You know how when you are watching a Christmas movies on TV they have the most picture perfect small (and snowy) towns with all sorts of decorations. And of course the Christmas parties are picture perfect and decorated to the nines with magazine photo worthy canapés.
Real life is a little bit different. We’ll start with how often do we get picturesque snowy Christmases do we have? And the holidays can be messy and not picture perfect although we love our Christmases. Or I do, you might not.
Recently friends of mine from high school pointed out the social media of someone we all once knew. The person is somewhat crackers now, and that’s being kind and perhaps it is a little sad, except I have run out of Christian charity with this one. She is currently posting photos from who knows where of houses she doesn’t live in, people she doesn’t know. But that is not so unusual for social media is it? Fantasy and smoke and mirrors.
My husband always says of me at Christmas that I stress myself out. Maybe I do sometimes, but it is only because I want to spread the magic of the season. I love Christmas and Christmas decorations and the memories they evoke.
This year I decided not to send as many Christmas cards. Why? Because of USPS. Recently I had a gathering for some of my female friends. Mostly high school. I mailed the invitations the first or second weekend in November. We realized that easily HALF of the invitations never reached people! A friend in Bryn Mawr literally did not get an invitation when another friend on the SAME street did! So I will send cards to those I received them from plus a few far away and hold my breath and hope for the best.
We always want that perfect Christmas. Even as a kid I remember that. But some years, that doesn’t happen.
One year, my father picked a tree with what only could be described as crooked. As in the trunk was totally crooked that my father had to lean it against the wall to get it to stand. Our house in Philadelphia had 14 foot ceilings on the first floor.
Then there was the year that kitty our cat got into her catnip stocking early, as in the WHOLE catnip stocking. There weren’t just zoomies, she drunkenly rocked the top of the Christmas tree baaaack and forth while we all prayed she didn’t bring the whole tree tumbling down.
Then there were the Christmases that kids probably loved more than adults. Like one Christmas when I was really little, and it snowed and snowed and snowed, and that is when we were still living in Society Hill, and the streets were quiet because they were so filled with snow, and there were no snow plows. I remember they stopped running at the trolley used to run down the middle of our street and I remember my mother pulling me in a sled along the track with me all bundled up in my little snowsuit, and then I tumbled into the snow and she didn’t realize it first. I was none the worse for the wear, but I think my mother startled the bejesus out of herself.
One of my favorite Christmas memories I have probably mentioned before. When I was really little, my father had a red VW bug with white interior. We would drive down to some railyard in Philadelphia to get a Christmas tree as they came off of the freight trains. It isn’t just the fact that my husband loves VW bugs that as an adult I have VW bug ornaments with Christmas trees strapped to the top. We did that, and then drove through snowy streets to bring the tree home.
Other Christmas memories include going to 9th Street, a.k.a. the Italian market. We would go to DiBruno‘s for cheeses and olives and pepperoncini and more. Then across the street and over to Cappuccio’s for a Christmas roast. Sometimes we stopped at Termini’s bakery, and the spice ladies. Now, with the spice ladies, you had to know how much you spent before you got to them because there wasn’t a cash register they just wrote everything up and if you weren’t paying attention, they would pad your order total by a dollar or two.
When we were little, we went to Saint Peter’s school at 4th and Pine. St. Peter’s always had this wonderful Christmas book fair. At the book fair every year I would get a Marguerite De Angeli, and she would autograph it. She was a famous children’s author and she did the most exquisite illustrations. She was actually quite famous back then, but she was a friend of the mother of the headmistress so she would always come to our book fair. She lived in Philadelphia and died in 1987 at 98 years old. I still have her books. Seeing her for many Christmases and getting a book signed by her is still one of my most favorite and precious Christmas memories. I still encourage people to pick up her books used for their children today. They are the most wonderful stories
St. Peter’s also did this whole Christmas procession thing where we all had these white gowns and we went with candles from the school into the church and they were Christmas carols and what not.
Other things I remember from childhood in Society Hill was going a lot of Christmas seasons to Gloria Dei, Old Swedes’ Church. There we would watch Lucia Fest. Sankta Lucia. At Gloria Dei Church the celebration is held within the walls constructed by Swedish settlers in 1699-1700, in the beauty of candlelight, with a large entourage of young girls joining her in song and procession. For many people, participation in the Lucia Fest is a unique way of marking the beginning of the holiday season.
