I have been told I have a remarkable memory, and I’ll humbly admit that it is true. However…it is slipping.
Lots of entries here at The Holy Bee of Ephesus are autobiographical reminiscences, and I have found recently as I’m writing them that I’m straining to remember dates and details that were once clear as day. My “steel trap” memory (my Mom’s description) is getting rusty.
Like many people, some of my favorite memories are of Christmas, and I find that I remember Christmases of my early childhood better than those of just a few years ago. This may be due to never spending more than a few Christmases in any one house. Mom and Dad were always renters instead of owners, because Mom often grew bored or dissatisfied with houses, and we would frequently pack up and move (sometimes only a few blocks.) I liked it because moving was an adventure, and it gave each Christmas a unique feel and flavor, but even those once-vivid childhood Christmases are starting to fade and go a little sepia-toned…so I figured I’d better get to writing before they are gone from my brain cells for good.
Woodland, California is a mid-sized town about twenty miles northwest of the state capital of Sacramento. My grandparents settled there when they came from Oklahoma back around 1940, and Woodland and its smaller, semi-rural satellite towns (Esparto, Yolo, Winters, etc.) were my extended family’s home base for more than fifty years.
My first four Christmases were spent in four different houses, but in September of 1978, we settled down for awhile. A big, Spanish-style adobe house on the corner of First Street and Craig Avenue in one of the older sections of “historic Woodland” was my home for my fourth, fifth, and sixth birthdays (on December 3), and the first Christmases that I really remember.
In ‘78, there was me, 4, a pre-school student at Montessori and attendee at Mrs. Lanier’s in-home daycare, my sister Lori, 12, a seventh-grader at Lee Junior High, Dad, 39, who worked in auto body repair at Winter Motors in Sacramento, and Mom, 30, an elementary school secretary. We were definitely a comfortable level of middle-class, but with a touch of blue-collar in the mix.
Living nearby were my mom’s older sisters — Aunt Jonna and her husband Uncle Hugh were ensconced over on Rancho Way in one of the more upscale areas of Woodland. This was their home for over a quarter century and the site of many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Aunt Thana was single at that time, and if anyone in the family moved house more than us, it was her. Even my remarkable memory cannot keep up with the amount of places she lived during this era. Jonna and Thana had a mix of kids still at home and adult kids already out on their own, but all still in the general Woodland area. Grandma and Grandpa were living a ways up the Capay Valley, in the tiny town of Guinda along Cache Creek…
The earliest memory I have of the days leading up to Christmas ’78 (which may be my first Christmas memory ever) was of making a Christmas card at preschool with poster paint and Christmas-shaped sponges (trees, bells, angels, etc.). I also remember sitting in the rec room at Mrs. Lanier’s daycare listening to a Christmas-themed record album featuring the Geoffrey Giraffe family from the old Toys R Us ads. (Internet research tells me this was 1975’s A Merry Geoffrey Christmas.) The big Christmas movie release that year was Superman with Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. I saw it at the old State Theater — the first movie I saw in a theater — and it made quite an impression. It wasn’t long before I was toting my mayonnaise sandwiches to Mrs. Lanier’s in a red Superman lunchbox.
Instead of getting a pre-cut tree, we did a saw-your-own expedition to a tree farm this year. (Or maybe that was ‘79. I curse my four-year-old self for not keeping detailed notes.) The tree farm would have been up in Placerville, near Apple Hill, and the tree we got was a massive, bushy monstrosity, probably Scotch pine, and over nine feet tall in order to properly fit in our arched front window. Unlike some of our other houses, First Street had high ceilings — and an open floor plan with square footage to spare, so Mom totally rearranged all the furniture every few months or so. From week to week, you never knew if you’d be sitting on the couch to watch TV in the living room, the formal dining room (which we used as more of a den), or the linoleumed area off the kitchen.
