Sydney M. Williams
Essay from Essex
“Remembrances of Christmases Past”
November 30, 2019
“Christmas is a season, not only of rejoicing but of reflection.”
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
When one is still young – in one’s forties – the past (at least for most) is longer, has more days, than the future – a sobering thought as we approach the most joyous days of the year, the Christmas Season.
Memory is an odd, but healthy, function, necessary even. Our minds are remarkable, in that one tends to remember positive times while relegating bad memories to the dust bin. This essay is a compilation of short, happy remembrances of eight past Christmases over eight decades, from 1944 to 2012. They also speak to the stages of one’s life – stages that seemed long in anticipation and experience, but short on reflection. For me, these remembrances allow the marking off of one’s life in ten-year increments. I marvel at the change a decade can bring, especially when one is young.
Christmas 1944 – My earliest memory of Christmas: My father was at Fort Patrick Henry in Virginia, about to be shipped to Italy with the 10th Mountain Division. I knew he was away but paid little attention. My mother had brought us to her childhood home in Madison, Connecticut when my father entered the Army nine months earlier. I was three, about to turn four. My father had been a skier for the past twenty years; he now was with the Ski Troops, so it was thought right to provide me and my sister with skis for Christmas. The small amount of snow on the ground allowed us to try them out. But what I remember best about that Christmas was the red fire engine I received – a beauty on which I could sit and, with a wooden handle, turn the front tires, as I wheeled it around the dining room table.
Christmas 1952 – By now the War was over. Ike had been elected President. We were back in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The family had grown from four children to eight, with one still to come! A highlight was getting the tree on Christmas Eve. “Judy,” a Chestnut mare with the shoulders of a workhorse, was hitched to a sledge on which the younger children rode, while the older ones walked, ran or skied alongside. We would head into the woods in search of the perfect Fir or Spruce. Arguments would ensue, as each one of us wanted our tree chosen. Finally, autocratically but efficiently, my father, with sensible advice from my mother, selected a tree. Tears forgotten, we would load the fallen tree on the sledge and head home. There we would unhitch “Judy” and bring the tree into the house. Decorating was always fun, but the real excitement came when my father brought a bucket of water, which he placed near the tree, then lit candles attached to the branches. We had supper, then got ready for bed. Afterwards, we came downstairs to hang up our stockings and listen to our mother read The Night Before Christmas, laughing when she read the words “…a little belly that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.” By this time, we were so excited we could hardly talk. Then the door to the kitchen opened and in walked Papa leading “Mitzi,” the Shetland pony on whom we had all learned to ride. He led her into the living room where a horseshoe was hung next to our stockings, then raised her front legs and danced about the room, providing a delightful Christmas memory.
Christmas 1962 – I was stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Even though Christmas that year fell on a Tuesday, I was able to take a bus to New York to spend the evening and the day with Caroline whom I had met a year earlier and with whom I had fallen in love. Her parents lived at 86th Street and Park Avenue. Being young and healthy and having just finished eight weeks of basic training, I thought the walk from Grand Central would be easy, not realizing there are twenty blocks to the mile, and I had forty-four to go. The temperature was in the 20s, with light snow. I walked up Park Avenue through the slush. I made it in time to go get her parents a Christmas tree on Lexington Avenue, at a cost of three dollars for a skinny, scrimpy little thing with half a dozen branches.
Christmas 1972 – By now we were married, and our family was complete. Edward, the youngest, had been born in June of 1971. Sadly, our fathers had died within a year of each other – mine in ‘68 and Caroline’s in ‘69. We were living in the backcountry of Greenwich on Mooreland Road. Sometime around 5:30AM on Christmas morning, Caroline and I awoke to a crash in the library below our bedroom, where the stocking had been hung in hopes that Santa would come. Sydney, our oldest at six bringing his four-year-old sister Linie, had snuck downstairs to see if Santa had indeed been there. Linie, whose room was on the other side of the house was occupied by her maternal grandmother, had been sleeping with one-year-old Edward. Sydney woke her. Together they put pillows in her bed to make it look as though she was still asleep, then crept downstairs. In their excitement, they pulled down the line of stockings. By the time, Caroline and I got to the room there was paper everywhere and two breathless children explaining to us that Santa had indeed come. I called my mother around 7:00 that morning to tell her all the presents were open.
Christmas 1982 – Another ten years gone by; the children were growing up. We were still living in Greenwich, but now on Lake Avenue. By this time, none of the children believed in Santa Claus, but no one wanted to admit he did not exist for fear it might jinx Christmas day. Son Sydney was home from his first year at Deerfield. Linie was in the ninth grade at Greenwich Academy and Edward was now in the sixth grade at Brunswick. We attended Christmas Eve midnight service at St. Barnabas, about a mile up the road. Christmas was more sedate than ten years earlier. After the presents were opened, we visited Caroline’s mother at the King Street nursing home.
