Friday, December 4, 2009

Childhood Christmas Memories


Beverly of How Sweet the Sound is our hostess for Pink Saturday and this week she’s asked us to post about our childhood memories of Christmas.

I grew up in Warren, a small town in southeastern Arkansas, and my family had a jewelry store where I worked at Christmas from the time I could barely see over the counter until I left home after graduating from college to pursue my own career. My grandfather Weiss left Kansas at the turn of the century and arrived in Warren on a horse-drawn buggy after riding the Cotton Belt Railroad to the end of the line in a nearby dusty Arkansas town. On arrival in 1905 he found three newly established lumber mills and decided that they would insure a growing town, so he took his diamond ring and used it to finance his dream of owning his own jewelry store. He was also an Optician and a fine watchmaker and it wasn’t unusual in that day for a jeweler to be an Optician as well. A few years later he married my grandmother Turner, a local girl. Her grandfather was one of the original pioneer families that came directly to the Arkansas territory when their ship landed from England in the early 1840’s at Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. My father followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and was an Optometrist as well as a jeweler. His store was a fixture on the square in Warren for seventy-five years.

Weiss Jewelry was considered to be a Guild Jewelry store, meaning it sold fine jewelry such as diamonds, watches, gem stones, clocks, sterling silver, leaded crystal, fine bone china, Dresden Porcelains, as well as novelties and top quality costume jewelry. During the roaring twenties the store stocked brilliant comb sets that flappers desired and brides counted their friends by the cut glass wedding presents they received from Weiss Jewelry. During the Great Depression my grandfather saved every silver dollar that was spent in his store, knowing the sacrifice the person made to part with such a valuable coin during hard times to buy a loved one a special gift.


Photo of Weiss Jewelry circa 1930’s with my grandfather in the foreground and my father in back with customers

Every July my father went to the Dallas Merchandise Mart to purchase for the Christmas season. He took great pride in decorating his windows for Christmas and the Santa above, shown on my mantle at home, is a perfect example of one he might have chosen for his windows. He also had exquisite taste and wanted each present from his store to represent an elegant gift. It had to be wrapped (at no cost to his customer of course) in expensive foil paper, tied with a gorgeous bow, and be a thing of great beauty for the giver to present to the lucky recipient. A gift from Weiss Jewelry was meant to stand out among all of the others. As a young person, I was a junior bow maker and later, as a teenager, I “graduated” to the back-up gift wrapper.

The jewelry business has an unspoken rule about gifts, much like a confidentially agreement with a lawyer or accountant. For example, if Doctor So-in-so comes in and looks at an expensive diamond watch, the jeweler would never say, “Your wife Helen would love that.” Just as your accountant knows your income, your jeweler knows about the other woman. Confidentially is a lesson I learned at an early age.

If any of you have ever worked in retailing, you know that it’s made up of very long hours and hard work during Christmas. I remember going to the post office on Christmas Day with my father after we had opened our own presents at home to see what had arrived a bit late that needed to be gift-wrapped and delivered by us at the last minute to a waiting customer. During the season my parents were always exhausted and, as a child, Christmas just meant hard work and long hours to my family. My parents missed the rounds of holiday cocktail parties and social events. My mother decorated our house on Thanksgiving Day, took my sister and myself to the big city the next day to shop for our gifts, and worked at the store for the remainder of the season. On Christmas day right after dinner, she took our tree down and put away all of the Christmas decorations.

“Why don’t we leave our tree up like other families do?” I asked my mother one year. “They don’t take theirs down until after January first.”

“I guess I’m just sick of seeing it, Sissy,” she said. “I’ve had enough of Christmas.”

I said I would never follow in their footsteps, but of course I did. After college I went into a management training program of a large Federated Department store in Texas and worked long and tiring hours just like my parents. At Christmas time all I could think of was going home and putting my feet up because they were killing me and I was exhausted. As a young bride, it’s amazing my husband put up with me. From the day after Thanksgiving until early January I was either at work or asleep.

All through my childhood I promised myself that when I grew up, if I didn’t work in retailing at Christmas, I would throw the biggest, most elaborate party I could and invite all of my friends. And I would also keep my Christmas tree up until January like everyone else did.


