Happy ghosts of Christmas past

The ghosts of Christmas past who haunt me are not the scary, chain-rattling kind of the Ebenezer Scrooge novella. They’re happy ghosts who poke smiles out of me when they nudge recollections of childhood Christmases.

I must have been 4 or 5 years old when mom made cookies to leave for Santa to enjoy during his stopover at our house in Colome, South Dakota. Before I went to bed Christmas Eve, we carefully placed a plate of cookies on a side table near the tree with a note for Santa.

I was so excited, I couldn’t fall asleep. I called for dad to ask for a drink of water, thinking that might help me calm down. He brought it in, sat on the edge of the bed while I gulped a couple of swallows, then gave me a hug and kissed my forehead before saying goodnight.

He definitely had sugar cookies on his breath. Should I have been suspicious?

As in most households, there was the tradition of having certain foods on the table for Christmas dinner. In addition to the usual turkey and stuffing, there was always a bowl of mom’s fruit salad: thin slices of apple, halved seedless grapes, no raisins thank you very much, bits of marshmallow, canned mandarin oranges, canned pineapple chunks, and walnuts — dressed with mom’s patented whipped cream and Miracle Whip combo. Yummy.

At least once during the holiday period from Christmas to New Year’s, we had plum pudding for dessert. Mom got the recipe from dad’s mother, knowing it was a tradition from his childhood he hoped would continue.

I don’t know why it was called pudding. It was a cake made with suet instead of Crisco or butter. Mom poured the batter into a coffee tin and steamed it in a large kettle on the stove. The topping was pretty much just butter, egg yolks and sugar. Dad could never make his plum pudding and sauce come out even, his excuse to have a little more of one, and then the other.

And then there was mom’s fruitcake.

Mom’s recipe used candied fruit, pecans, and booze (or was it brandy flavoring?). She usually made it in mid-December so the flavors would marry as it aged.

Upset that my sister and I had helped ourselves to some of the fruitcake before Christmas, the next year she decided to hide it. One day after school, while they were still at work, we hunted for the treasure and found a loaf sandwiched between two big pots in the cupboard.

I had a plan. We would carefully unwrap it, take a couple of very thin slices out of the middle, and then push the two halves back together. The fruitcake was so moist, the two halves stuck together perfectly. No seam, no fuss, no muss.

Flash forward a couple of weeks. Mom’s voice rang out from the kitchen. “Jim, Barb — you kids got into the fruitcake!” We went to the kitchen to face the music, and there was the loaf of fruitcake, about four inches shorter than it should have been. I guess we revisited the crime scene too many times.

Other holiday memories:

Helping dad shovel the snow off the walk, he in unbuckled overshoes, a leather jacket, and wearing a fedora. Always a fedora.

Snooping around and finding a Roy Rogers cap gun and holster on the top shelf of the hall closet, a gift for me that mom promptly took back to the store to exchange for something different when I gloated about it.

The pleasure of buying dad a special gift to unwrap the day after Christmas, his birthday.

Reading the comic books I bought for my sister before I gift-wrapped them. Yesterday I just finished reading a hilarious paperback about very wrong test answers that I bought for my college-age grandson for Christmas. Bad habits die hard.

Spending Christmas at my grandparents’ house in Mitchell, South Dakota. My mom had five sisters and a brother. The three-story house was gloriously full of cousins, aunts and uncles. The highlight: playing Chinese checkers with grandpa.

The happy memories continued to accumulate after childhood:

The biennial train trip from Yakima to Tacoma for Christmas at my wife’s parents’ home. It was a very early morning departure with very sleepy kids, who always wanted to be awakened when we passed through the Cascade Mountains.

Taking 8 mm films of family members opening gifts — films we watched once and packed away. Years later, I had the films transferred to DVDs, which we watched once and packed away.

The year my mom cooked a roast instead of a turkey for Christmas. My sister and her husband, Den, and their kids joined us for the holiday. Mom always cooked beef until it was gray. That’s how her mom did it, so that’s how she did it. As dad carved at the table, Den, a medium-rare guy, said with a twinkle in his eye, “I see you burned the heck out of the roast again, Gladys.” Everybody froze. After two beats, mom just laughed and said, “No pie for you, Den.” Whew!

My first Christmas with Karen. No fruit salad with marshmallows, but, oh, the cranberries, freshly ground with an orange and sweetened with a bit of sugar. This will be our 27th Christmas, and I’m counting on enjoying her special cranberry relish.

Visiting my retired parents in Sun City, Arizona, during the Christmas season. We went early because dad’s church choir had a special holiday concert in the middle of the month. My sister and I would always robe up and sing with his choir.

This year, my son, daughter and our grandson will join us for Christmas. I can’t wait to add more happy memories to the collection.

Jim Flint is a retired newspaper publisher living in Ashland. You can reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com

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