Friday, December 9, 2011

Special Because of How They Were Given

a glass ornament that hung on the Christmas tree from my childhood

My Aunt Harriett [my namesake] worked for the US Government, specifically the CIA, as a secretary, and she retired from that work in the early 1970s. At one point, she lived in Europe, mostly in Germany, on assignment with the US Government, a fact about her life that I really don't remember, but that my oldest brother Hunter reminded me of recently. He couldn't remember how long she lived there, but he knows that it was at least a year, and from the postcards I have -- it was 1958, a year that she spent the holidays away from her own family.

When we closed up my parents' house after their deaths, my sister and I split up the Christmas decorations that my mother had used for over 46 years as a wife and mother, and dispensed them among us and our brothers. My brothers, like the men they are, are not as sentimental as my sister and me, but we did give each of my brothers one of the Santa mugs that my Aunt Harriett had sent us that year that she was stationed "overseas," a term she and my mother's WWII generation used to designate Europe.

BTW: I think I mentioned on one of my blogs that Aunt Harriett had a box full of blue ball point pens stamped "Property of the US Government" that we coveted as children, and on occasion, she would let us have one. When she died, we found a box full of them in one of the drawers of her writing desk.

Santa mug to the left -- postcard in the center -- and the mug on the right - given to me by my sister-in-law Sally, a much more decorative one than the one I grew up with...

While "overseas" in 1958, Aunt Harriett mailed me a beautiful had painted postcard, its edges gilded in gold,  from Germany that depicts two young girls standing in front of snow covered trees and staring at a winter sky full of stars. At their feet is a lantern and a sled holding a Christmas tree, and there is an inscription on the bottom  front that reads, "Heilige Nacht, du kehrest mieder/Stern bei Stern zu gluh'n beginnt -."

BTW: I have no idea what that means. I'll have to ask my nephew-in-law, who happens to be German, at Christmas this year how that translates -- I'm guessing it's a line from a Christmas carol.

Could be Cold War propaganda for all I know.

On the back of the postcard is our address in Atlanta, complete with "10" as the zip code, and she wrote "Happy Holidays - Love, Aunt Harriett." The postage stamp gives the place and date as "US Army Postal Service, APO, Nov 20, 1958."  The postage costs 3 cents.

I was four years old.

Another hand painted postcard from her, sent the same month and year but addressed to the "The Junior McDaniels," pictures a Santa sitting in a tree and looking through a telescope at a snowy scene. I imagined then that he looked at me. :) At the top it reads, "Joyeux Noel," and she wrote this on the back: "Thought I send you Christmas greetings from France also - Harriett."

the postcard from France -- [the white duck decoration was one that my mother used in the last years of her decorating]

My mother prominently displayed this Santa postcard at Christmas every year for as long as I can remember, and I now continue her tradition by having both of these cards, now framed, sit on my mantle with other decorations during the Christmas season.

My Aunt Harriett, a World War II veteran, never married, and she lived most of her adult life outside Washington DC in Falls Church, Virginia, in a two bedroom, two story house where she died at the age of 82 in 1994. Always generous toward her four nieces and nephews, she gave "store bought" gifts that she picked up at Miller and Rhoads as well as trinkets and novelties that she picked up on her traveling.

When she was "overseas," we received some unusual gifts: wooden shoes, lederhosen, a cookoo clock, dolls in native costumes, and four Santa mugs [one for each of us] with each of the Santa faces on the mugs sporting a different expression. Those mugs, now considered kitsch, I'm sure, are faded and cracked and can no longer hold the "hot" beverage that my mother served us as children. I loved those mugs, and during the Christmas season, I would stare at them, as they sat up high away from the small hands I owned, and imagine drinking from them, their smell and taste unusual to my tongue as the reeked of a ceramic-ness that is hard to describe. Hopefully, it wasn't lead. That, however, could explain my inability to do algebra.

one of the four mugs -- the winkin' Santa...proudly displayed

My mother only allowed us to use these Santa mugs sparingly during the Christmas season. She would make hot chocolate for us to drink in them -- by heating up milk, adding pieces of chocolate and flavoring it with sugar and cinnamon and cooking it {seemingly so slow} in a double boiler on the stove. We admired the mug with its steaming liquid and sipped carefully from them while sitting under her supervision at the kitchen table. At the end of Christmas season, I watched her as she carefully washed each mug, dried them thoroughly, wrapped them in tissue paper, boxed them, and put them away for another year.

My mother told us that those mugs were special since they were given to us by "our Aunt Harriett" and that we needed to treat them as so. She valued most the items given in love.

One of those Santa mugs, cracked and faded, with one of Santa's eyes in a permanent wink and the other a sky blue with long painted eyelashes, sits now as a Christmas decoration among the framed postcards on my mantel. Forever relinquished to inactive use, Santa's stocking cap, shaped as the handle of the mug, is wrapped in tape, a mending job that I have left since that repair was done by my mother many years ago.

At Christmas, a time when I miss my parents and aunts the most, I think about them, the love that they had for all of us, and I am thankful for the memories and for the mementos that I do have of those years, now so long ago.

This plastic Santa boot ornament was stuffed with candy --- it hung on my childhood Christmas tree as well. :)


  1. I never knew Great Aunt Harriett lived in Germany.

    the line on the Christmas card says, " holy night, you're here again, star by star begin to glow."

  2. Beautiful. It reminds me of some of the same memories, I have and how different Christmas is now for us... it will never be the same as when we were children... how do we get the magic back?