vintage christmas ornaments

Embracing Coal Region Christmas Memories

2020 has been a stressful, trying year. For me, it has also been a year in which I find myself traveling back through the decades, yearning to connect to a simpler time — reaching out to embrace fond memories from childhood. Perhaps in an effort to escape daily stress or maybe an unrealistic desire to be able to return to “the good old days”, I indulge in this pastime with ever increasing frequency.

Whatever my reason, it has become a comfort to snuggle up beneath a fuzzy, warm throw, dim the room lamps to enhance the soothing glow of the twinkling lights from our Christmas tree, and listen to 60’s and 70’s Christmas song classics — emanating from my smart phone.

It is at this time of year my thoughts inevitably turn to family and friends, but the 2020 holiday season brings with it an exceptionally intense yearning to focus on the days gone by; holidays when our “coal miner’s shack” in the tiny town of my youth echoed with laughter and good cheer from the solid nucleus of the family that called it “home”.

Holly jolly Christmases

Growing up, I looked forward to Christmas time in The Coal Region with the excitement and exuberance typically reserved for children. I had no worries about snowy weather causing headaches for last minute shopping or travel — bring on the snow! I had a romanticized notion of “white Christmas”. Pretty sure, looking back, my parents might not have shared that vision.

My biggest worry was picking out one present for my Mom and one for my Dad, usually resolved by a trip to Miracle Mart in Minersville or Town and Country, in Pottsville (two now-defunct Schuylkill County discount department stores) with the folks sometime in the days before Christmas.

My child’s mind stewed and debated for weeks ahead on what “perfect” gift to get them, but looking back, I now realize my Dad got far more pairs of slippers and bottles of Old Spice aftershave and Mom unwrapped Jean Nate gift sets way more than anyone should ever be subjected to in a lifetime

Meanwhile, Mom and Pop played a game of cat and mouse with me. One of them diverted my attention while the other hustled through the stores, gathered items on my “Santa’s wish list”, quickly went through check-out and hustled the goodies out to the trunk of the boat of a Buick that transported us on our Christmas shopping odyssey.

Play it again

In the weeks before Christmas, planning for the annual Llewellyn Elementary School Christmas program kicked into gear. Led by my school’s music teacher, each class (K through 6th grade) got set to entertain an audience filled with parents and grandparents with songs and skits designed to bring holiday joy.

We would dutifully stream into the school’s auditorium for “dress rehearsals” and nervously practice the song our tiny class would sing. For some reason, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Little Drummer Boy” seemed to follow my class from year to year. Nervous as I was up on that stage, my heart ached in empathy for the fledgling music student who got the spotlight thrust upon him for his part in “Little Drummer Boy”.

I can close my eyes and see Mom, Pop, Nana, and Pappy sitting in that audience, beaming with pride, applauding with gusto. God bless them, their unwavering support got me through the many trials and tribulations of growing up.

Wonderful, magical toyland

The highlight of the season in the toyland of my dreams was the family trip to “the city” to parade through Sears, Pomeroys, Sauers (in the Yorkville section of Pottsville), and the “5 & Dimes” looking at the latest fads in decorations (bubble lights and miniature twinkle lights) and the newest toys to capture the wishes of kids that year.

The countdown to Christmas begins

The Sunday prior to Christmas was truly the sign that Christmas Day was near. Our small church was bedecked in poinsettias, rows of foil wrapped pots sporting a forest of glorious red flowers, standing in reverence across the front of the altar.

Part of the Christmas Day services included a program featuring the kids from Sunday School classes who performed songs or readings. If I was one of them, I fought back the butterflies and marched right up on that pulpit surrounded by those poinsettias to do my folks proud.

After services, we piled in the car and headed to a friend’s tree farm to pick up a fresh tree for decorating that evening. They always saved us one of the best and the fragrance was amazing. Pop would bring it in “to warm up”, cut the wrap off of it, and lean it in a corner of the kitchen.

Decorations would come later on that evening. It was time to head to the local hosey (local volunteer firehouse/hose company) up the street for the kids’ annual Christmas Party hosted for the entertainment of children of the town and members of the organization. (The hosie always smelled like beer and diesel fumes — I can close my eyes and still smell it!.)

The fire hall was abuzz in excitement that grew as we heard the faint wail of a siren as Santa grew nearer, arriving on our hosey’s fire truck. The door would open and in would stride “the big man” himself, all decked out in his holiday finest and “Ho. Ho. Ho”-ing (and sounding suspiciously like one of the guys from town…)

We kids would line up for a turn to sit on Santa’s lap and share our secret hopes for what we would find under the tree on Christmas morning. As we departed, Santa handed us a small box of chocolates, a candy cane or orange, and a gift.

Still flush with excitement, it was time to head back home to bring out the glass ornaments and icicles with which to decorate the now-thawed tree. After 30 minutes of viewing it from every angle and directing Pop “A little to the left. No right” it was finally straight in the tree holder (well, straight enough).

Out came the strands of C7 lights (“Did we get extra bulbs at Miracle Mart?”), boxes and boxes of ornaments – each with a story of its own – that were annual fixtures on our tree.

Sometimes it went well; other times it seemed like nothing worked right or every ornament was missing a hook. Inevitably, my Dad would start out placing those strands of icicles oh-so-carefully and wind up tossing fist fulls of them on to finish up the job.

By the time the day was through, we were exhausted but so very happy. All these decades later one thing is certain; I can close my eyes and be right there again reliving the sights, the sounds, and the scents. I miss those days. I miss those who made that day so very special. But I will always have the memories of my Coal Region Christmases to keep them near.

And this year especially, I find great comfort in that.