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Memories of Christmas Past

Christmas is a time for new joys and fond memories.

My Christmas memories begin in West Raven at my Grandparent’s home. During my early childhood, Christmas was spent with many of my cousins at the two-story house with its two coal stoves.

Because of those stoves none of us kids were allowed to get out of bed until the fires had been rebuilt and the floors were warm. This seemed like an eternity when you’re waiting to see what Santa left under the tree in the living room. Being one of 16 grandchildren, my memories are of a house filled with people, love and laughter.

However, some of my most vivid memories of long ago, childhood Christmases were of times before the big day when I didn’t have to share Grandma’s attention.

Back then, Christmas meant that Grandma’s Home Demonstration Club would be holding their annual holiday party. These were usually held in the banquet room at Wimpy’s or at Mullins Motel.

While the club usually met every month, this was their special event for the year. There would be no recipe exchange, household hints or crafts taught at this meeting. This was strictly a social event. All the club members would attend the party in their holiday finery and best of all – they were allowed to bring guests. Grandma always took me and sometimes my mother came, too. The banquet room was always elegantly decorated for the season with fresh pine, holly and candles, along with a beautiful Christmas tree.

Under this tree, members would place gifts to exchange at the end of the party. There was always a special present for me.

I could easily pick out my gift from the others because it would be wrapped in Santa or snowman paper while the adults’ gifts would be gaily wrapped in paper with bells, stars or poinsettias. Sometimes there would even be a gift wrapped in a Christmas towel or a scarf. The ladies worked on dressing these packages just as they took great pains with their own appearance for this event. Many of these presents had beautiful bows adorned with sprigs of holly, groups of bells or artificial poinsettias. Many times I saw Grandma or one of the other ladies remove these bows from their packages and pin it onto their dress or coat to be used as a corsage.

I remember many of the presents I received at those long ago parties. One year my mother made me a set of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. Another year Grandma go me a book about the adventures of explorers in the Arctic. As I got older the presents changed. The last one I remember was a wooden chest with a hinged lid and a handle that could be used as a pocketbook.

During the parties the ladies sometimes played games for prizes and there would be a memorial service for members who had passed away during the year. There would be dinner, dessert and then the highlight of the evening – a special program. Sometimes I thought it was special and sometimes I didn’t.

As a young child this was not my favorite part of the party because I was forced to sit still and be quiet. I knew that I would catch what-for if I misbehaved. And as I grew older my appreciation of the program also grew.

The one program that remains most vivid in my mind was the year a storyteller presented the “Little Match Girl” to all of us assembled in Wimpy’s banquet room.

Today we would call her a master storyteller – back then they called this type of program a recitation.

Now I’m sure that some of these programs were simply just that – recitations of words or poems that a speaker had memorized. This however, was a grand performance.

The lights were lowered and we all sat in the flickering glow of candlelight. Amid that glow, Billie Sue Hurst rose to tell the story of the “Little Match Girl.”

The room became so quiet, it seemed as though everyone was holding their breath. No one wanted to miss a single word as she began her story. In a few brief moments she had transported us to the cold and dirty city streets that were home to so many people, all of them strangers to each other and also one lonely, little girl.

As she wove her tale, her voice would rise and fall with great sorrow and compassion as she talked about the poor child who had only rags for clothes. Her descriptions told of the colors and the cold all around the child – bleakness next to opulence.

Her voice changed as she spoke for the girl, asking the finely dressed theater patrons to please buy her matches. Yet, when one of those people answered the girl with a gruff “no” or simply ignored her, it seemed as if she was another person. Even her mannerisms and posture changed as she moved from one character to another. Yet, she was not acting out the parts of a play, she was merely telling the story.

This, she did with such detailed description that my mind could see the scene before me. Her words artfully painted a masterpiece.

She told us of the people who ignored the girl’s plight, as she became colder and colder and finally lit one match after another in an attempt to warm herself.

As I sat in the midst of the group of women I felt as though I was that little child and I remember shivering as if I was sitting in the cold instead of in the festive room surrounded by people who cared about me.

As she told this part of the story I remember her striking matches one by one and smelling the sulfur in the air of the gaily decorated banquet room. But to each of us, listening intently to her tale, we were in that dark, cold alley watching as the child took the last match from the box and struck it against the cold and dark. We witnessed the death of the little girl from the cold weather and the cold indifference of the people who shared her world.

There was not a dry eye in the room when the lights were turned back up. Only then did I notice the many handkerchiefs and tissues that had quietly been removed from purses to dry tears. I also recall that only then did I realize my Grandma’s arm was protectively wrapped around me, as if assuring me that the fate of that poor child would never be mine.

Now, whenever I hear the story of the “Little Match Girl” I am transported back to the banquet room in Wimpy’s to remember a great storyteller and a grand lady and the loving comfort of my Grandma’s arms.

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