Magical memories of Christmas past

Christmas was always magical when we were children growing up in Toulon. Like many families, both sets of our grandparents lived right there in town. Grandma Jane and Grandpa Dave Murchison lived near the west edge of town; Grandma Verna and Grandpa Bill Lehman lived just a few blocks from us on the south side of town.

Our Congregational Church Christmas program was held on Christmas Eve. We presented the same program each year, which was simply the depiction of the Nativity, enhanced with the appropriate carols: “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “We Three Kings,” “What Child Is This?” “O Holy Night,” “Joy to the World.” The church was always full.

In my recollection, a soft snow was just beginning to fall as we left the church to go to one of the grandparents’. Every year. I’m sure of it.

We would go first to one, then the other. Most years, it seems, we went to the Lehmans’ first, for dinner, since December 24 was our father’s birthday. The very best of these gatherings were when my dad’s sister, Nadine, and her family were able to be there. Having our only two cousins, Amy and Martha, to share Christmas Eve with was heaven indeed!

There we ate oyster stew from shallow red glass soup bowls that cooled the soup almost instantly and made it impossible to get the last three spoonfuls without tilting. It was great fun to float oyster crackers on the buttery surface of the rich soup. Watermelon rind pickles, black olives, and baby gherkins occupied the three compartments of the relish plate. Pale yellow brick cheese added a pungent scent to contrast with the mellow smell of the hot milk.

Dessert was pumpkin pie with whipped cream. One year my Grandma Verna decided to try the brand new Reddi-whip in a can. After several minutes of fruitless efforts failed to get the can to expel the cream, my father took over. He finally succeeded in launching most of the contents noisily into the air and coating a yard-square section of the ceiling with fluffy white cream. Our amusement was instantaneous and the incident quickly earned a place in the family history.

After the meal we opened our gifts. My all-time favorite Christmas present was the Easy Bake Oven from my Aunt Em. I never met my Aunt Em. She was actually a great-aunt – in all senses of the word, being my Grandpa Bill’s sister. She lived in Seattle but always sent gifts to our family to be opened on Christmas Eve. Each year Aunt Em sent a big box of See’s candy and a shoebox full of homemade pfeffernuesse. I have tried with only moderate success to replicate those cookies, hard as rocks and spicy with pepper.

Our stockings there were hung on the huge stone fireplace in the breezeway. Grandpa Bill had gathered the fascinating rocks himself. A fire crackled cheerfully behind the folding brass screen, and if we were good, we got to throw the magic crystals into the flames. The fleeting burst of vivid colors only added to the intrigue. If we were lucky, Grandpa would light the smoking monkey that sat on one of the rocky ledges of the mantel.

Grandpa also burned little sticks of pine incense in a tiny log cabin a few stones over from the smoking monkey. The fragrant smoke wafted up through the miniature chimney. It was a delightful, if somewhat smoky, place for children on Christmas Eve.

My grandfather and his three brothers (Carl, William, Amiel, and Frank) had been harness and buggy makers, so there were always long leather straps of sleigh bells hanging by the doors in the breezeway. Each size had its own melodious sound and immediately upon the first gentle shake conjured the image of Santa with his sleigh and reindeer.

Those same sleigh bells hang in my home. The red glass dishes are carefully packed in a box, perhaps to be used by a generation just now arriving. My memories of those Christmases are precious treasures, too, stored carefully away and shared from time to time or brought immediately to life by the sound of the sleigh bells or the smell of a one-egg cake like I made in my Easy Bake Oven so many years ago.

One Egg Cake
1 cup sugar
1 ½ cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
Put an egg in a large coffee cup (Not a mug.)
Fill half full of butter, cut in chunks and then fill on up with sweet milk.
Add to dry ingredients and beat well.
Add vanilla and mix well.
Pour batter into a buttered 9” square pan and bake at 350° for about 20 minutes.
Cook’s note: This is a very old recipe and therefore lacks the exact measurements we are used to. I have made it for almost 50 years and have never had a failure, so don’t worry about the details.

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