November and December in Vermont are arguably at the bottom of the barrel as far as months go. The combined lack of sunlight and conflicting emotions around the holidays are powerful ingredients for rough and stormy seas.
Personally, I have always had a love/hate relationship with this season: loving those special family moments, lights, decorations, children’s excitement and giving gifts and hating the severity of personal struggles for so many others--struggles from missing loved ones, financial hardships and the pressure of meeting expectations from the commercialism that has invaded our lives.
I don’t remember Christmas being this way when I was a child. Most of my young years we didn’t have a tv. And even when we did, there were only three channels, that was on a good day and if one of us kids stood and held the rabbit ears just right. Our Christmas wishes came from looking through the Sears Wish Book toy pages.
My Mom really did her best to create a magical, warm, loving experience every year through traditions and humor. Wonderfully, she still plays the role to this day.
She has always spent countless hours in the kitchen making our favorite foods. Foods that we only had at this time of year. Tourtière (meat pie) for Christmas Eve, cookies from neopolitan to pecan sandies, Chex mix, stollen for Christmas morning …and so much more.
When we were kids, we decorated the tree one week before Christmas. Decorations were a combination of hand-made dough ornaments (with the child creator’s name and year written on the back) and ornaments that have been passed down through the years. I actually now have most of those childhood ornaments. From the puffy red balls that I used to rub against my top lip while sucking my thumb to the garland that looked like magical, delicious candy. And yes, every year I did actually try to taste that candy.
Our lights were great big bulbs that were each placed against a tin reflector as they were screwed into the thick gauged green wire. These old lights were so heavy that they had to be clipped onto the branches. And hot, boy did those lights get hot! One of my favorite memories is this one very special light. It was red and Dad always placed it in the middle of the tree. Magically, this light would blink on and off. We all called it the heart of the tree.
Christmas Eve tradition included the exchanging of gifts between siblings and our folks. With six kids and two adults, this process was pretty lengthy but always such fantastic fun. My favorite memory of giving to my family was the year I was able to purchase gifts for the first time. I must have been about five years old or so, and we lived in Jericho. It was dark when we all piled into our station wagon and headed to the big city and Woolworths. To this day I vividly remember the awe I experienced when we came into Winooski and I saw all the lights. Lights, lights, lights, from decorated houses to street lights, traffic lights, business lights… the city lights just blew my mind.
At Woolworth my brother Bob and I went downstairs to where the fishing equipment, toys and fish tanks resided. I was ecstatic when I realized that I could buy everyone in the family their very own superball and I even had enough money for one for myself! When home, I wrapped them all, even the one for myself, and put them under the tree with 100% pure joy.
Stockings were a family favorite. Big old hunting socks were used and Santa would leave them on the foot of our bed when he visited our house. I remember one year being awake when he came, feeling the weight of the stocking as he slowly lowered it near my foot. I was beyond excited but I had to pee so badly. Afraid that if I got up too soon to go to the bathroom, he might still be there and I would scare him away! Oh, I endured so much agony that night, laying, waiting, as my bladder felt like it would burst.
We kids would wake up around 5 a.m. We’d go sit on each other’s beds and show each other the treasures we received. One of my favorite stocking stuffers was the Fuzzy Wuzzy Bear. It was a soap that – if you took it out of its box and put it on a shelf – would grow fuzzy hair. Then when his hair was fully in, he was ready to go take a bath.
Christmas morning, we had to wait until everyone was around the Christmas tree and then take turns opening a gift. Santa was pretty practical back in those days. Clothes and necessities were common. But Santa also had a sense of humor!
Somehow Santa learned about my aversion to feet, and one year brought me a huge pillow shaped as a foot, individual toes and all.
Another year, Santa must have heard that I was sprayed by a skunk. To explain, another kid (ironically named Steve Martin) told me that if I picked it up by its tail then it wouldn’t spray me. He was wrong. That Christmas I received a cute little skunk stuffed animal.
One of the greatest gifts I received was in 1971, my Drowsy Doll. The only doll that I ever played with in my life, Drowsy Doll was such a dear friend. I don’t remember when she went away. But she meant so much to me that just a few years ago, my mom found one on Ebay. Now Drowsy is back in my bedroom.
My brother Bob had a similar experience, with receiving a present that meant a lot to him. Only his story is more touching than that of my doll.
Bob, a phenomenal guitar player who even travels from Vermont to gigs in New Orleans, explained it best: “One Christmas can change a life. One present from one Christmas even. I speak of 1971. First guitar. Nobody knew it was going to shape my universe. The takeaway: dare to take chances with gift-giving. You might change somebody’s life.”
Whoaaa... I am just now seeing something! It is only in finishing this article and proofreading it that I am realizing; both my doll and Bob’s guitar were from Christmas 1971.
Like I have said before, “You can’t make this stuff up!”
Julie Gagnon Prior
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she