Chester Martin: Christmas At The Martin House

Monday, December 17, 2018 - by Chester Martin
Chester Martin
Chester Martin

Both my parents loved Christmas so there was no wonder that I was brought up in the same tradition. Soon after Thanksgiving my mom was busy with the preparations, as she never had to work - especially during the Great Depression when I was growing up. Women whose husbands already had good jobs were not allowed to be employed, the idea being to have only one bread-winner in each household, allowing another bread-winner in another household to have work.  My dad was a Letter Carrier - a Federal employee, you see - and so my mom was able to remain home and enjoy a domestic life which included preparing for Christmas and other seasonal events.

Christmas at our house was always a happy time.

Yes, it's true that, although already very commercialized by the 1930's and '40's, Christmas was still imbued with a spirituality which has been lost to a great degree in the intervening years - at least in my opinion. There was no such thing as a "black Friday" in those days, with its ensuing maddening midnight mobs, for example, rushing to find "bargains". The stores might open an hour or two earlier on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, but no policemen were needed, and no "security" problems were ever apparent.

It is also true that my parents were older than most of my friends' parents, and therefore were perhaps more "doting", though conservative at the same time. Both had had strong Methodist upbringings, and there had been at least one ordained minister on each side of the family. We had an upright piano in our living room and my mom could play all the old Christmas carols of her - and my dad's - youth, so our Christmases might be considered to be at least 60 percent religious, with Santa Claus making up the remaining (commercial) 40 percent.  In earlier stories I have told how my mom used her natural ingenuity, to find me nice presents every Christmas - even during the bleak World War II years, for most children's toys of those times were made out of wood and cardboard, stripped of all metal, which was sorely needed for  the "war effort". (In earlier writings I have told how she was able to find excellent pre-war gifts for me - barely used - in the many pawn shops dotting the "old", much narrower, 9th Street downtown.)

All churches had candlelight services back then - same as today - where lit candles were displayed in the windows - and at least at Brainerd Methodist Church - many of those services would close with short white taper candles being passed throughout the congregation, and which were duly lit, to the singing of "Silent Night". It would be at that moment when the True Spirit of Christmas would touch every heart.....

Then Christmas morning would finally arrive, and the three of us would gather around the lighted Christmas tree in the living room. Santa's gifts would have already been spotted: these were never wrapped, but plainly visible from the little hallway that led from the bedrooms to the living room. Needless to say, I would be the first to see these and inspect them up close. And then, somehow I was always given the privilege of opening the first "wrapped" gift with my name on it. The three of us then alternated in opening the successive presents, with mom usually insisting that dad open his before she opened hers. Guess who got the most presents? You would not be wrong if you said ME! (And I have contemplated this fact many times as an adult: how fortunate I was to grow up in such a loving and caring family, for I had cousins and friends whose parents were not nearly so well-off in those Depression years, and therefore unable to provide so well for their children). Before all the presents were opened the phone would start to ring - usually for me: "Did you get that baseball glove  you wanted?", or, "Have you opened my present already"? All of this may sound pretty hedonistic today - especially in light of both the Great Depression and the War Years - but perhaps it was Christmas (and Hanukah) which came along each year, just in time to keep us all from going insane from all the bad news. The ensuing New Year always brought a calming effect with a return to normalcy.

If Christmas came on Sunday, I might see  my Santa presents before going to church, but I was not allowed to touch them till later, as church always was of foremost importance. Then, when we got home again following the special Christmas services, the next item on the agenda would be to enjoy the wonderful Christmas dinner that my mom had been preparing for days on end. Aside from the regular items such as turkey, ham, dressing, etc., there would be home-made fruit cake, prepared a full year before!  Mom had inherited this old custom from her mother, Mattie Smith Young, and HER mom, Elizabeth Sarah Willett Smith (1827-1912), from "Old" Washington, Tn. They would bake the new cakes soon after Christmas (which probably provided welcome heat throughout a coolish house), and then wrap the cakes in linen cloths. Large round tin containers would be waiting to receive these cakes, and then, when cool, they would be placed under beds in the more distant, and cooler, parts of the house, where all the ingredients could meld together for the entire new year. Sorry, folks, that I cannot tell you how these cakes tasted as I positively hated ALL fruit cakes at that time! But the custom of making your own cakes and storing them as described, smacks a bit of Colonial Williamsburg, don't you think? (Oh, yes: the large storage tins had lids that had been punctured by hand to create very ornate air vents to sort of round out the sense of "antiquity", don't you think?  The concept was somewhat like those decorative colonial "samplers" that hobbyists try to imitate today.  When I, years later, held the estate sale for all my parents' belongings, I remember that those two cake-tins were the first items to go!

(I think I have made myself sound like a "poor little rich kid", but rich we were not! My dad had simply waited until past 45 years of age to marry, and had lived very frugally in boarding houses around the city, saving his post office salary - at one percent interest -  for many years before I was born. By my time he had saved "adequate" funds to provide for my mom and me. There were only the three of us, whereas my wife came from a family of six. She would have a totally different story to tell....)

But back to my main Christmas theme: Pat (my wife) and I were blessed a few nights ago by CAROLERS who arrived by bus, and who flocked into our front yard - a true "heavenly choir" - to sing several very familiar Christmas songs. They came here from our Belvoir Neighborhood Association, and we thoroughly loved it!  The churches which I remember from many years ago, which frequently only had a piano for instrumental accompaniment, have by now transitioned to mighty pipe organs, with the eventual addition of such features as hand bells and even guitars and percussion instruments. These have also made a great impact on, and contribution to, local religious music, but the simplicity and directness of a cappella Christmas Caroling is very hard to beat. We hope that that old custom never fades away, and will be just as alive in 2119 (and far beyond) as it is today! Thank you SO MUCH, Belvoir Neighborhood Association Carolers!

And that thought leads me back to one of my favorite Christmas themes: how a simple Austrian parishioner, Franz Gruber, was once faced with the dilemma of providing music for a Christmas Eve church program. Something had happened to the church's pipe organ that very day, and he had to improvise a simple tune which he could play on his guitar and sing to. He worked on his new composition for the brief time intervening before the service, coming up with the song now known round the world as "Silent Night" - the simplest, and best, Christmas Carol of all.  It was - and is - THE favorite Christmas song of the Martins, for sure.

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Chester Martin can be reached at

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