During the 1950’s, tinsel was one of the most popular items used in American households for holiday decorating. Of course, by the 1960’s the FDA had banned Tinsel due to its lead-based content. However, until then, Grandma Della and Ann used loads of the stuff. Christmas decorating was an important highlight of the year for the Sullivan clan as it was a bit of a hobby for Ann. She had quite the collection of ornaments, some given to her by her mother, Grandma Della, some she had collected during her lifetime commemorating different hallmarks of her travels and growing family. Others, she made from materials she found along the way. Ann also loved observing family traditions at Christmas time. Some traditions she learned through her faith as a Catholic and some passed down by her mother through her Irish family background. Ann was determined to carry on these traditions and make Christmas memorable for the children now more than ever with Rollie gone.
The Christmas season began for the Sullivan’s on December 1st with the opening of the first window of the little cardboard Advent Calendar House, which had been passed out to the congregation in church the previous Sunday. Fortunately for Ann, there was little bickering on whose turn it was to open the window. With just the four youngest siblings that cared about such a thing. Patricia the oldest by twelve years, was usually interested in more mature pursuits.
With just twenty-four windows, everyone got the equal amount of turns of course, however, who goes first was sometimes an issue. Whomever opens the window for the day, gets to choose which tasty treat from the pantry would be the afternoon snack for everyone. The shelves of the canning porch were bursting with every Christmas treat imaginable after Ann and Grandma Della observed the very Irish family tradition of the baking of hordes of Christmas cakes, cookies, pastries and candies to be readied for the Christmas season. Tins stacked high full of cookies like Hello Dollies, Gingerbread, Chocolate Chip and those amazing Spritz cookies. Bonnie and Cookie just loved watching Ann create the Spritz cookies from the cookie press. It was so amazing, the different shapes that came from many attachments.
Other fantastic treats included candy like Divinity, Rum Balls, Turkish Delights, Peanut Brittle and Rock Candy. The cakes that lined the shelves were met with sheer delight on Christmas day when Ann and Grandma Della would lay them all out on the buffet, counters and tables to be eaten by family and friends all day. Cakes including Pistachio Bundt Cake, Fruit Cake and Ann’s most delectable Pineapple Upside Down Cake.
December 8th starts house decoration time. The house was decorated first, and the tree was decorated on Christmas Eve. Nothing was more fun for Bonnie and Cookie than chucking handfuls of the shiniest of tinsel strings of aluminum all over the live plants, green garlands, and wreaths. The hanging of the Holly Wreath on the front door and the placing of the candles in the windows completed the house decorations.
Ann returned home that year from somewhere unknown, dragging in a beautiful tree that looked mysteriously like that spruce tree that she admired so much growing next to the train tracks. Then it began, Ann would break out her state-of-the-art tree staging instruments. Duct tape, box cutter, and a small bow saw. The tree branches had to be arranged magazine perfect so that every ornament, each layer of garland, and every light was placed for maximum Christmas affect. It wasn’t until the tree was cut and taped to perfection that Ann would begin to instruct everyone on proper placement of the decorations. Once all was done. She would bring in more tinsel. So much tinsel!
The sweet smell of pine is not the smell Bonnie remembers most about that time. The tree was just one part of Christmas. The twinkle of that tinsel engulfed tree, reflected everywhere in the house even in the happy eyes of Cookie with her full fists of the silvery stuff, brings to mind another scent. Clove, orange peel and cinnamon from fruity mulled cider and pomanders as well as the dried fruit ornaments they all made together. The crisp fresh florals of cool winter blossoms like paperwhites and poinsettia growing in pots on the windowsills were some of the lingering smells she can pick up on every Christmas that will take her back to those times as a kid with Cookie and dressing the Tinsel Tree.
No tree is complete until the setting of the Nativity. However, baby Jesus doesn’t get set out because he wasn’t considered born until after everyone comes home from Midnight Mass. This final tradition, sparks another sibling debate as to whose turn is it this year.
On Christmas morning when the girls and little Rodney would wake up to piles of presents and loads of food and goodies. Five siblings just meant an impressive amount of presents. This year, Cookie won the choice at the Sears Catalog during the Thanksgiving Sibling Summit and as every year the girls would receive a doll. In 1954 there would be no other choice for Cookie to make than the Betsy McCall doll. She was every girl’s dream. Fully jointed arms and legs with a movable head, eyes that closed on their own and Saran hair that could be set, combed and brushed. The best part? She was made by McCall, the pattern company. She came with an Easy-to-Sew Apron pattern. For little Rodney, the Ohio Art Rolling Acres Farm Set. Patricia would receive a beautiful hair brush set and the sharpest of dresses all hand-made by Ann herself.
What was so fortunate for the girls was Ann’s talents with the sewing machine. She would spend many nights making, doll clothes and doll bed linens for the dolls. She was able to make everything the family needed in regards to clothing and linens which saved the family money. Ann was always able to make Christmas wonderful for the Sullivan siblings. They did not grow up with much money living on just Ann’s income working in the deli department at the local IGA in Herrin, but at Christmas, you would never have known.