Reprint from 2001
The holiday season that we usually think of as lasting from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day and the Rose Bowl, was non -existent in my childhood. (1947-1958)
This was because we had no television, and celebrated each holiday humbly and separately. Starting with New Year’s Eve, our family tradition was to sit around the game board for a wild and woolly game of Tripoli and consume a small bag of Planter’s peanuts. At midnight, my Dad would take his hunting rifle and shoot a few rounds at the hill at the back of our property. Later, this was stopped because the local store owner built a house on the top of the hill.
For these home- made winter holidays there were no special food or drink, and rarely did my folks go out and leave us with a baby sitter.
The next observed holiday was Valentine’s Day. We had a mild party at school consisting of punch, cookies and chalky candy hearts with sappy mottoes on them, and exchanged primitive Valentine’s cards from the communal box.
As a joke, my Dad gave my Mom a box of laundry detergent.
The nation’s presidents had their day, but each had his own recognition, and were not lumped together for a three day holiday weekend.
A memorable Memorial Day was observed when I got to high school and was proficient enough to play taps on my cornet at a public service at Brentwood cemetery.
My pal and rival in band Gloria sat with the band near the audience to play the melody, while I was stationed farther out behind a tree to play the echo.
The only problem was that she got a bit nervous and skipped a whole phrase in the middle of the tune. I had a split second to decide whether to play it like it should be or follow her lead and play it exactly as she had-after all I was the echo!
Only the band master realized what a neat “catch” it was, everyone else in the audience of elderly WWII vets did not even notice. I went around with a rather smug feeling for a while because Gloria was first chair of the trumpet section, and I was something less, such as third chair solo or something like that.
Our Easter Sundays were spent attending mass and having an Easter egg hunt on our skimpy lawn. Our baskets were not elaborate affairs from the drugstore, but simple Papier Mache bunnies with an open compartment in the back. They were filled with jelly beans, and my Mom used raisins to make a trail behind them.
A not so enjoyable Easter dinner was one that my brother Roy was sent away from the festive table for some smart remark. I was hurt by this as we had our long time neighbor and friend Gus eating with us.
The Fourth of July was always MY DAY, with sparklers and hot dog roast. I was planned for a 4th debut but delayed one day until the 5th. Since firecrackers were legal to buy in Chinatown, S.F., we managed our own little fireworks.
Labor Day was a nonstarter, so have no comment.
Columbus Day was still regarded as important in those days and had connections with a Catholic tradition of a parade with “Queen Isabella” on a float throwing our little loaves of bread to the crowd.
Later, we all adjourned to the Oakley hall for soupas. Delicious in memory.
(Editorial comment- in other present day essays, I have recognized that Columbus was not a beneficial figure in history, and probably should have our national holiday changed to that of Indigenous People’s Day)
Halloween was spent traipsing up and down a country road collecting homemade cookies, home grown nuts and fruit, with one household handing out a small bag of licorice that I was supposed to share with my friend Bobby. He conned me into letting him keep it over night to share out the next day. Of course he gobbled it the minute I was out of sight, and then blamed his sister for the loss the next day.
Veteran’s Day was not celebrated in our life, as there were no vets in the family except some uncles in Michigan. My Dad was too young for the First World War and too old for the second. I don’t know if he was sorry to have missed out on the action or glad not to have been shipped off to die in Flanders fields.
Later, he and our family certainly benefitted from the economics that the military brought to the Bay Area. In 1945 both my parents were employed at the Camp Stoneman military depot, where all our soldiers were processed for the Pacific Theater.
Thanksgiving was celebrated with homegrown turkey and made from scratch canned veggies and mashed potatoes. I never encountered the sac religious dish of sweet potatoes and marshmallow until I was much older.
Our prayers were also much less than the Norman Rockwell painting. It ran something like “Good drink, good meat, good God, let’s eat!”
The most important holiday to us children was Christmas. Our neighbors were treated to our efforts at Christmas caroling complete with trumpet, accordion and voices.
Being a musical family we felt( my Dad felt) it our duty to spend the freezing Christmas Eve driving from farm to farm and rendering our version of Jingle Bells and Silent Night. My future in laws were very appreciative of this effort, as it was the tradition in the “Old Country, Germany” and we were the one family that welcomed them to the neighborhood in this manner.
Our presents were recycled and re-painted thrift store children’s furniture and trikes, homemade knitted sweaters, (better than Ron Weasley’s but not by much, and a doll’s house made from an old orange crate. The stockings we hung on our bedposts with care, were my Mom’s old nylons, and were filled with one tangerine, some Brazil nuts that were known by their politically incorrect name of “Nigger Toes” and some hard candies that are unavailable today.
On the year that I had stopped believing in Santa, I got a “Newskin” baby doll. I told my Mom to take it back to the store and exchange it for a cowboy outfit. So there I was, a twelve year old tomboy rigged out in hat, lariat, spurs and a real cap gun with holster.
Our one food tradition was to eat oyster stew on Christmas Eve before going to midnight mass, and then we had homemade cinnamon buns before opening presents on the 25th. My Mom got back for the Valentine’s joke present by buying a set of men’s garters for my Dad. He again hurt my sensitive feelings by telling her that he would never wear them. There was not too much tact evident in our family life, and holidays seemed to bring out more than the usual tension.
Although we had homemade gifts, not a lot of money for extras, we never suffered. The memories of our years of holiday celebrations stand in great contrast to the present day annual blow out of buying expensive toys and clothes. It is a shame that our national economy seems to depend on a few shopping days.