We decorated the tree with a standard set of glass balls, bows, candy canes, and tinsel garland (which I enjoyed wrapping around myself and swishing about the house, which may have worried my parents in those pre-enlightened days.) There was also a pink shoebox full of plastic Disney character figurine ornaments flocked in a thin velour which grew balder and mangier over the years, and a potpourri of oddball tree hangings acquired in various ways through various holidays, including a grotesquely overweight topless “angel” with pendulous breasts, handmade out of glazed clay by someone with a skewed sense of humor. The (clothed) angel tree-topper dated from Lori’s first Christmas in 1966.
Our actual stockings, the ones that would be filled on Christmas morning, were red fake fur, topped with white, and our names in green glitter. They were not put up until Christmas Eve. In the weeks prior to that, their place on the mantel was taken by two massive, striped “decorative” stockings, filled with nothing but flat cardboard.
It might have been on Christmas Eve, or a night or two before, that Mom got the idea to drive around to all of our relatives’ houses and take pictures of them in front of their Christmas trees. The only surviving pic from that series is of my Aunt Thana and the two daughters that still lived at home, Kelly and Leah. Leah, 7, had the flu and was running a fever (obvious in the pic below), but took the time to run into her room and laboriously gift-wrap a tiny rubber King Kong finger puppet as my Christmas gift.
I know there’s a big Open Presents on Christmas Eve vs. Open Presents on Christmas Morning divide in American society. We were morning types all the way (as are all right-thinking people), but were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve — in this case, I opened Super Friends pajamas. I suspect that present was pre-selected for Christmas Eve opening by Mom. The overall superhero theme was exciting enough, but as an added bonus, the pajama bottoms were footed. My preference for footed pjs remained (inappropriately) long past the point where they made them in my size, resulting in some very ragged, stretched-out footed pajamas in my drawer around second grade. (I’m told you can buy them as a gag gift in adult sizes now. But would they really be a gag gift? My finger has lingered over the “click to buy” button a few times…)
Christmas Eve dinner was usually eaten out in those days. I’m told that in my infancy it was always at the Hong Kong Cafe, the Chinese-American place on Main Street that we went to as a family many a Friday night year-round (alternating with Round Table Pizza.) A little bit later, probably around this time, we switched our Christmas Eve dinner to the Corkwood Lounge, located within the local bowling alley, Woodhaven Lanes (famous in family lore as the place where Dad met Mom.)
When Christmas morning came, I lunged for the largest present at the back of the tree, which I had been intensely curious about. It turned out to be a Lite Brite, which led a parade of old-school, four-year-old boy-type stuff, including a toy toolkit and cash register, cowboy boots, puzzles (a Batman & Robin puzzle was a long-time favorite), magnets, a racetrack, and a parking garage for my Hot Wheels, which seems a little odd. (“Thrill to the breathtaking, high-speed adventure of…public parking!”) But I loved it, so I guess some marketing genius somewhere knew something about the preferences of four-year-olds in 1978.
Mom always laid out the stuff we got and took a picture of it. Dad found this tradition somewhat distasteful, but it provided a handy historical record in later years, and frequently answered the question of “When did I get…?” Out of respect for Dad’s aversion to this memorialization of avarice and conspicuous consumption, when I reorganized the family photo albums a few years back, a lot of the “loot” pics didn’t make the cut. The 1978 example below is the sole survivor.
For the first — and I believe last — time, we hosted Christmas Day dinner for the extended family. Each family group got their picture taken in front of our huge tree. Despite not being a member of these individual family groups, I did my best to horn in on each picture, since it was my house. (I can be spotted on the couch to the left, trying to subtly lean forward.)
