Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017



Putting Christmas Away
January 19, 2017



I spent most of the first full weekend of this month “putting away Christmas”, carefully wrapping up our precious collection of artifacts that constitute our family’s Yuletide heritage.

This was a difficult Christmas for us, the first since my wife’s passing. Nonetheless it was a joyful occasion with our house filled with grandchildren and their parents, eleven in total.

Holidays and family were always important to my wife; consequently Christmas was her favorite time of year. She particularly enjoyed hand-crafting things for the holidays, apparently a tradition in her family. One year she hand-painted overboards, to be placed on top of door or window sills. We found four in our set of Christmas decorations and were happy to display them.

My favorite is an inch thick board about five inches high and thirty inches long. It is a stretched out Nativity scene, a black silhouette on a white back ground with the stable and manger in the middle, wisemen arriving in the left side, and shepherds and angels on the right. Then there is a colorful Nativity scene on a shallow arch shaped board, with the background carefully gouged away between the border and the figures. Another shallow arch shape features colorful figures – three people building a snowman during a snow fall. The fourth is a deeper arch shape with a lion lying down and cradling a lamb. We treasure these artifacts of her art work.

Lai An is now three and a half years old, the perfect age to enjoy the holiday. Interestingly, her strongest memory of her grandmother is making and decorating Christmas cookies last year. I was quite interested in her mother’s reaction to witnessing our family’s somewhat eccentric Christmas traditions. Victoria is highly intelligent, well educated, and widely travelled, but I am sure our specific Christmas customs must seem extremely unusual to someone who grew up in a traditional Chinese family.

Putting away our massive collection of windup toys brought back many memories. I recall buying the first set of three at Grace’s store, on Bower Hill Road, when our children were toddlers. I was able to acquire a small band, one toy for each child. It consisted of a dancing bear shaking rattles, a monkey playing cymbals, and an elephant enthusiastically beating on a drum.

Later that Christmas season we visited Bill and Janet Sabina, friends who had three boys a little bit older than our children. They also had a fine collection of windup toys displayed neatly on a window sill. That inspired me to blackmail Santa into finding a new windup toy for each of our children each year, a tradition that spawned a collection numbering in the dozens – Santas, kittens that roll over, trolleys and trains, etc. The oldest windup toy we have predates our collection – a seventy five year old Ferdinand the Bull that my brother-in-law Jack Shaffer gave our children when he learned of our interest in windup toys.

Another flood of memories was generated by the act of removing ornaments from our tree and packing them away. The first year we were married, before our children began to arrive, we had a small tree decorated with thin wooden ornaments my wife had painted. Each one – nutcracker, toy soldier, rocking horse, etc. – has a special memory for me.

Later on we added ornaments with photos of each of our children and special souvenirs we picked up during our travels. I especially like some straw characters we found at a Scandinavian festival in northern Pennsylvania. One year the craft was converting wine bottle corks into ornaments by gluing hair and beards on them and painting faces on them.

At some point my wife got the inspiration to collect pieces of driftwood that were the right shape and the ingenuity to paint Santa faces on them. These too we proudly display at Christmas and marvel at her imagination and skill to produce unique pieces of artwork.

A few years ago I got into carving “pencil people” from long one inch square pieces of wood. Fortunately my wife was able to paint them distinctively and disguise the amateur level of my work. This produced tall, thin characters with their arms pulled in close to their bodies. One is a fine Santa, twelve inches tall, clutching a small Christmas tree in front of him. Another pencil people set that I admire is of the Three Wisemen, each with distinctive crowns and beards. At about the same time I also did a family of eight Pilgrims, each with remarkably grim faces.

We also of course produced a variety of other Santas, many of them based on patterns in “How-to-Carve” books that I acquired. Some of my favorites were based on patterns in a book on carving gnomes and dwarves. In most cases, Nan’s painting disguised the flaws in my carving.

In 1988 we undertook a new project, carving and painting “primitive” characters for a Nativity scene, beginning with a simple manger containing the baby, and Mary, kneeling to one side. In addition to retaining a master set for ourselves, we made copies for various members of our family, probably ten or twelve each year. Mary and the manger were followed, in succession, by Joseph, a shepherd, the Three Wisemen, a camel, and finally in 1995 by an angel. The theme was strictly primitive, although the camel and the angel were beginning to approach being semi-realistic. The peak of my primitive skill was the shepherd, who stands holding a (primitive) sheep in his arms. One of the recipients of the shepherd confirmed the primitive quality of my work by asking “Why is the shepherd holding a loaf of bread?”

The next year we embarked on new project – “The Peaceable Kingdom” – the animals in Edward Hicks’ famous series of paintings based on Isaiah 11, verses six and seven. In order we produced the wolf and the lamb, the leopard, the goat, the calf, the lion, the fatling, and the bear, before giving up by our inability to carve an adequate “small child”. This Christmas we set up our Peaceable Kingdom adjacent to the Nativity Scene.

The skirt around the base of our tree is another homemade treasure – green felt with a red border and richly decorated with felt cutouts of appropriate holiday symbols – snowmen, bells, candles, etc. It too is a cherished relic that has been lovingly folded and put away for another year.

Lai An appears to have inherited some of her grandmother’s love for crafts. Christmas Eve we stretched a cord along our mantle and used it to hang our twelve stockings. The next morning she shared our fun taking the stockings down and examining the things Santa had placed in them. A day later she was happily cutting up construction paper with her childproof scissors. When she realized that one of her pieces was shaped like a stocking she promptly got up and attempted to hang it from the cord on the mantle.

We weren’t sure what to expect when we set up our Christmas candle carousel. It is a modest wooden one with the heat from four candles driving a propeller which then turns the table below it and allows a parade of angels in a circle. The candle stubs we had were sufficient to get it moving and provide the desired effect. I think I like it better than the elaborate fancy ones that are advertised in catalogues today.

My wife’s Christmas cactus showed buds on Christmas day, but was two days late coming into full bloom. I suspect it too was in mourning like the rest of us. As I fondled each memento before packing it away my thoughts were dominated by precious memories of better days.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

Previous Articles

This template downloaded form free website templates