Christmas fruitcakes, homemade ornaments and holiday citrus

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I have recently been thinking back to what Christmas preparations were like when I was a preteen. I was between the ages of 7 and 12 during the years that the United States was in involved in World War II, December 1941 to August 1945.

I am sure that was a time of scarcity, both because of the demands of the war for materiél, and also because my father did not have a high income at his disposal. Both factors certainly influenced the way in which our Christmases were celebrated.

Christmas was then, as now, the biggest holiday of the year. Mother would begin getting ready in November.

Each year at Christmas, she made fruitcakes, both for us and to give as gifts to family members. Several weeks ahead of time, she would begin candying the pineapple and other fruits that were destined for the cakes. She would spread the fruit one layer deep on cookie sheets on the kitchen counter, sprinkle it generously with sugar, and cover it with tea towels. More sugar would be sprinkled on from time to time as the fruit juices dissolved the sugar.

I would occasionally break off a small layer of the juice-ladened sugar, taking pains to rob it from a heavily-ladened area so its absence wouldn’t be noticed.

Closer to Christmas, she would paint metal coffee cans with aluminum paint. These were the containers in which she baked the fruitcakes that were to be mailed to out-of-town family. After the cakes were baked in the coffee cans, the cans were given additional Christmas decorations, perhaps with cutouts from last year’s Christmas cards pasted on the outsides of the cans.

Mother used to make a simple, homemade version of Play-Doh for me to make things out of when I was a kid. I done know the formula, but I think it consisted of flour, salt, oil, food coloring and water. Although it didn’t have the plasticity of Play-Doh, it was a satisfactory substitute. Near the Christmas season, we would model Christmas tree ornaments from it, embedding a hairpin in each one to use in hanging it from the tree. We used both red and green mixes, and my ornaments were primarily misshapen spheres.

We also cut strips, perhaps a half-inch wide and six inches long, of red and green construction paper and made paper chains to cover the Christmas tree. Among the “bought”” ornamentation were metal icicles. Back then, they were made of thin lead foil, giving them a drape which today’s silver-colored plastic strips don’t have. Of course, they would be harvested from the tree when it was time to take it down and saved for reuse the next year.

My Uncle King, who was in the citrus business in Florida, always sent each of his brothers and sisters a box of citrus fruit at Christmas. Sometimes it was all oranges; other years, half oranges and half grapefruit.

The box would be stored either on the screened-in front porch, or if it were too cold there, in the front bedroom, which was generally unheated. After dinner would be the time when we would sit by the fireplace in the living room, each one of us slowing peeling and eating an orange.

Occasionally even now, my being in the presence of the aroma of an orange being peeled reminds me of those Christmases of more than 70 years ago.

Henry Croom is a native Wilsonian and a 1951 graduate of Charles L. Coon High School. This is the first of a two-part series on preparations for Christmas. The second installment will be published next Tuesday. Croom lives in Scottsdale, Arizona and can be reached at hcroom@msn.com.