Blue Ridge Mountain Views
By DIANE WARMAN BLANKS
When I was small, our Christmases were mostly handmade or homemade. We, being a family of limited funds but some culture, vastly preferred the term “handmade.” Well, as the member of the family with little artistic or crafts talents, my contributions to the festivities mostly came from the dime store, where I carried my carefully hoarded allowance money, knotted in the corner of a white handkerchief. My grandmother insisted on the handkerchief so that I wouldn’t lose the coins. (Based on the theory that it was harder to lose a large handkerchief than small quarters and dimes.) It was a practice I loathed because her knots were so tight that I couldn’t get them undone, so I always had to ask the sales clerks for help.
Granny, being a frustrated Victorian born too late, contributed hand-crafted sprays of white pine and hemlock for the back door and for the mailbox (to wish our neighbors and other passersby Merry Christmas.) She didn’t like wreaths; she said they were too stiff and didn’t show off the natural beauty of the greenery. The sprays were decorated with pinecones she’d gathered in the yard and tipped with white paint for snow. She ironed last year’s ribbon for the bows and reused it.
After we got a car, we also made pilgrimages to our cousins’ homes down the mountain to harvest nandina berries and holly from their shrubs, which only grew in “hot country.” These were fashioned, with evergreens, into arrangements for the table and sometimes draped across the tops of picture frames in the true Victorian manner.
Her other major contribution, outside of baking the wonderful Christmas hen and dressing, was making homemade candy for gifts. She stuffed dates with fondant and rolled them in red and green sugar she’d colored with food coloring, whipped up foamy divinity (the weather had to be just right for that–a dry cold) and made sea foam, similar to the divinity, but with a brown sugar base.
And we made Oh Little Town of Bethlehem Candy–dates, figs, nuts, brown sugar and coconut, all ground up in the old hand-cranked grinder and mixed together. It was rolled out into ropes, sprinkled with powdered sugar and cut into inch-long pieces. Granny had developed the recipe, and my Uncle George had named it. I suspect today her recipe was based on some Mideastern delicacy she had read about.
Mama was in charge of cracking and peeling the recalcitrant fresh coconut–pounding a nail through the eyes to drain out the milk and then cracking the nut with the back of the ancient family hatchet, followed by the hard job of peeling.
I helped grind, beat, stir, test spoonfuls for the correct temperature in a teacup of cold water and sample. Each of us got our own box of the candy for Christmas and didn’t have to share with Anyone. The rest went as gifts to the cousins, special family friends and to Granny’s doctor, whom she counted as Almost a member of the family.
Mama was also in charge of locating the tree and somehow getting it to stand upright in the living room. We didn’t own a tree stand (which we considered a needless, self-indulgent extravagance), so this usually involved a bucket and multiple rocks. An old sheet hid the bucket and made “snow” under the tree, where I loved to lie and look up through the branches. When the tree was decorated, we finished up with a family extravaganza of tinsel-throwing (the tinsel carefully picked off last year’s tree and saved from year to year.) Later on, the tree also featured several of the tinfoil Moravian stars that I’d learned to make in Brownie Scouts.
Each of us usually got two presents (plus, Santa usually gifted me with one or two things more, hopefully among them being the latest Nancy Drew book. One Christmas, I asked Santa for a new wig for Mama’s old doll and, Somehow, he miraculously produced one. I still have the doll.)
Oddly enough, I remember the gifts to my mother more than I do my own, probably because they were the source of much whispering and plotting between Granny and me. One year, Mama got a new red wool hood that tied under her chin–to keep her ears warm while she walked home from work in the snow. (We didn’t own a car in those early post-Depression years, along with many of our neighbors.) Another year, she got a cherished musical powder box, another year a perfume atomizer that she’d been eyeing. Mama always wore perfume, her favorites being Tweed and Bluegrass.
Christmas Eve, after dining on the once-yearly exotic treat of homemade oyster stew, we took turns reading the Christmas Story aloud. The rest of the evening was dedicated to turning off the house lights so we could enjoy the colored lights on the tree, much package-rattling on my part and listening to our cherished record of Lionel Barrymore’s Scrooge.
And then we were all snug in our beds, under multiple layers of handmade quilts.
I hope your Christmas makes memories as good as these. It doesn’t take a lot of money and no batteries are required.