementines. Little, sweet, orangey goodness.

  • Judy

    When I was a child, I was very much like you on Christmas morning, waking up WAY before daylight. Why did it take so long for morning to come? I did NOT know this, but apparently Santa also brought the Christmas tree and decorated it, because there wasn't a tree up on Christmas Eve. My most favored gift was my Tiny Tears doll. Feed her and she wet herself. I guess she also cried, hence the name Tiny Tears. I still have her, in a suitcase in the attic.

  • Kansas: Awesome. Too much. It's … something to imagine you and your sister at the top of the stairs, listening to the first strains of … "A Don Ho Christmas," or whatever–and then knowing you could come charging downstairs. Too much.

    NO WAY! Awesome. "Orangey goodness." I love it.

    Judy: Your parents put up the whole TREE on Xmas Eve? I've never heard of that. That's … um … well … extremely different. You had to be the ONLY kid who didn't have a tree until Xmas morning. What's up with that? And that DOLL. I mean. Wow. Rich stuff.

  • Mark Lattimore

    Christmas in our family was always one part family, one part presents, and one thousand parts goofy. No one really remembers the origin of our most honored tradition, but I'm pretty sure my brother is responsible. In any event, we would go through the usual paces of waking up Mom and Dad, opening all the gifts, and taking stock of our loot. The last thing we opened was the one gift we knew we were getting — underwear. In itself, this is not particularly special. Everyone gets underwear for Christmas. Personally, I even wear underwear most days, so it's a pretty common thing. Here's where the tradition enters. We would all put our new, clean, unworn (very important) underwear on our heads and sing White Christmas. We were rarely on key, but we would always end up rolling in the floor at the sight of each other dressed in our tightie-whitey (sp?) hats. Laughing was such a great way to spend this greatest of holidays.

    Today, our family is separated by 800 miles. Occasionally we are all able to get together for Christmas, but not often. Nevertheless, when we are apart, we set aside a time to get together on the phone, on a conference call, if necessary, put underwear on our heads, and sing White Christmas. Even several years ago when I spent two painful Christmasses in prison, we did not miss the singing of White Christmas (although I did get some strange but amused looks from 132 of my closest um…fellow inmates). We Lattimores simply do not miss this chance to laugh and enjoy each other…ever.

    They (whoever they is) say that families often bond through the observance of traditions. I'm convinced that it doesn't really matter what the tradition is (as long as it's not destructive). I would hazard that I am as close to my parents, my brother and my sister as anyone can be to his or her family. I'm sure that Mom and Dad were responsible for a lot of that affinity. But I am convinced that the underwear on the head has played no small role.

    Merry Christmas everyone. I've got to go practice now. I've been singing a little flat lately.

  • wow- I think most people all have fruit etched into the christmas spirit some where. Some in their stocking, and some shoved into a vague resemblence of a cake.

    But, I honestly think Mark is alone in his family tradition. Not that that is a bad thing. What ever makes the holidays a happy thing is good.

  • Jessica

    My family have always been big Christmas “jammie” people. Growing up everyone got Christmas jammies to open Christmas eve and now that I am grown and have two daughter (5 & 3) my mom buys them Christmas jammies to open and wear that night. I’m not sure they realize the tradition but imagine it won’t be long before they expect it. I love that it has now grown a generation.

    Also, growing up I had a step-family that I never quite broke into so before we went over for the gift exchange in which the “real” grandkids would get all the gifts their little hearts could dream of my mom and step-dad would give me something very special that I had really wanted so that I wouldn’t feel left out. Looking back I see what that really meant to me and what it meant for them to be able to do that for me. I never let me step-dad know how much I really loved him and that hurts now that he’s gone.

    John, thanks for the laugh. I giggled when I read the maple syrup bit. My husband is wondering what’s up. 🙂


  • Latoya

    There are two things that always stand out in my mind at christmas.

    1. When we were little (i have two sisters and a brother), my mom baked like a million fruit cakes (they taste soooo great!!!) and then we would carry slices of cake to the neighbours in little baskets.

    2. in the night we would all go to my paternal grandparents house (where the extended family would meet) and just chat and laugh all night. At the end of the night my grandpa [now deceased :(]would pray for the whole family.