Our family was pretty debt-free in ‘79, so sometime that year, Mom decided to take some time off. Since she was home full-time now, I said goodbye to Mrs. Lanier’s daycare, but I still did a half-day of preschool, moving from Montessori (Mom didn’t care for their bullshit “philosophy”) to St. Luke’s, located within an Episcopalian church, but with no religious overtones that I can remember. Dad opened his own body shop, which seemed to cover rent, food, and utilities for a family of four. (What “malaise,” Carter?) Grandma & Grandpa went back to live in Oklahoma sometime late that year. The move turned out to be short-lived, but they were out-of-state for Christmas ‘79…
It was always claimed that I never had a picture with a mall or department store Santa because I would cry. I suppose that’s true, but I seemed to have no problem with the Santa who was seated out in front of Woolworth’s (a strange place to park a Santa, but I swear that’s where he was — in a throne-like chair right outside the front door. I guess his big red coat kept him warm.) I told him I wanted Hot Wheels, which definitely pegs this memory as 1979. Even though I was cool with this holiday costumed character, what did terrify me was the snowman at the Value Giant super-drugstore. Blobby, amorphous, eerily silent, seven feet tall if he was an inch, he wandered the aisles of the store looking for kids to freak out. That was the worst part — he wasn’t pinned down to one place that could be avoided. He roamed. He could be around any corner. Visits to Value Giant were very stressful for me in December in the late 70s.
I had the great Is-Santa-Real debate with the neighbor kids, and I was still coming down firmly on the “real” side. The neighbor kids were part of a big Mormon family, and I spent just as much time at their house as at my own. They were the types who actually did door-to-door caroling. (And because they were Jesus-obsessed, they downplayed Santa, hence the debate. I always thought it a little malicious that the nice Mormon kids said they left a fire burning in the fireplace overnight through Christmas Eve to prove their point.)
My sister and I opened a joint present on Christmas Eve. If memory serves, it was Ron Popeil’s masterpiece “Mr. Microphone.”
On Christmas morning, I came downstairs to a large Tonka SUV (with changeable wheels) under the tree, accompanied by a Mattell Power Shifter (the Blazer Racer model), an Etch-A-Sketch, the Operation game (“It takes a very steady hand”), Tinkertoys, Brainy Blocks, a Snap-Tite glueless model car, and the incomparable — and short-lived — Stretch Armstrong.
Christmas dinner was at Jonna and Hugh’s, as it was most years. Stretch Armstrong sprung a leak as soon as I got there, and no amount of tape or Band Aids could stop the hemorrhaging. Armstrong ended his Christmas Day in Aunt Jonna’s dumpster. (ED. NOTE: After reading this blog, my sister confessed to me that she and one of my cousins had secretly punctured Mr. Armstrong that day to “find out what was in there.”) No Grandma & Grandpa, but there was a new face around the table — Aunt Thana had begun dating Buck, who officially became Uncle Buck when they married in early ‘81. Buck’s first memory of me, which he delights in reminding me and everyone in earshot every time he sees me, is that I spent most of 1979 imagining I was a dog named Barfy.
1980… Mom went back to work, as a dispatcher for the Woodland Police Department. Dad continued to run his body shop on Kentucky Avenue on the north side of Woodland. I had graduated preschool and moved up to the Big Show — kindergarten at a real elementary school. The Empire Strikes Back had come out that summer, and my every waking moment was built around Star Wars. Grandma & Grandpa had returned from Oklahoma, and were settled in to a little house on Clover Street, where they remained for the next few years…
December 1980 was a family landmark: our first Christmas with cable! It didn’t give us a multitude of channels yet, but it did give us HBO. There wasn’t even a cable box, HBO was simply Channel 4 on the TV dial. (I remember the cable installer sweating and cursing as he tried to drill through our incredibly thick adobe walls while I observed from a respectful distance, hands clasped behind my back.)
Because it was still such a novelty, we watched almost everything HBO offered that month. Looking at the December 1980 HBO guide now (thanks to once again to the magic of the Internet), everything in it gives me a jolt of recognition. When I was six, I must have flipped through that guide until it was as thin as Kleenex, because each page is imprinted on my memory. We watched the John Ritter mediocrity Hero At Large, the Fifth Annual Young Comedians Show introduced us (and the rest of America) to Pee-Wee Herman, I thrilled to my first James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever (HBO was a bit of a mixed bag back then — a nine-year-old Bond movie was one of their main features that month), and I was vaguely unsettled by the creepy, melancholic British animated film The Water Babies. (I did not watch The Amityville Horror.)