Photo from the Martha Vick website of the exterior of the mansion

Many years later my husband Meakin and I lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was in the late eighties, with my retail career was behind me and a job with more civilized hours, we decided it was time to have our first “big” Christmas cocktail party. We had just remodeled a darling but tiny cottage on Confederate Avenue in the old Civil War Military Park. Although it was lovely, it was much too small to host a cocktail party of the size I had in mind. I was fulfilling a dream and my list consisted of at least fifty people. Fortunately two of our friends had a beautiful home that specialized in hosting big parties and they were both gourmets themselves. Our friends Bill and David owned The Martha Vick House, a gorgeous one story Greek Revival antebellum mansion on Grove Street that they had lovingly restored. Dating back to 1830, it was built by Martha, the daughter of the city’s founder, Newett Vick, and constructed of beautiful hand-made pink bricks with plaster covering the inside walls. I thought it was the perfect setting for the big cocktail party of my dreams.

Vicksburg is a black-tie kind of town and Bill and David know how to throw a big bash. Out comes their huge set of antique Havilland fine bone china and gobs of brightly polished sterling silver. They set up an elaborate buffet table in the dining room complete with lots of silver candlesticks holding tall glowing tapers. A florist friend artfully composed a gorgeous holiday creation for the center of the table. The food that evening included a large footed, ornate cut glass bowl overflowing with jumbo Creole shrimp that had marinated in a garlicky paprika Remoulade sauce. A large holiday ham glazed with bourbon and brown sugar sat high on a pedestal on a large silver tray with sliced freshly roasted turkey breast below it accompanied by homemade biscuits for making your own sandwich, a bowl of spicy pickled Black-eyed Pea Caviar (here’s my version) surrounded by dark party ryes, Tuzzi dip (a cheesy, spicy sausage mix) with crispy chips, asparagus spears decoratively placed on a tray with an aioli dipping sauce in a small Paul Revere silver bowl, a generous platter of Vicksburg tomato sandwiches (no party in Vicksburg was ever considered complete without tomato sandwiches and homemade mayonnaise) and piles of decadent, rich crème puffs and tiny pistachio wafers, both handcrafted by Bill. I'm sorry I don't have a photograph of our Christmas buffet, but below is a spring dinner party in the dining room of the Martha Vick House so you can get a feel for the dining room and see the lovely antique china and glasswear.


Photo of a spring dinner party in the dining room from the Martha Vick website

At the time we belonged to a private club in town, so we hired two of the bartenders we knew from there to tend bar. It was great because they knew what everyone’s favorite cocktail was - who wanted their martini extra dry or up, who drank scotch & soda, and which lady loved gimlets. This was in the day that people had cocktail parties at home. Today many people entertain their friends in a bar or restaurant after work and everyone comes casually dressed and drinks wine or beer. It also seems that no one has their own special drink anymore. I truly miss these kinds of cocktail parties. There’s something special and elegant about getting all dressed up and sharing cocktails and chit chatting with your friends at home (even if it is someone else’s home) that you can’t duplicate in a restaurant or bar. But - the very best part of this particular party was all we had to do was arrive on the night of the party dressed and ready to celebrate.


Photo of a cocktail party from the Martha Vick website

During that same period of time one of my recipes won the National Catfish Contest. Our friend Laurin, the Foods Editor of the local paper, called requesting an interview and pictures for the paper. As we visited, she said, “Sam, I assumed you didn’t know how to cook because you and Meakin always throw catered parties.”

Well Laurin, I think catered parties are the very best way to have a big cocktail bash for fifty or so of your best friends and I highly recommend it for a busy lifestyle, even if you do know how to cook. All you do is arrive a wee bit early, have a cocktail and relax with the owners Bill and David. When the door bell rings, greet your friends warmly while dressed in your finest black-tie attire standing beside the lovely marble top table in the foyer with a huge Christmas tree loaded lights twinkling in the background.


