ghosts of christmas past

I have been going to write this post for a few days. Every time I sat down to begin it, life got in the way, so I decided I just need to start it today.

Why the title of the post? I was going through old photos and it just sort of hit me is that was the title. The photos I was going through were of parties and black-tie fundraisers from many, many years ago.

One of the things I loved best about a lot of those parties were the dresses we had back then. So we’re talking the 80s through mid 90s. And especially in the late 80s, the dresses were pretty. That was one of my favorite era for black tie dresses and gowns. I am not talking the Dynasty-esque dresses, there were just a lot of pretty, well made dresses.

How fancy you dressed back then, was dictated by the event itself. And the events themselves were kind of special. You couldn’t just buy a ticket and subscribe necessarily, you need to receive an invitation to do that. ticket prices for the event but they weren’t exorbitant. Of course back then sometimes they felt exorbitant because a lot of us were just starting out working full-time after college, etc.

Back, then black tie was predominantly floor length as far as the dresses went. Sometimes tea length, it just depended on the dress. White tie was something else again. Perhaps one of my favorite gowns was this crazy beautiful iridescent silk taffeta Victor Costa gown. My mother bought it for me at Nan Duskin in Philadelphia.

There were a lot of stores as in department stores and boutiques to choose from. And they always had a selection of ladies black tie attire. And the dresses were pretty, the fabrics had body to them.

And most importantly, at least for me as compared to the majority of the dresses you see today in photos, Hoochie Mama wasn’t hollering for her dress back. Sure there was tons of strapless, but the dresses left a little to the imagination and they weren’t sliced all the way down the chest bone or all the way up to the pelvic bone, it seemed.

Also back then? Plastic surgery was reserved for something your mother’s friends did, sometimes badly. Today it feels like no one can age gracefully (or otherwise) and plastic surgery and procedures seem to be starting rather young.

The parties, especially at Christmas, were so much fun. The Charity Ball is in the Philadelphia Charity Ball, at that point was December 23. but before that starting in November, there were all sorts of events and Christmas parties. Around Thanksgiving was Pilgrimage on the Parkway.

I remember a few parties that were even held at 30th St., Station. One Christmas party I remember in particular because I had this dress back then that I loved and this party was not formal, it was semi formal. Semi-formal meant short dresses and men wore coat and tie. I had found this dress at John Wanamaker’s when it was still, John Wanamaker’s. The dress was a wonderful red with blue undertones as opposed to orange. It had a halter neck and a regular zip up back but it was the 80s, so the halter collar part was pearls. Not big, huge, Barbara Bush sized pearls, they were regular sized, but that was the entire color. The dress was to the knee.

Back then half of what we wore as far as evening shoes were simple, black peau de soie pumps. The heels were an average height, they weren’t sky high, and the heels weren’t chunky. And if you didn’t have those you had velvet pumps of a similar style. Essentially classic and elegant.

Sometimes we had our hair done in an updo, but not all the time. I have pretty thick hair and I remember one party that I went to in Alexandria Old Town, Virginia. I ended up taking out the up do before the party because the woman had teased my hair into a southern up do and it looked like I was related to Imelda Marcos. I still remember that moment because it was really funny.

And at that time, I had a lot of friends in the Washington DC area. People who had migrated there for work after college and more. And back then when you went to Washington for one of those black ties or Christmas parties, you had to bring your A game. those women in DC knew how to dress. And the dresses were gorgeous down there. So were the parties.

This one group of girls I remember used to do this great holiday fundraiser and it was black-tie edit benefited Toys for Tots. I want to say for a while it was held I think back then at the Ritz Carlton in Washington DC. I remember it was always held on a lower level of the hotel and wherever it was held there were these antique dioramas built into the wall on that level they were kind of fascinating to look at.

And at one of those Washington DC Christmas parties one year, we all met Walter Cronkite. He was in town for something , but retired at that point. I remember how tall he seemed. He had come into DC from Annapolis. He was so nice. He actually did stop to speak to all of us. And his voice in person was just as great as it was on TV. He had been at something at the hotel and literally just stuck his head into the party we were at to check it out. I remember he had such a nice face in person and his eyes sparkled.