  • Shiny foil tree, big round red mirrored ornaments (a few heirloom ornaments mixed in), a Lionel train circling the whole thing, and a rotating, multicolored floodlight shining on that profoundly reflective wonder. OH…MY…GOD!!! It was beautiful!!!! I get verklempt thinking about it now.

    I looked up foil trees on eBay…they cost a fortune!!

  • Lynn

    Another big word…verklempt. Hmmmm, wonder what it means?

    I have a Christmas memory that involved underwear too. The female version of the tightie-witeys, but, we did not have to wear the underwear on our heads and so missed out on that fun. Every Christmas during my elementary school years, my dad, mom, brothers, sister and myself would pack up the stationwagon and head over to my Aunt's for the extended famiy Christmas party. My Uncle Perry was the comedian and cameraman in our extended family. He had one of those old-time handheld camera with spotlights on top of it. I remember how patient he was in filming each of us kids, watching and waiting for that special present to be opened. Once the word got out that someone got underwear as one of their gifts, my uncle would turn on the camera spotlights, aim the camera and roll the film. When it was my turn, I tried to cover my face with the underwear, but my uncle outlasted me and kept on filming until I was in tears from embarrassment and my face a bright red from blushing. The memory is funny now. I believe my cousin still holds the evidence in my uncle's film-reel collection.

    Then there was a unique Christmas day experience that happened when I was about the age of 12. Early that morning my older brother called me to his bedroom window to look outside on the snow covered roof of our 2 story house. He seemed to be freaking out. When I looked out I couldn't believe my eyes. There were what appeared to me…four reindeer hoof prints in the snow on the roof. To this day I have no explanation for this, but the prints certainly appeared genuine 🙂

  • Des

    My mom grew up in British Columbia and got an orange in the stocking as well. Her dad would work the railroad during the winter and bring home fresh fruit at Christmas time. A family that large and fed nothing but oatmeal and nuts would flock to fresh fruit and consider it a delicacy. Your dad may have thought the same thing but for us modern people who have grown up with every convenience, an orange is just an orange.

  • Colleen

    Yes Colleen…there is a Santa Claus? As the 5th born (baby for 5 years) of 7 children, I became….gulp… an unbeliever quite young. Pretty common thing in big fams. Fables of Christmas exponentially shatter at earlier and earlier ages due to the enlightened older siblings who have no respect for illogical faith. Well, the test came one day and I too failed to allow another view to co-exist without a challenge. A cousin a year and half younger than me came to visit and shared how excited she was that Santa was coming. She was about 5 1/2 and I was almost 7. I tried to let her down gently that Santa was made up but she was not having it! She explained with tremendous passion how each Christmas they put a cup of milk and plate of cookies out for Santa and the next morning they were gone. Strands of Santa’s white beard were also found on the seat where he enjoyed his treat. She then asked me how I could ever think her mother (my saintly godmother) could ever lie to her about such a thing. By the end of the conversation I was converted back to a believer, with one verbal disclaimer, “Okay, you have convinced me Santa Claus always comes to your house, but he sure doesn’t come to mine!” I figured we must have all been but on the naughty list for lack of faith.

  • Verklempt: Choked with emotion

  • So many details:

    *My family are hunters so we always had wild turkey (the bird, not the drink)

    *Mom’s dressing

    *Each Christmas morning I would take a fresh-baked batch of my Mom’s homemade cinnamon rolls to my best friend’s house and his mom would give me a homemade cheese ball to take home. My brother would take some of Mom’s homemade jelly to his best friend’s house and come home with a batch of homemade spaghetti sauce.

    *Playing football with my Dad, my brother, and any relatives who visited at the school near my parents’ home

    *Helping to deliver Christmas turkeys and side dishes to poor families with our church

    *The onset of the inevitable food coma while watching football in the afternoon

    As corny as it sounds, my favorite memory was just having all of the family in one place at the same time. It is so hard for all of us to get together anymore. That was always the good stuff.

  • I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your post John, and especially all of the subsequent Christmas memories. How lovely! We had the same tradition when I was young of sneaking into the family room and looking at the pile of presents in the glow of the christmas tree lights…ahh…such a wonderful magical memory.

    I don't think I will ever be able to hear "White Christmas" the same again now! I'll forever have "visions of tighty-whities dancing in (on?) my head"….