Photo of the foyer during Christmas from the Martha Vick website

But this is the most important part - have fun yourself instead of rushing around refilling the buffet or heating food in the kitchen. Mingle with your guests and enjoy the scrumptious food that someone else has prepared. After your last guests leaves, have a nightcap and discuss your plans for next year’s party and forget the dishes. Now that’s my kind of cocktail party. I consider it my childhood Christmas dream come true.

For additional ideas on how to throw a cocktail party, including how to stock the bar, Southern Accents can tell you everything you ever wanted to know. If you are ever in Vicksburg, Mississippi, The Martha Vick House is open for tours 364 days a year (closed for New Years Eve when they throw their own bash for friends).

Please be sure to drop by and say hello to Beverly at How Sweet the Sound where you’ll find links to other Pink Saturday bloggers and read about their childhood memories of Christmas. Happy Pink Saturday everyone.

44 comments:

  1. sam this was great - I didnt want the story to end!

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  2. What a wonderful story! I love the confidentiality bit. And I think you definitely have the right idea about how to throw a cocktail party. It sounds (and looks) like you had the perfect setting. I'm curious - do you keep your tree up through New Year's now?

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  3. Happy Pink Saturday Sam...
    I loved this story and I thank you so much for sharing with me. You are my kind of gal. Let someone else do the cooking so you can enjoy your own party. Do we have to cook for everything? It is nice to be waited on once and awhile.

    Love it sweetie. I just love it. Thank you for sharing. Please stop by and let me share my story with you. Country hugs sweetie...Sherry

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  4. I totally enjoyed reading this. Felt like I was almost there.

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  5. On this first Saturday of December ♥Jappy Pink Saturday♥. I was away for a while and sure missed running around the blogs arnd seeing all of the goodies everyone was sharing.

    Thanks so much for making my morning so much fun. Hoping that you and those you care about spend a wonderful weekend making memories that will last a lifetime☺

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  6. Absolutely charming story about your family. "I assumed you didn't know how to cook because..." FUNNY!

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  7. What an interesting childhood you had! You've really painted a wonderful picture of the jewelry store and the work it involved. Happy Pink Saturday!

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  8. Hi Sam...I so enjoyed the story of your family's business and the Christmas Seasons work ethic. I loved wrapping and worked lots of places as a gift wrapper. Kind of a lost art with the 'Handy Bags' nowadays! Well, now, I'd say you got the Christmas Bash down pat. Enjoyed all food and decorations at the Martha Vick. Thanks for visiting CollectInTexas Gal Snowy Pink Saturday....Merry Christmas...Sue

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  9. Love this post, Sam! Tampa had such a jewelry store when I was growing up. Every bride registered there and everyone knew that the best gifts came from Magnon's.

    Your party sounds wonderful! Now that's the way to go!

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  10. I enjoyed reading your story and about the family and it's history. A very enoyable post.

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  11. Sam,
    What a delightful post! So beautifully written. I was hanging on every word. The photo of your family's jewelry store is priceless. Loving the old brooches and sparkly rhinestones myself, I couldn't help but think how the Weiss name/brand in old jewelry is also considered the cream of the crop when it comes to jewelry.

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful post despite the fact that my mouth was watering as I read the detailed descriptions of that fabulous buffet spread!
    xo
    Sue

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  12. You know, I read cookbooks for the story. This was just the grandest of stories - do you have to be done? The photos were all so evocative - wish for elegance and going to a party not in jeans -especially for the holidays - but then I really stick out. My favorite? The jewelry store - I know it entailed such hard work, but the old-world elegance of the store is such a welcome change to the flourescent lighting, brass and glass you see today. It was so welcoming.

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  13. Sam, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I have a lot of friends who own retail stores, and I can imagine what they must go through during the holidays. Thank you for being so candid with us. BTW, my cousin's wife is from England, AK.

    I know people in Vicksburg, and I'm aware of the types of parties that Missisisippians throw which are fabulous! This made me smile. And oh, tomato sandwiches... be still my heart! I still haven't perfected the ones my sister's best friend used to make, but I do love them much.

    I haven't toured the Martha Vick house, but it looks lovely. Thanks for sharing.

    Happy Pink Saturday...