This was of course before the age of social media. So there weren’t many photos. Just memories. Like memories of the parental units going to black tie Christmas parties. Or the Christmas parties we went to as a family. All dressed up, white tights, mary janes, and matching dresses until we revolted finally. Oh and don’t forget the matching Christmas nightgowns!

And all of these parties had great food and beverages served using actual china and glassware, and no plastic utensils.

I remember neighborhood parties. I remember one where every year one neighborhood man would wear his Christmas plaid pants. And sometimes a Christmas vest. The pants were what my one grandmother would have called “high water” pants, or they were a little too short. He would greet everyone at every party with a big grin and say “Howdy, neighbor!” (No it wasn’t Texas, it was the Main Line.)

Back then there were quite a few neighborhood parties. As a general society, we weren’t so transient. People moved into areas and stayed, they didn’t move into areas and then flip for the next bigger house. People actually sang Christmas carols, and knew their neighbors. Even if I didn’t want to be all dressed up and looking exactly like my sister, the parties were pretty fun and festive.

Then there were the caroling parties every year with my cousin Suzy. Suzy lived in Newtown, Bucks County. None of us could sing, but we would still gather at Suzy‘s house. There was a little Christmas party, then we would go around Christmas caroling for a while, laugh like hell, and go back to Suzy’s l house. Suzy was also one of the first people I went hunting vintage Christmas ornaments with. Often that meant getting up at o’dark early to hit the flea markets outside of New Hope.

Then there were the family Christmas parties with my mother’s German friends, Susi and Babette. Those parties were spectacular like out of a movie set, but they weren’t artificial. They were natural and gorgeous and very German. The ornaments on the trees, fresh greens, candle light. We always loved going to their houses. And the fun thing about their parties were the people were so interesting and fun. When I entertain today, I still like to channel them. No pigs in a blanket at their houses, which was always fine because that to this day is an hors d’oeuvre, I don’t understand nor like.

In the 90s I remember being invited to this spectacular Christmas party. It was on Fishers Road in Bryn Mawr. A beautiful little house on a shared driveway. I’m not even sure if the house still exists because so many places have been knocked down for bigger houses to be built.

Anyway, the guy that owned the house had something to do with IKEA and he and his partner lived in it. He did this totally glorious European/Scandinavian Christmas party. The decorations were beautiful. Unbelievable trees and greens and decorations. The house was just decked. Candlelight. There were also so many different kinds of fish. Beautiful oysters on the half shell and shrimp and crab and I don’t even know what else. A true smörgåsbord. Ham, beef, cheeses, fruit. The house was like a jewel box. I think the reason I liked that party so much it was like another version of what my mother’s friends Susi and Babette would do.

These parties I remember were all pretty. The houses festive and beautiful. The decorating done by the homeowners, not a Christmas decorating service. Everyone was a little Martha Stewart on the Christmas bus back then. And it wasn’t party trays from the grocery store, these were planned out menus that the hostess did, and for the most part prepared herself. Yes, these kinds of parties are a lot of work, but they are worth it and your guests appreciate it.

As I mentioned, there were the annual Christmas parties you attended with your family. One party we went to we attended for decades. We watched the changes from the first wife to the second wife. With the first wife, sometimes they would all be there to greet you at the door. The wife and daughters in quasi matching dresses of icy perfection. With the second wife, it was all warmer and more genuine. And every year the Christmas tree was different. The most amusing thing about this party is every year the core crowd was the same. It was a party where I knew every year like clockwork that I would see certain friends. It was never the most exciting party, but it was beautiful and nice.

Then you grow up and everything is different again. And what is so funny is how things change now that we are the age of our parents taking all of us to Christmas parties or fussing about our gowns for The Charity Ball.

Me personally? On one hand, I loved all the fun black tie holiday parties and the annual Christmas parties we went to. But then on the other hand, I love our own Christmas traditions in a completely different time.