    **My mother always stuffed embarrasing things into the toe of our stockings. I don't know why she got such a huge kick every year doing this. She would urge us to "dig a little deeper" (we would groan, and grit our teeth). Then, my brother would pull out a new tightly wadded jock strap, my 12 year old mentstrating sister would have to pull out some tampons, and I would have to pull out deoderant or zit creame or some such item my mother wanted to send a little unsubtle *hint* about …it was so mortifying! Mom would just laugh hysterically, until tears came to her eyes and she couldn't catch her breath… OK. Truly disturbing. Today, it cracks me up just thinking how silly my mother was! However, I have spared my own children the pain of that fanmily "tradition", and it is officially retired. We stick to the good ole dull but safe "candy-and-orange-in-the-toe" tradition. 🙂

    **We put our tree up on my husbands birthday (November 10) and keep it up for all 4 of our birthdays (which means it usually comes down February 6th). I know. It's a bit extreme. We may have to re-evaluate that tradition. But we have gotten quite attached to Birthday Presents under the tree…

    **We are a fourth generation "Christmas Eve Jammie" Family. So it is a very "serious" tradition! We try to make sure all the new attire is matching, too (this takes advance planning).

    **We eat a full truckers breakfast before opening any presents on Christmas morning. My mother raised us with the bribe "no presents or stocking candy until you have a decent meal in your stomach!"…And I carried that one over for my own children.

    **We see how long we can drag "the opening" event out, by having everyone choose one present, open them one at a time in a circle, and then everyone plays with that gift for awhile before we do another circle opening. Our goal is to make Christmas last "longer every year". (without buying any additional number of presents) Our current record is 7 hours. This year, we are going to a movie on Christmas afternoon in-between our "opening extravaganza". We think we might even get to stretch Christmas out to a full 9 hours!! 🙂

    P.S. Many people still put up the Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve. It is a European / Scandanavian tradition. My Grandmother is Norwegian. The children would always go to a friend or relative's home on the day of Christmas Eve, and were brought home later that night, when the tree was up and the presents were waiting underneath. It made a tremendous "big bang" surprize for the children! I even thought of trying it one year. But it would just SOOO ruin our whole "make Christmas last as long as possible" theme we have going on!!

    – Wishing you all lots of JOY this year!

  • Wow. These are just all so wonderful. I told me agent I thought a BOOK of these would be pure gold. They're awesome. Who wouldn't like reading a collection of these?

  • Latoya

    Great idea John!

  • Latoya

    OH. and you should hurry before someone steals the idea 🙂

  • watching the muppet christmas carol.

  • FreetoBe

    My favorite memory: looking at all the presents under the tree. I always wondered how so many could fit under there.

    We decorated our tree on my birthday for years (Dec 12). My mom was in charge of making sure that there were no “bare” spaces on the tree. Then she made sure each strand of that silver icicle stuff was individually added to enhance the effect just “so”.

    My children were born and raised in Germany, so we didn’t have Santa. Instead, the “Christkind” came on Christmas Eve, decorated the tree, and left presents, including an orange in the toe of the stocking. Even though they are now in their 20s, my kids still can hardly wait until after church services before coming home to open presents on Christmas Eve. I also give my kids jammies every Christmas, and they always expect them. And our Christmas Eve meal is always pizza, a quick dinner before opening presents.

  • Natalie

    @casey i love the muppet Christmas carol! It was a tradition for us to watch it. Really, I would put it on for the kids- I have about 10 younger cousins on each side of my family and we would always get together with my dad’s side for Christmas Eve and my mom’s for Christmas Day. Whenever me and my cousin who is the closest to in age as me on my mom’s side get together for Christmas- which is only every few years now- we still put it on even though we are both in our twenties.

    Also, we play cards and dominoes. It’s really fun b/c all the generations compete, ribbing each other and trying to cheat by peeking or hiding cards or dominoes. When we play certain games my dad tends to have a big advantage. People say he cheats and try to find evidence, but I know it’s b/c he counts. It’s funny trying to watch his brothers and other family get so frustrated, he just smiles and laughs.

  • we totally watched the muppet christmas carol; I’m 20 and my brother’s 16. We’ve seen it a million times, I know ALL the words- but it still made us laugh. Then I had to go to work.