Virgin Wool

December 13, 2011

In this installment of Here Are Poinsettias: A Child’s Christmas in Harrisburg, we learn about 1950s Christmas card delivery and The Poinsettia Song.

By the time we got home, the day’s mail had arrived, and with it, the season’s first Christmas card, which was always from my mother’s friend Pauline. Among the bills and the junk mail and the magazines there’s be one large square envelope. Pauline wrote our name and address in green ink laid down with bold straight strokes instead of the rounded script the Sisters of Mercy insisted on/ “Cards already!” Mother would say. “Well, I suppose I’d better start on ours!”

She sent hundreds of Christmas cards. For the ten days or so that it took her to complete the project, the dining table was spread with card boxes, postage stamps, lists, and colorful seals for the backs of the envelopes. The seals came from charities, and using them was supposed to help fight tuberculosis or provide shelter for orphaned boys, although I didn’t know how they could do that. Rosie and I were allowed to put these on because they could be crooked.

Mother always bought two kinds of cards. She sent most people cards with religious themes such as a reverent scene of the Nativity with the little town of Bethlehem twinkling in the distance, or the Magi tramping across the desert in glittering golden robes, their gifts held out before them in carved casks. But our parents had a lot of Jewish friends, and Mother thought it rude to send Christian images into their homes. There were also friends and business acquaintances whose religious orientation was unknown or ambiguous. Mother liked to keep in touch with everybody, so she sent these people secular cards that pictured something she thought universal, like a Currier and Ives winter scene, and offered Season’s Greetings instead of a Merry Christmas.

If there was no personal message on the card, just a signature, you could tuck the envelope flap in instead of sealing it, and send it for a penny less. Mother always took advantage of these small economies, but she also liked to write little notes to people she didn’t see very often. So she kept the outgoing cards in two stacks, tucked and sealed. The tucked pile was always bigger.

Some years there were so many cards the mail came twice a day. Instead of a mailbox we had a hinged slot in the font door. The postman fed the cards in three or four at a time. Rosie and I came running when we heard them thup-thup into a pile on the floor. We were allowed to open all those addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig Yakimoff “and family,” and all the tucked ones. We liked cards on thick cream stock with words or figures embossed in gold or cards that had a picture of the sending family printed right onto the front. Mother always commented on how expensive these were.

She sent a card to anybody who sent her one. I remember the time there was a return address nobody recognized. “Fishkill, New York? Who do we know in Fishkill, New York?” she exclaimed. It was the secular kind, the front stamped with a green foil Season’s Greetings, the S and the G outlined in gold. Inside it read “Wishing you all the best this holiday season,” and had “Luther and Ella Brinser, Starlight Motel” printed on the bottom. We’d stayed there one night on our way to Canada the summer before. Mother said, her voice rising in indignation, “Now why would they send us a Christmas card?” Nevertheless, she immediately sat down at the dining room table and wrote out a candy cane card for them. It went into the tucked pile.

By mid-December our school days were full of Christmas. We decorated classrooms and collected canned goods for the poor. In sixth grade, Sister Thecla taught us to weave four narrow strips of paper in a three-dimensional object with sixteen points. Every afternoon, in that long hours between recess and dismissal, we folded stars. We cut the strips in different lengths and widths and made stars in different sizes. Eventually we had boxes and boxes full of stars, most of them white, but some of them soft pastels. On some we spread a thin layer of Elmer’s Glue along the points and dusted them with gold or silver glitter. We festooned the bulletin boards and the window frames and the walls with stars. When we had covered every surface of the classroom, we stuck stars on paper chain garlands and strung them in the hallway.

Mrs. Smith, fourth grade, favored decorating with Glass Wax. She taped stencils of bells and candy canes to the windows. We mixed the Glass Wax into a thick paste and smeared it across the stencils with paint brushes. We dyed it with food coloring, red and green for poinsettias and holly leaves, blue for the night sky with a yellow Star of Bethlehem hanging over all. We created snowscapes by dabbing the Glass Wax on with Q-tips. It dried into a translucent frosting, and we’d have to spend much of the morning before vacation started scraping it off.

That was the day of the Christmas pageant. In the afternoon each class gave a presentation. The lower grades staged reenactments of Mary and Joseph being turned away by a grumpy innkeeper. If you could be trusted to remember your lines and deliver them on cue you could have a speaking part. I had one in first grade. Upon hearing what the Christ Child wanted for his birthday, I cried out, “The love of our hearts? Let us make him little king of our hearts!” I practiced the line for weeks, I’n told.

As we got older, there were often too many arguments about who would have a special part, so from about fifth grade on most teachers opted for a simple songfest. We stood in rows ion the stage and and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” and “Adeste Fidelis.”

In seventh grade, Sister Mary Rita, who always urged us not to stand around like bumps on a log, taught us the poinsettia song:

Down in the garden, growing in rows,
Nodding our heads when soft the wind blows.
Close by a window, over the wall,
Spreading our sweetness to one and all.

Here are poinsettias . . .

Back in fourth grade, Mrs. Smith had called the flowers we etched in Red No. 2 C Glass Wax “pwan-setts.” I was always suspicious of her because she was a “lady teacher,” not a nun, so how could she possibly know what she was talking about? In Sister Rita’s song you had to say “poin-set-tia” to make it fit the tune. This proved I’d been right about Mrs. Smith.

At the end of the program, Monsignor gave us candy canes and holy cards. The holy cards had a thin gilt border and featured scenes of the Visit of the Magi or the Presentation in the Temple. In third grade I got one that showed Jesus as a curly-haired preschooler playing marbles on the floor of the Nazareth carpenter shop. In the background, Joseph stood at a bench holding a planing tool and a block of wood. The Virgin Mary sat at a spinning wheel with a hank of alabaster wool in her delicate hands. I understood then why it was always mentioned that she was a virgin. It was her job. She made sweaters out of wool.

Virgin wool.

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