Mildred Louise Bondurant
1921 – 2005
Relationship to Fawn: Grandmother
Christmas was my mother’s favorite holiday, perhaps favorite time of year. She loved trees, Santas, the exchange of cards, family dinner, pretty much everything. She once told me things she loved about it, that I would summarize by saying she felt that people seem to want to come together at Christmas, be generous, remember that life has deeper meaning. I’m not sure you’d get that feeling if you were Christmas shopping in the week before Christmas, but she felt it and she loved the whole season. So, I thought it would be nice to post a few brief memories of the season she had shared with me; small glimpses into her youth.
First, though, I’ll begin with one small memory of my own of Christmas with my mother. Perhaps this has lingered on because it was after attending a church service on a Christmas Eve, and, though my mother was pretty religious in her private way, church was not a big part of Christmas for her – it was more about family and, perhaps, community. So this was unique.
It was either the first or second Christmas after my father died, when I was in 7th or 8th grade. My mother had taken us to the chapel on the Fort Holabird military base for Christmas Eve services. I have no memories of the service itself. It’s the aftermath that left an impression. Everyone spilled out into the crisp night together; happy, friendly, chatting, wishing each other well. The kids, bundled up, played under the moon in the field across the street. Eventually the voices died away in the distance as everyone walked away and we strolled down the street in the winter night, our footsteps muffled by the light snow. It was very peaceful.
I have many memories of my mother, by her tree, giving out gifts, writing cards, and preparing family dinners, but this peaceful night is one of my favorite.
In my teens, I had veered far away from what I perceived as my mother’s increased religiosity following my father’s death as I wandered down alternative spiritual paths. Even after I became Jewish, Christmas never changed much for my mother in her relationship to me. It was still a joyful time of year and all about family and community.
That love of hers for Christmas has a lasting symbol in our family. In 1991, while we lived in Oregon, she gave our two-year old daughter, Fawn, a stuffed bear that she loved immediately.
“Sherman” has been with Fawn ever since. He has traveled with her. He went camping with her. He went to college with her. And he still lives in her bedroom, perhaps her favorite gift from childhood. Fawn reminded me today that Sherman turns 24 tomorrow.
So, now a North Carolina memory. The main Christmas story I recall from my mother about her time growing up in rural North Carolina is about lighting the Christmas tree. Today, we look in people’s windows and see their lit trees that stay lit for hours. This is a little different.
Mom said in the week before Christmas someone would go into the woods and cut a tree, or sometimes buy one. The tree would be brought into the house for decoration a couple days before Christmas or even on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve they would put candles on the tree; that is to say, real candles. Because of the obvious dangers of flame, the candles did not burn the long hours that electric bulbs burn today and were more closely watched.
How did they put real candles on a tree? It took care. She said the candles fitted into a holder that clipped on the tree branch. It looked something like this:
Many had a pendulum that weighted the candle holder in place while adding more decoration.
The candles were spaced out and kept clear of other decorations.
Mom told me that they would light the candles on Christmas Eve as the culmination of decorating the tree. While the tree stayed lit, the family would eat, have warm cider, and sing carols. Christmas morning, the candles would be lit again while presents were unwrapped and breakfast served.
She said that sometimes the candles would be lit again when family were gathered, on New Year’s Eve, and on the 12th night, after which the tree came down.
When she told me the story I imagined the warm light the candles would cast and the scent of the wax. Her childhood in the 1920s was close to the end for the experience of most children with real candles. Electric tree lights swept the market in the 1920s and ’30s, and now we rely on the warmth of our memories to recreate those long ago North Carolina Christmases of my mother’s youth.