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WOSTER: An old-fashioned Christmas

Our mother, so the story goes, ordered a tea set through the mail one year for my big sister's Christmas present and when she walked into the bedroom where she'd hidden the gift, there sat my sister and brother having a rollicking tea party.

My recollection is that she heard my sister ask my brother, "Would you like another cup of tea?'' That piqued her curiosity, naturally, because the question came from the closed door of the bedroom where the only tea set in the house had been hidden.

She had stashed several mail-order Christmas presents on the shelves in the closet of that bedroom. As in other years, they'd be hauled out and wrapped when Christmas Eve neared. Well, this year the stash included a set of plastic cups and saucers and a teapot, a gift that apparently was all the rage in the Montgomery Ward and the Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalogs.

Mother was unhappy with those two children, if memory serves.

Whether that memory is fact or embellishment, I like it a lot. I like it the most for what it brings back about growing up on a farm at a time when electricity had only just reached our rural neighborhood, the stereo-phonograph console had all sorts of 78 rpm records of children's stories, and radio carried news, weather, soap operas and evening mysteries, westerns and comedies.

Around Thanksgiving, the Christmas catalogs arrived by mail. They weren't called "Wish Books'' yet, but that's what we did with them. We'd lie on the living room floor with the Lone Ranger on the radio and the Sears catalog open to page after page of toys. We wanted everything on every page. Sometimes if we'd been good, we'd find one or two of those things under the tree on Christmas Eve.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, boxes and brown-paper-wrapped bundles began to show up at the mailbox up the road. Dad would bring them home and they'd disappear — poof! We kids knew some of them were presents. We knew some of them went into that bedroom closet, although I only recall that one time when someone actually broke into the stash. I once found a bundle back in the west closet behind my dad's accordion and a pile of old clothes. Not a chance I'd open it, though. That close to Christmas, I intended to be very good.

These days, a package can show up at the front door any time of day or night. It's almost like the old days of parcel post, except in those days the mailboxes on the rural route were miles and miles apart. Next-day delivery didn't exist out where we lived. If you wanted to guarantee delivery by Christmas Eve, you'd better have your order in the mail at least three weeks ahead.

I always remember the farm Christmases as simple affairs for us kids, although it got a little complicated for the folks, what with pulling the order forms from the catalog, filling everything in and making sure the payment was included. The simplicity, I suppose, came from the fact that we were just one family on a small farm, no social obligations during the holiday season, only Midnight Mass on the "don't miss'' list.

A day or two before Christmas, we traded a few simple gifts with Uncle Frank's family down the road. Other than that, it was just us at home for Christmas, and that was enough. Dad always took us out into the fields to see if we could spot Santa after Christmas Eve supper. We never did see him, but every year when we got back, we found presents under the tree.

We'd listen to carols on the phonograph, and I'd read the Christmas story, every year.

I'd never heard of Norman Vincent Peale back then. Just the other day I found this quote attributed to him: "I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world.''

Wouldn't it be wonderful if this were the year that happened for us all?