I never actually spent Christmas day in Placerville because we always went to visit my grandparents in Salinas, but leading up to Christmas is as much a part of Christmas as the big day itself. Placerville went out of its way to celebrate the Christmas season, starting with a big sign as you drove into town: “The Christmas Tree Capital of the World.” The proof of this claim was the annual line of lighted Christmas trees all along the downtown stretch of Highway 50 and the large pine tree near the courthouse reaching into the sky. Although, in the days of my childhood the lights were strung on that big tree from top to bottom, making it look like a giant football, it was still festive. Indiana, PA also claims to be the Christmas Tree Capital of the World and I suppose other places do too, but El Dorado County is full of Christmas tree growers so the title fits. There is also an annual Christmas parade down Main Street, though for some reason I don’t believe I ever saw it more than once. I don’t get back to Placerville every Christmas season, but when I do, it seems as though Main Street becomes more Christmasy with every visit.
The biggest deal about Christmas in Placerville for me was the rather complete decorating of our house. In the days when my mother was at home with a newborn and a three year old boy, she filled her time with crafty Christmas decoration projects, making all of our tree decorations as well as wall hangings, garlands and table items to adorn every room in the house. A lot of those old decorations have gone by the way and have been replaced by others, though a few originals remain. Let’s take a tour as if it were the old days.
The outside of the house had a simple line of colored lights, so nothing outlandish there. At some point in the recent past a pair of automated wicker deer have been added to the front yard. The wreath on the door has changed over the years, but is always filled with an attractive combination of berries, ornaments and seasonal flowers. On the other side of the front door hangs an oversized stocking with decorative toys and ornaments popping out of the top. Across the hall banister is a lighted garland. To the left over the hall leading to the bedrooms hangs ribbons with bells on the end. When I was small my father used to carry me to bed on his shoulders so I could reach up and ring the bells or hit them with my head.
The hallway: To the right is a crafty picture created by my mother depicting a Main Street bustling with Christmas activity. The picture is made of fabrics cut out and glued and bedazzled with sequins. I named all the characters in the picture for the people in my life at that time. My God parents, Uncle John, Aunt Beth and their daughter Tonya are there. Neighbor Mrs. Sullivan is driving a car with a tree in the back and her daughter Kim is standing with her dog Sandy. My immediate family is there and my friend Jon Black from down the street is poking his head out of a window. I am pulling a little red sled of the kind I actually had. To the left is a holiday wall hanging on the bathroom door and on the bathroom sink counter is a red candle sitting in a gold wreath holder with two gold flaked statuettes of deer. My brother’s room had a diorama in the form of a “book” titled “The Christmas Story” that was opened to show little felt cut out characters depicting the Nativity. My room had a stuffed Santa and deer that sat on a book shelf.
Out in the kitchen, one of the surviving originals is a wall hanging on the pantry door that shows the characters of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” The family room had the tree in a corner between windows and the first theme I can remember was blue and green birds made from scratch by my mother. After a while, Mom made an entirely new set of ornaments with a Nativity theme that was comprised of the three wise men in multiple numbers, stars, camels and angels. We had an honest to goodness gold star on the top. After another several years, Mom went to work again and changed the tree to a Santa theme, which included plush Santa heads, candy canes, toy soldiers, bells and bows. Today the tree has moved to a position closer to the fireplace and is decorated with a large collection of store-bought ornaments in wine tones, gold and glass––it’s quite beautiful, but less original. My mother worked for Val Sullivan decorating the trees in her Last Straw gift shop on Main Street and her Christmas shops in Sacramento for years, so these new store-bought ornaments came from those shops along the way.
On our large brick fire hearth sat a large gold baby deer, looking something like Bambi and surrounded by ornaments in a bed of pine branches. Hanging from the hearth are the stockings, which in the early days were in the form of toy soldiers and a doll for my mother, but were remade to match the Santa themed patchwork quilt styled tree later on. The stockings always traveled with us to Salinas and we still use them to this day. That’s right––we’ve never given up the stockings––Santa still comes.
Traveling into the living room along the side of the brick fireplace, which has room for a lighted wreath, there used to be large ornamental papier-mâché wise men with candles in their hats positioned on an end table. Those have disappeared now and are replaced by an elegant lady dressed in cranberry and costumed for Christmas 1870. Other garlands and gold deer statuettes complete the picture. The dining room has a centerpiece of pine branches, ornaments and candles in dusty rose colors. When company was coming over at night, all the candles would be lit and the various lights plugged in making the house glow with a warm Christmas cheer, underscored by Bing Crosby on the stereo. All this Christmas would go up right after Thanksgiving and come down right after New Years. I was always sad to see the decorations go, but putting it all away had the effect of moving on to the next phase of life for the year.
There seemed to be a lot of Christmas parties when I was young. My parents participated in a progressive dinner that meant I had a baby-sitter that night, but for part of it a huge group of people came into the house for my parents’ contribution to the evening––maybe the cocktails, maybe the main course, maybe very late for dessert. I would be hidden away in the back of the house with the baby-sitter, a TV plugged in and bad reception. Other times my parents were just out at parties and my brother and I, or sometimes even with the Sullivan girls, would be happily entertained by a baby-sitter, some TV Christmas special and a game or two. I always thought those evenings were rather fun and as much a part of the Christmas season as the tree and the lights.
Those very classic Christmas specials we used to watch annually, such as “The Grinch”, “Rudolph”, and “Charlie Brown,” were all first aired in the late 1960s, so they were always there and they are still shown, which is kind of amazing. Burl Ives as the snowman singing “Silver and Gold” is still pretty charming and Linus telling Charlie Brown and the gang what Christmas is really all about never fails to bring me back to those years of sitting on the carpet before the TV in little red pajamas excited that the evening was special because there was a Christmas cartoon on TV. By the way, the child that voiced Linus in that “Charlie Brown Christmas” was brilliant. That voice is perfect and no Linus voice since quite does the job.
The Salinas arm of Christmas is generally a sunshiny time where surfers are out at Carmel beach on Christmas eve day, and fires in the fireplace are generally too warm, though we have them anyway. I know nothing of a white Christmas and with Placerville being about ten miles below the snow line, it doesn’t usually see snow on Christmas either. However, there was one year when I was six years old that we drove home the day after Christmas and found Placerville covered in snow. We always rolled back into town rather late and on this night our car wasn’t going to make it up our rather steep hill. So, we parked the car at the bottom of the hill, took hold of what suitcases we could and my parents hiked up the hill with their six and three year old boys. I remember that hike seemed impossible, but I guess we made it and that was my only white Christmas.
Characters from left to right are: Derek, Val Sullivan, Sandy and Kim, Mom, Dad, brother Mark, Jon Black (in the window), Aunt Beth, Uncle John, Cousin Tonya, snowman, Me pulling the sled.