Friday, December 4, 2015

Christmas Memories From the 1940's and '50's

Marshall Fields Christmas Tree Mark McMahon Artist @Linda Bruinenberg Rowland under the tree in the Walnut Room-an annual tradition.
The Walnut Room, Marshall Fields in Chicago

Today, I'm posting some Christmas memories from my growing-up years in the Chicago area. Hopefully, memories will trigger some of your own and you'll write about them for future generations in your own families. Don't just think about it. Do it!

Christmas Memories From the 1940's and '50's

When I was growing up, on December first my mother turned to the last page on the calendar and planted the seed of anticipation. “Oh look, it’s December,” she’d often remark. And immediately, my brothers and I started thinking about what we wanted Santa to leave under our tree. Our excitement grew day by day.

We turned the pages in the toy section of the Sears catalog over and over again, and we marked the initial of our first name by the items we wanted most, confident that Santa would bring at least one of our heart’s desires.

I looked forward to the time right after school in December because every year a Chicago radio station ran a serialized children’s story called “The Cinnamon Bear” which became a real part of Christmas for me over the years. The adventures of the two children and the Cinnamon Bear never changed, it was the same story every year, but that didn’t matter. I listened to each episode as if it were brand new and thrilled to the happy ending each year.

After a long, cold walk after school on December days, the smell of Christmas greeted me the moment I reached home. I’d open the apartment door to the pine scent of the Christmas tree mingled with the many delicacies Mother baked. She made an assortment of cookies that pleased every palate. Cinnamon rolls with icing drizzled over the top tasted so good straight from the oven. Coffeecakes, muffins, homemade bread and even her fudge, that never did get firm enough to pick up, graced our December table. Memories of a warm kitchen, the air filled with spicy aromas, and an after-school cup of hot chocolate and a fresh-baked treat remain with me these many years later.

Because our apartment had little storage space, Mother wrapped the gifts as she bought them and then stacked them up on the two dressers in her bedroom. All through December, she sent my brothers and me on little errands to that bedroom. “Bring my pincushion,” she’d say, and off I’d go to the bedroom to get it. The sight of the stack of gaily wrapped packages made me unbearably curious, but I knew better than to shake the packages. All I did was look and wonder which ones were mine.

I enjoyed buying gifts for my family almost as much as receiving them. I was the neighborhood babysitter from the time I was about ten. I made the grand sum of 25 cents an hour and I saved part of that hard-earned cash all year for Christmas purchases. I bought gifts for each member of my family and also for some of the children I took care of. At our school parties, we were to bring a grab bag gift marked ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ with a limited dollar amount. They were always small things, but I looked forward to getting that grab bag gift every year. It was the highlight of our class party, always held on the final day before the Christmas break.

When I got to the pre-teen and teen years, my friends and I rode on the elevated train to downtown Chicago for a visit to the famed Walnut Room in Marshall Fields. We seldom got to eat there as the lines were long and the food a bit pricey for girls our age. Instead, we stood in the entryway and gazed at the spectacular tree decorated more ornately than any at our homes. The dining tables closest to the tree were those most coveted, and it seemed more old ladies sat there than people with children who would have loved to dine so close to the magnificent tree.

Close to Christmas, the postman delivered a big box filled with packages from my aunt and uncle who lived in Phoenix, so far from our Chicago home. Aunt Jane wrapped her gifts fancier than my mother did and the sight of those gaily wrapped gifts brought sheer pleasure. I’d check all of them to see which one was mine and wonder if I could wait until Christmas morning to open it. But wait I did, as there was never any opening of gifts until the specified time. On Christmas Eve Mother sent us into the bedroom to bring the stacked packages to Dad. We watched as he placed them around the tree. Oh, what a glittering array it was by the time he’d finished. All evening I kept my eye on those packages, while little shivers of excitement ran up and down my spine. Mother shooed us to bed early, but not until we’d pinned one of our everyday socks to the back of a chair. No fireplace mantel for our stockings in the small apartment we called home. “The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner Santa will come.” It was her Christmas Eve mantra.

In the morning, my brothers and I tumbled out of bed and rushed to the living room to see what Santa had left us. Santa’s gifts were never wrapped but sitting somewhere near the tree. We all knew which one was ours for hadn’t we marked our wishes in the Sears catalog? After the excitement of seeing the surprises from Santa and checking our stockings, which always held an orange and walnuts in the shell, we opened the gifts one by one as Dad passed them out. Often, the packages held little things or something to wear but a few had new toys that thrilled us.

When the last gift was opened, we had a big breakfast, and it was the one day of the year I was allowed to eat fudge early in the morning, a special Christmas treat. The rest of the day we played with our new toys and I helped Mother in the kitchen with a special Christmas dinner. Often it was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, a special recipe my grandmother passed down. Sometimes my Aunt Vivienne and Uncle Jimmy came for Christmas dinner. Their daughter, Carol, was my age and an only child. She always got many more gifts than I did but it never seemed to bother me. I accepted the fact that she didn’t have brothers to share with like I did.

December holds many happy family memories. Our Christmases today are somewhat different than those of long ago, as we’ve made our own traditions with our children, as they are doing with theirs now, too. But the warmth of a family celebrating together remains constant, and I pray it always will.


  1. Thanks for the reminder, Nancy. I just posted a 1940's era Christmas memory on my blog.
    Roy Beckemeyer

    1. I have just read your poem, Roy. It was wonderful. I felt like I was right there with you at your Catholic school on a snowy day just before Christmas. A very nice memory.