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.