Now it’s us. Pre-COVID, we did a few Christmas parties, including one at Loch Aerie before she opened as a wedding and event venue. She was restored but the kitchen was just a shell and the ballroom addition was not built. Duffy’s did the catering with a kitchen in a big truck.

But mostly, even before COVID hit, it is us, at home. Those are our traditions. Not as formal, never as dressy. These days it’s more about how will I display my vintage Christmas ornaments and where on my tree will my wool felted Christmas mice will go. But the Christmas dishes and real glasses and silverware still come out.

I remember years ago, before I was married, and I was with someone else, we would go to their relatives for Christmas sometimes. The brother and sister-in-law took the time to do a beautiful meal with real plates and silverware and glasses, and then there was the other sister, and it was a lot of plastic cups and cooking things in disposable tinfoil pans. Obviously, you know which house I liked better.

A friend of my mine and I were talking about all of this yesterday. She texted me a photo, all bundled up underneath an umbrella in the rain waiting for Santa to come by on a fire truck where she lived. She says to me “this is me, no more Charity balls.” And then we both laughed, because I knew where she was coming from exactly. My friend’s parents also threw these amazing holiday parties and her mother’s house was one of my favorites. And like my own parents, everything was decorated and beautiful at Christmas.

And then there are other things that you remember about the season as a little kid. The Sears Wishbook. That catalog was huge and I remember a year after year turning down the corners of pages where there were dolls and toys I wanted. No kid ever got their entire wish list but thumbing through that catalog was kind of a Christmas tradition in and of itself.

So now we are all decorating our own homes. Sometimes my friends and I wonder how our mothers did it all. But as we all decorate, we all remember our ghosts of Christmas past. There aren’t nearly enough photos but we remember the feelings, the sound, the smells. Every year some of the images in our memory fade a little bit, yet many still remain. The echoes of people talking in rooms that no longer exist, with festive music playing in the background. Even some memories of Christmas sleigh and carriage rides. I still hear the jingles of sleigh bells, which is probably why I have some hanging in my house all year round.

Continue to create your Christmas memories. They are so important. And for goodness sake, no paper plates and plastic glasses. The season comes but once a year. Make it special.

Thanks for stopping by!

2 thoughts on “ghosts of christmas past

  1. Carla, as you know I have always lived on Morstein Road, the elegant Mainline parties you mentioned were not part of our past but it was very common for families to spend an entire day or two making Christmas cookies, often with grandmothers or friends helping! As children, at first it was just a tasting experience but as we grew we participated more and more!! Storage of the cookies was always in special tins reserved just for that purpose. My grandmother made so many cut out and molasses cookies she used the 3-4 of the big Charles Chips cans to store her cookies! We ate Christmas cookies until Easter at her house!!! She also always made my mom’s favorite candied watermelon, orange and lemon rind! Now my Aunt Ann always made these thick chocolate chip with raisins cookies that were awesome!! My mom’s sugar cookies were especially good but she also made these wonderful very thin lace like oatmeal cookies!!! I’ve tried to make them and mine come out as lumps!!!
    We always had a big family party with all my mom’s sisters and brother and their families about 1-2 weeks before Christmas.. it was a covered dish …. yum because my mom and aunts were all wonderful cooks!! My parents, brother and I ate Christmas evening dinner, a more formal meal with my paternal grandmother and great aunt Edna in West Chester, as we often did on Saturdays (and always had to watch Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan) We all spent Christmas Eve at our personal churches and next morning at home but then took turns visiting each other for the week after Christmas to check out the presents and sample their cookies!! The kids would all go sledding, as there was usually snow or at our house, as everyone often went ice skating at Lower’s Pond (Turtle Pond)! My mom kept a basket on the porch filled with various sizes of skates and on weekends Mr Lower often kept a bonfire burning so everyone could warm up! My mom, dad and brother were all great skaters but I never acquired the skill even with the double runner skates my mom found at an auction!!!
    Our Christmas seasons were not as elegant as yours (I would have loved to wear that beautiful rust colored gown) but they were filled with family fun, good food and lots of love!
    Merry Christmas Carla ❤️

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