Starting the day after Thanksgiving, the only music in the house was Christmas carols. My dad would pull out the old 78 records from when he was growing up and we would play them throughout the holiday season. As we got older, my sister, brother and I would be allowed to change the records on the stereo. Since these were old records, everyone took care in how they were handled. My dad still has them and we still play them on the stereo during the Christmas season. I grew up listening to the original recordings of Bing Crosby singing "Silent Night" and "White Christmas" and Gene Autry singing about "When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter".
Saturday mornings during the Christmas season always began with the kids piling onto my parents bed and singing Christmas carols. We'd go through all of the "oldies" that my parents taught us before we got up. Sometimes, we'd sing something two or three times. Everyone had their favorites.
We'd listen to the carols while we helped our dad put the train platform up every year and while we decorated the Christmas tree. Instead of having the TV on while we got the house ready for the season and any gatherings that we might be hosting that year, we'd listen to music and sing. About halfway through December, there was a group of families in the neighborhood who would go Christmas caroling down by the pond where I grew up. We would get a fire going and everyone would sing for an hour or so, then we would all head to someone's house to warm up with hot chocolate and cookies for the kids and wine and beer for the adults. Sometimes, we would go caroling through the neighborhood instead of down at the pond but we always went. If we went caroling through the neighborhood and collected any money, we would take it downtown the KDKA window and donate it to Children's Hospital. Any donation to Children's got you a Farkleberry cookie. How many Pittsburghers remember those? For those who are wondering what a Farkleberry cookie is, here is a link to Albrecht's Pittsburgh Blog - Whatever Happened to the Farkleberry Cookie?
I mentioned trains earlier. My dad has a number of old trains that he has been collecting for years. Some of them are almost as old as he is but every one of them is in very good condition. My dad always puts up a platform at Christmas under the Christmas tree. Getting the platform wired for the track and the lights for the houses usually would take us a day to do. Oh, what fun we had getting the platform ready. The houses had to be brought out and put together. All of the people, trees and other pieces needed to be checked and readied for the platform. All of this was time consuming, but in the end, so worth it.
Sometimes, there was only one train out on one platform, under the Christmas tree in the family room. There were several years where we had 2 platforms up, one under the tree and one that was about 4 feet off the floor and had 3 to 5 trains running on it. This is the platform that would always take the most time to put together since the whole thing had to be laid out and each train had to be tested as we put it on the platform to make sure that all of the wires were properly connected. While my dad, siblings and I would be putting up the platform(s) and the trees, Mom would be in the kitchen baking, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, peanut blossoms, and whatever else she decided to make that year. The house always smelled wonderful on the weekends. Sometimes, my mom would take us to our grandparents and my sister and I would help Gran bake cookies and make hard tack candy.
This year, my daughter "helped" me to bake cookies. Really she just watched and asked if she could have a cookie when I took them off the cookie sheet to cool, although there were a couple of trays where she actually helped me to take them off and counted each cookie as it went onto the rack. We listened to Christmas carols or watched "The Polar Express" while I baked. I put our tree up Thanksgiving weekend and ever since, she asks at least once a day about when Santa Claus is coming and if there are any presents for her. I can only hope that when she is older, she will have as many good memories of Christmas as I have.
Hard Tack Candy Recipe
- 3 3/4 cups white sugar
- 1 1/2 cups light corn syrup
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar for dusting the candy
- 1/2 teaspoon red or green food coloring (optional)
- Flavor oil *
- In a medium saucepan, stir the first three ingredients together. Cook, stirring constantly over medium heat until the sugar is completely dissolved**, then bring the mixture to a boil. Stop stirring and all the mixture to heat to 300 degrees.
- Remove the mixture from the stove and stir in the food coloring and a few drops of the flavor oil of your choice. Pour the candy mixture onto a foiled and greased cookie sheet and lightly dust with the confectioners' sugar. Allow the candy to cool completely before breaking it into pieces. Store in an airtight container.
* While flavored extract works with this recipe, it is not very strong. The flavored oils that can be purchased at the drug store produce the best flavor for hard tack candy and only require a few drops.
** One of the hardest things that I've found making hard tack candy is waiting for the sugar to reach the proper temperature. If you are patient and use a candy thermometer to gauge the temperature of the mixture, you will get perfect candy every time.