    XO,

    Sheila :-)

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  14. I loved reading this and agree, I did not want it to end. Now can we see the jewels and dresses? I remember reading about this stuff in books and dreaming one day I would have beautiful parties and entertain, just did not realize I would be on the catering end of it, but hubby and I enjoy entertaining...I catered my own wedding, I know I lost it right!

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  15. Thank you for sharing part of your Childhood memories, Mollye

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  16. That was a delightful post! I'm in retail right now, actually, but trying to keep the Christmas cheer as this has always been my favorite holiday and I don't want that ruined! Thanks for sharing & Happy Pink Saturday!!

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  17. It was so interesting reading about your childhood and your families business. I think it would be a dream come true to have a jewelry store in the family, despite the hard work and long hours!
    Your Christmas party must have been divine! The luxury of not having to prepare or serve, I think catering is the way to go for sure - especially for special occasions with lots of guests. Good for you for following through with your long ago plan!
    I think you might enjoy my Christmas story, I hope you'll stop by sometime1
    Have a great weekend. Happy Pink Saturday!
    Heidi - Heart and Home

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  18. This was a fascinating post Sam. I loved reading about your grand father's jewlery business and all the work it entailed.

    I also loved learning about the Martha Vick house! Your parties sound so elegant. Your descriptions of your Christmas buffet had my mouth watering! I know I'd love to attend a cocktail party with you!

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  19. I have to admit, I loved reading your story, but wanted to read more about your life growing up. I was surprised to see you now are now in the great state of TX. Are your parents or your family still in the south. Whatever happened to the beautiful store that was in your family since the beginning. I will have to go back and see if I missed something. It's all so interesting I have to ask myself what I have missed in your blog. I know that I come in here every week that you participate in ps but now I want more. I need to follow for sure, I don't want to miss out on anything. THANKYOU SO MUCH for your childhood story. The dinner party story is also wonderful, but I have to say hearing your history was captivating. I am, or should say was a floral designer, long hours standing on our feet during every holiday, learning early on also not to ask to whom something is being delivered, you just never know.....shame on them!! Anyway, I could continue to ramble but instead with close with wishing you a Happy Pink Saturday, Char

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  20. Sam-I loved reading about your 'Christmas History'.

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  21. This was so interesting Sam. Thanks for sharing your family history. I remember the jewelry store in our hometown and wish we still had such stores proudly owned by individual entrepreneurs. The same goes for bookstores. Love your idea for hosting a cocktail party for a crowd.

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  22. Wow! I cannot tell you how much of that I related to. Black Tie parties in the South defined my youth. My relatives were scattered about from Oklahoma to Florida. My mother took such pleasure in attending their parties no matter what part of the region they were in. My father could not always attend, so my mother often dragged me along. "Might as well put all those cotilion learned good manners to work" she would say. Thanks for the memories. It makes me a bit sad I spent so many years trying to shake those years off! GREG

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  23. Sam, this delightful post is an absolute treasure. I'm so glad you shared it with us. I hope you are having a wonderful day and are looking forward to the holidays ahead.

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  24. Just found your blog and loved the Christmas story. I have been to Vicksburgh, and loved it.

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  25. Sam, I enjoyed reading this post from start to finish.

    I loved the family story and how to party. The pictures add so much.

    I understand.My brother worked for Federated Stores and was for years the Display Director for the Burdines stores. He traveled the world gathering beautiful things for display alone.
    He was always tired of Christmas and tired of people buying the decor right off the walls and trees. They actually were not for sale but year after year, somehow, they were sold or otherwise disappeared one by one.

    We always had Christmas eve at his house. He provided the tree and decorations, but he had nothing left to give when it came to decorating it.

    ps, in case I have not told you lately, you have an outstanding blog.

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  26. Sam, I really enjoyed this trip down memory lane with you. Great story. I am with you, there is no party like the one you can have at home-And sometimes, it is best to leave the hard work to someone else so, that you can really enjoy the event.
    Love it! Thanks for sharing.

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  27. this was a wonderful post and wow your party must have been the talk of the town, love your outlook on life Rebecca

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  28. Lovely post... and I really like the old picture of your father.