Christmas 1992 – Our mothers had died two years earlier, like our fathers within a year of each other. With two children in Europe – son Sydney working in Berlin and Edward finishing a semester abroad at the London School of Economics – we made the decision to celebrate Christmas in England’s Cotswolds. Linie, who had graduated from college in 1990, was working in New York, so flew over with us. We spent Christmas at the Lygon Arms, an inn that dates back to the 16th Century. It is about halfway between the Welch border and London. During England’s Civil War (1642-1651) it had been used as a meeting place by both Oliver Cromwell and Charles the First…on separate occasions, of course. On Christmas Eve we walked to midnight services at St. Michael & All Angels in Broadway. Christmas Day was a feast – breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner and supper. We wondered, how could there be so many thin English people with so many meals served? On Boxing Day there was a Hunt, which gathered in the courtyard of the inn. While we all had a good time, our children expressed sorrow at not being home on Christmas morning, a sentiment with which Caroline and I agreed, and one we took as a compliment.
Christmas 2002 – Another ten years gone by. Caroline and I, now in our 60’s, were living in Old Lyme. The children were married, and five grandchildren had appeared. Sydney and Beatriz were living in London with Alex and new-born Anna; Linie and husband Bill Featherston in Rye, NY with children Caroline and Jack, while Edward and Melissa in were New York City with one-year-old Emma. With the exception of the London crowd, we all had Christmas in Old Lyme. (Caroline and I headed to London a few days later for a belated Christmas with our British grandchildren.) In Old Lyme, we attended the 6:00 o’clock service at St. Ann’s, where Linie and Bill had been married five and a half years earlier. Stockings were hung; Santa appeared, and Caroline, at age two and a half, had a grand time discovering what delights he had brought. The two other grandchildren were more interested in being fed.
Christmas 2012 – Now in our seventies and with ten grandchildren – the last had been born four years earlier. The grandchildren were at an age when they preferred to wake up Christmas morning in their own beds. But because of the sciatica I had developed three weeks earlier in Florida, Caroline and I spent Christmas Eve by ourselves in Old Lyme. On Christmas morning the families of our three children – all sixteen of them, including in-laws – drove up, from Greenwich, Rye and Darien. They spent the day and Christmas night with us. Photographs show that Santa once again had appeared, and they show that the grandchildren – ranging from four-year old Edith to twelve-year old Caroline – had fun opening presents, playing, and just being with one another. That Christmas would prove to be the last we spent at the house on Smith Neck Road in Old Lyme. From then on, we were with our children and grandchildren at one of their homes, in Rye, Darien or Lyme.
Now, nearing eighty and looking back over eight Christmases, one in each of the past eight decades, it is amazing and frightening to see at how fast the years have gone by. When this saga began, sixty-eight years earlier, Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House, and the population. was 140 million. In 2012, Barack Obama was President and the Country held 330 million people. Think of the changes in life’s conveniences, medicines, communication and transportation. The time during which I grew up is as foreign to my grandchildren, as my grandparents’ world was to me.
I thank God for the good fortune that has been mine – for the family I have, for the wife that I found fifty-eight years ago, the three children we raised and their spouses, and the ten grandchildren they have produced. It is a fun to look back on carefree days as a child, to remember my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and to imagine their childhoods. Coming from a large family, both in siblings and cousins, I remember our playing together – ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ the riding of horses, skiing with my brothers and sisters and with our father, he on skis brought home from Italy right after the War and for which he paid $0.70 a pair. I think of school, my teachers and classmates, and of our lives in Greenwich and Old Lyme – of the children growing up. Our lives are so full of remembrances, and each memory reminds us of how many people and experiences help mold the person we become. I remember the awkwardness of dancing class, ski racing and the moment I fell in love with Caroline, and I cherish the births of our children, and I treasure the magic they brought to Christmas, which reappeared with grandchildren, and I enjoy the vicarious pleasures they continue to give. I think of that magic that does not change – of eyes round with excitement, dating back generations, as children peek around corners to see what Santa has brought.
Each year, as the calendar closes in on December, we watch favorite old movies: “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Bishop’s Wife” and, especially here in Connecticut, the 1945 film “Christmas in Connecticut,” with Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet. We re-read or remember special books: The Gift of the Magi, The Little Match Girl, A Christmas Carol and, of course, on Christmas Eve, as we sit with children and grandchildren around the fire with stockings hung from the mantle with care, someone will read Clement Moore’s A Night Before Christmas. (I once read the story over the phone, in mid-day Connecticut, to a three-year-old grandson, before he went to bed in London).
Life takes us on a voyage without a map. Each morning when we rise, we have no idea what the day will bring, where destiny will lead. That boy of three riding around his grandparent’s dining room table could not have imagined the places he went or the offspring for whom he bears partial responsibility. He could never conceive of dreams fulfilled or of disappointments experienced. Perhaps most surprising would be to discover that he now lives less than twenty miles from where he was on his first remembered Christmas. The magic of Christmas is that it knows no age and it knows no place. It is wherever people gather (and have gathered) on the 25th of December. It is tradition – church services, family, plum puddings, Christmas trees, wreaths and stockings. It is love. It is as Churchill said a time for reflection. And, we should never forget that it is Jesus’ birth, and His promise of life everlasting, we celebrate. As long as we believe, Christmas will never lose its magic.