When I got older and we moved to the Main Line, I have all sorts of memories and some of my favorites are the sound of sleigh bells. When we first moved to the Main Line, we lived across the street from Mr. Gwinn. He not only had magnificent carriages, but spectacular old fashioned sleighs as well. I remember one time when he took my mother and another neighborhood lady on a sleigh ride. Now you have to understand my mother doesn’t like horses and is not comfortable around them. He would leave them with the carriage and the horses while he would dash into someone’s house along the way for a nip of something festive and then come back out.
I seem to remember more snow at Christmas time when we were growing up then we have today. And at that point in time when I was younger and in high school the Main Line was so different. Larger properties, sweeping gardens, and people went all out for Christmas. They also did their own decorating.
I remember being a young teenager on the Main Line before we all drove walking everywhere. Or taking the train. my friend Anna and I would walk into the center of Bryn Mawr and go Christmas shopping at Katydid in Bryn Mawr. Next door to Katydid was an awesome book shop, and down a little flight of steps at a basement level was Mr. Fish’s jewelry shop. And of course, Parvin’s Pharmacy. Going further up Lancaster Ave., Susan Vitale had a wonderful antique store, there was a toy store, and I also remember fondly Eskil’s Clog Shop and The Country Cousin.
And you can’t forget when talking about Bryn Mawr all the hours spent in the Owl Bookshop in Bryn Mawr. I still think it’s a mistake that Bryn Mawr College took that away years ago. It was the most wonderful old bookshop they had new that were gently used newer books, vintage books, antique books, collectors’ books. It was musty and smells like an old library and it was wonderful. I still have almost every book I found there from the time I was a teenager. They would also have a box of orphaned books that they would put out for riders of the train inside the Bryn Mawr train station.It was musty and smells like an old library and it was wonderful. I still have almost every book I found there from the time I was a teenager. They would also have a box of orphaned books that they would put out for riders of the train inside the Bryn Mawr train station.
In Haverford, tucked into one of the train station buildings was Arnold Brown’s Cheese Wheel. Down in Ardmore you had Suburban Square before it was “improved“ and the original Strawbridge & Clothier. And there was still a movie theatre. Main Street AKA Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore also had lots of wonderful shops and there was a FW Woolworths with a lunch counter. They sold great Christmas ornaments there when we were kids, the old school Shiny Brite and other kinds of ornaments. And there was also the Army Navy store and Harrison‘s department store across the street, which also had a branch in Wayne. Harrison’s is where we would often buy our Levi’s, or Levi’s corduroys and the wide wale super preppy corduroys in annoying bright colors.
I remember the shops and everything at Christmas as a kid we’re very festive. This is why I so appreciate places like Smithfield barn, Brandywine View Antiques, Life’s Patina, Burkholder‘s in Malvern, Frazer Antiques, and even Surrey Consignment Shop in Berwyn. All of these places decorate for Christmas as well as having a great selection of things that you can buy as Christmas gifts. It reminds me of how the shops I remember as a kid would get decked out for the holidays.
When we were in high school, our mothers all worked on what were then called the Shipley Christmas Shops. Back then we had multiple religions and ethnicities volunteering, and everyone was OK with calling them the Christmas Shops.
My mother and plenty of my friends’ mothers volunteered for this event. As a matter of fact, I remember the year it was held in an old mansion off of Bryn Mawr Avenue. That was the year they had these fabulous woolens and they were these Christmas plaid tartans and stuff that were magical. I still remember it and this was circa 1979 or 1980.
People don’t remember that this event used to be held offsite. When it was able to come onsite at Shipley and into the Yarnall gym it wasn’t bad for years. What changed were the parents volunteering because they just weren’t as friendly as they used to be. That’s why I stopped going. I used to love to go to this every year, and then there was just this one year that the parental volunteers even at the sign in table were cold. Unfriendly. They weren’t even particularly warm to the older alumnae who came. Oh and they had a Lu La Roe booth. I mean come on. And then, of course, there was the year not so long ago were the woman helping a local business on their booth actually stole from other vendors. (Yes, really.)
And that’s what really changed. It was the attitude of the volunteers and what they were willing to do and really they just wanted the credit to say they did it, and they didn’t put as much effort into it. And they certainly weren’t hunting down great businesses, or even using alumni/alumnae businesses.
Yes, there are a lot of online retailers but guess what? People love these shopping events and I actually think what changed were those volunteering and the attitudes of the purported volunteers who were supposed to be running the event. They didn’t want to do the work. It’s sad, but not just here.