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  29. Wow Sam! I wish I knew a smidgeon of my own family history and you always weave the most intricate details into your memories! What a lovely post. I actually worked retail for a number of years, too...retail and foodservice...we work when everybody else is playing. Ahhhh well. Someday I hope to be able to throw a beautiful holiday party for at least 50 people...and just sit back, relax and enjoy :)

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  30. You have a way with words. I felt like I was right there with you. You held me as a captive reader. Thanks.

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  31. Oh Sam - I loved this!
    My very favorite kind of post, and you do them beautifully!
    And your jewelry store is wonderful!! Looks exactly like the jewelry in the town where I grew up where all young brides just "had" to register!
    thanks for this.

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  32. It is such a treat to learn about your family's rich history. Your grandfather was quite an impressive entrepreneur, and I see where you learned your hard work ethic. It's admirable! Thank you so much for sharing this!

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  33. Oh! Thank you for sharing your family history, love the pictures as well, very sweet of you...

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  34. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing your memories with us!

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  35. Sam - what a wonderful story! I love the insights into how your grandfather ran his business, and the taste of Vicksburg holiday style! You've made me want to make a trip there!

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  36. Sam what a great post! Very well written and I enjoyed learning more about you and your childhood.

    Hopefully, one day we can afford to throw a catered affair like you did!

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  37. Oh, Sam, this is wonderful! The memories, the story and the photographs. What a family you come from and what wonderful traditions have been instilled!

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  38. I just love a good story and yours was perfect! Thank you for taking the time to share so much.

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  39. Happy Pink Saturday, Sam. I know I'm late, but I'm still diligently trying to visit everyone.

    I love your shared memory of your family and the family business. My family was good friends with the jewelers in their home town, and I remember it looking similar to the picture you shared.

    And, I am definitely with you when it comes to throwing large parties. I do love planning the details, but I want to have fun, too.

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  40. Sam, your story relates with me in many ways. I think you are so right in having the party catered if you have that many people.
    My husband worked in retail when we first married and he was often working late on Christmas Eve.
    We had a special jewelry store in our town and everybody registered there. As a teenager, I was awed by the opulence of the place and felt like I had no business there.
    Most interesting post and well written. Thanks,

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  41. Oh, Sam, what a great story. Thanks for sharing it. I love blog stories--they make the person behind them seem more 'real'.

    I know Warren Ark a little. I used to live in LR, and for part of that time I worked for Union National Bank. We had a branch in Warren, and I visited it a couple of times. At that time I had a friend who owned a jewelry store, and one day she told me how much she loved her job. She said, "I sell beautiful things from the earth and the sea to people who are celebrating important things in their life". What a wonderful way to feel about your job. I think your grandparents must have felt this as well.

    I'm chuckling too about the discretion a jeweler has to have. Bankers too. Plus there's an unwritten rule in banks that you NEVER NEVER let a customer see you rush through the bank. It makes them nervous!

    Thanks for this lovely post.

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  42. This was absolutely wonderful to read~

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  43. Dear Sam, Given your amusing anecdote about learning the benefits of "confidentiality", I think you'd be amused, yourself, if you heard Ruth Draper's monologue "Mr Clifford and the Three Women". It's set in high 20's New York City and involves the voices of the three women... Mr Clifford's all-too-capable secretary, his eye-poppingly-horrible wife, and his mistress (All of whom are, obviously, in quite different locations in the city).

    In that monologue, you'll learn that, perhaps even moreso than jewelers, florists (and the personal secretaries of wealthy, powerful men on Wall Street) have to learn not to ask questions or make comments that are.....?

    In short, EVERYONe "knows", but no one does so much as suggest the fact. Discretion is demanded of everyone (including Mr clifford)...

    Thanks for your intriguing post. Send me your address, and I'll mail a CD of the monologue to you (they're hard to locate, as you might guess, but I have all of the available ones)

    sincerely,

    david terry
    www.davidterryart.com
    "regular" email: dterrydraw@aol.com
    2507 W. Knox St., Durham, Nc 27705

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I enjoy reading each and every comment. If you leave a comment with a question or that requires an answer, please leave an address or way for me to get in touch with you. I appreciate your taking the time to visit my blog and I hope you'll return again soon.
Sam