Rich Little’s Christmas Carol had made its HBO debut the year before, and continued to run each December through much of the 80s. It featured the moderately-talented impressionist Little playing each character in the Dickens story as a different celebrity. A triumph of editing and make-up, to be sure, but I never understood why Little was such a big deal. All of his impressions sounded like variations on John Wayne or Johnny Carson, or were so simple and obvious that your drunk uncle could do them.
And here is the first of several Christmastime encounters with The Muppet Movie. It was on the cover of the HBO guide, and I watched it almost every time it was on throughout December. And, despite having no plot or thematic elements tying it to Christmas in any way, it became a staple of broadcast TV on Christmas Eve for a few years in a row during the early 1980s. I don’t know why.
The new decade was all about sleekness and streamlining, and it appears this was reflected in the choice of our Christmas tree. Out was the big, bushy 70s-style tree, and in was the more spindly spruce that became the mainstay of our Christmases for the next six years or so. We also switched from big colored lights to the more modern small bulbs. It was a new era.
The Woodland Christmas parade was always the first Saturday in December, and was always scheduled to start at 10 in the morning, but to get a good viewing spot, you had to get there much earlier. And if it ever actually started before 10:45, I’ll eat my Santa hat. The adults brought folding chairs, but I usually ended up sitting on a cold curb to see a procession of high school marching bands, antique cars, floats, flatbed trucks full of civic organizations and fraternal orders tossing handfuls of hard candies, and Shriners scooting around on their tiny go-carts all making their glacial way up Main Street.
The present we got to open this Christmas Eve was another joint one between me and my sister, and was the infuriating electronic matching game known as Simon. I don’t recall the one-present-on-Christmas-Eve tradition surviving long past this.
Despite it becoming habit a year or two later, thanks to my virtual copy of the old December 1980 HBO guide, I know we didn’t watch The Muppet Movie on Christmas Eve because it was on at 10:00, and we were in bed. What we did watch — probably at my sister’s insistence — was the fairly horrid Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Live On Stage (8:00-9:30). Pictures from this goddamn thing are rare as hen’s teeth, even on the Internet, so I’ll show you the one I dug up and let you draw your own conclusions. I went to bed to await Santa’s arrival with vivid images of the scary evil queen and the grotesque dwarfs in my head. It was an even more restless Christmas Eve than usual.
I decided I didn’t want to see any stockings or Santa gifts as I was coming down the stairs, so I covered my eyes and Lori guided me by the shoulders until I was standing right in front of the tree.
Almost everything under the tree for me was Empire Strikes Back stuff — action figures (both the typical small figures, and three of the foot-tall ones), playsets, books, and other miscellanea. Lori got the Queen album The Game and the AC/DC album Highway To Hell. Her musical taste as a 14-year-old girl overlaps perfectly with mine as an adult. The only non-Star Wars thing I remember was Connect Four, and I can confirm that Sis was, indeed, sneaky. (ED. NOTE: Just ask Stretch Armstrong.)
One flashbub on Mom’s Instamatic was a dud, resulting in some super dark pictures.
Mom was dispatching on the graveyard shift at Woodland PD, 11:00 pm to 7:00 am. As a result, our Christmas morning began when she got off of work. She opened her presents in her uniform. Her gift from us was a police radio scanner, which is kind of weird when you think about it. I can think of few less pleasant things than sitting around in my leisure time listening to my job. But she seemed to like it, and Dad could drift off to sleep listening to Mom on the grave shift fielding calls about liquor store robberies and domestic assaults. (Woodland was not exactly Bedford Falls, even back then.)
Christmas dinner was once again at Rancho Way…
A new house, a new restaurant for Christmas Eve dinner, classic TV holiday specials, new Christmas toy obsessions, and more Muppets wait in the wings for the 1980s…tune in next year for “Christmas On Woodland Avenue.”