This is something you see across the board with volunteer committees in the region. People don’t want to put the effort into these things anymore. The parties, fundraisers, and these shopping events don’t plan themselves. This is why you are seeing the literal demise of non-profit events, but the demise of volunteerism and committees. Women used to join these committees because it was the right thing to do and it was good to give back. What that evolved into in my humble opinion is how much they could get out of it personally and that was never the point.
So this year, after doing the event since 1960, Shipley cancelled the event. They can’t get enough volunteers apparently which is really sad. Someone said to me about how all these women work and I just kind of looked at them because women have always worked, and volunteered.
Something else volunteer related I always loved was the Christmas Bazaar at The Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr. I am guessing they still do it in some form, but I have to tell you it was amazing!
Upstairs in the church hall and where the offices and kitchen were was the silent auction. You could also buy lunch and sit at a table in the church hall which was all decked out in Christmas decorations and greenery it was fabulous!
Downstairs was the white elephant room where you could find all sorts of things including then fabulous vintage Christmas ornaments. Down the hall from the white elephant was the churches thrift shop which was a treasure trove of items. It was one of my favorite places to find vintage pocketbooks. Then there was a room for toys and then there were a couple of big rooms for books. I always bought way too many books, and still have a lot of them decades later.
A lot of these Christmas bazaars and shops and shopping events my friends and I went to for years and years. They kind of set the tone for Christmas. We also would start hunting Christmas in the fall at the St. David’s Fair. We all still attend the St. David’s Fair and one of my dearest friends pours her heart and soul into this event every year. As a matter of fact, the St. David’s Fair is an event that has aged well which is entirely due to the volunteers.
But Christmas is not just about the decorations and preparations, it’s about a state of mind that is sometimes difficult to achieve some days. There is an emotional component that can be hard.
Christmas is a joyous season, but it is also a bittersweet season. People who have experienced great loss can find Christmas a heavy load. They have their memories with departed loved ones. Others have memories with them and those who are no longer with us. How does one balance it? Do you keep some of the old while incorporating new? Or do you do everything everyone else expects at the expense of yourself?
I find myself thinking of my father and brother in law who passed away this time of year. Both loved Christmas. This was the first time since 2005 which is when my father died, that I didn’t cry when I got to the ornament boxes that still have his handwriting on it. I smiled. It made me happy, like I was saying hello again to ornaments I grew up with. Like the little rabbit ornament that was on my parents’ first tree. I smiled again as I was planning Christmas cookies yet to be baked. I thought of my late brother in law. I can still hear him coming into his house arms full of Christmas packages and referring to my niece as “cake.” We all miss him. He was a tremendous human being, and had the uncanny gift of being able to see people. He was very kind, and he also loved Christmas.
Life is messy, but I suppose it’s what you make out of the mess when all is said and done. We all want these picture perfect holidays, much like all of the Christmas and holiday movies on Lifetime, CBS, Hallmark, Netflix, etc. O.K. if you find those families, please let me know. Life can be significantly less fun at times, and issues (especially around the holidays) take longer to work out.
This has been a hard year for so many people. Economy, life in general, family…or just emotional. The people posting perfect everything without a hint of reality? I am guessing that is what gets them through the day. I have never been a good fake it until you make it, or don’t kind of person. I am just me.
This is not necessarily my easiest Christmas. I have found myself wavering between “Yay, it’s Christmas!” and “Yeah, whatever.”
It has been a long year. For everyone. But there have been plenty of spots of joy and laughter. And there are so many out there who are in truly bad situations. We all need to be grateful for what we do have, not concentrate on envy of what we don’t have.
Face it they all have been long years since the end of 2019 when everything in our worlds’ changed thanks to COVID19. And then of course, it has all gotten longer thanks to insane politics and extremist groups who wish to limit our basic rights and freedoms in this country.
So I am going to take a breath and try to soak up the season, and remember why we celebrate it. Have faith. Things will get better.
Thanks for stopping by.
Hi Carla! I love your writing and am finally getting around to tell you. I too loved the Marguerite De Angeli books. My sister and I always hit the after Christmas sale at Pottery Barn in Suburban Square and the Scandinavian (or German?) store in Bryn Mawr for Christmas ornaments. I still have them and they remind me of my sister. I miss Salad Alley and H.A. Winston’s. I too have for years waited for the rope to drop at the beginning of the St. David’s Fair then giggling while running like hell with all the others into the antique barn (miss the stalls!). Thanks for the memories. Forwarded your article to my sister who lives in SF. Keep on calling out the idiots. Somebody has to!