WHEN I WAS a little girl in the 1940s before the days of television, our family would gather around the kitchen table every evening after dinner in the weeks preceding Christmas.
Momma would spread an oilcloth to protect the wooden table, and Daddy would bring out all the materials needed to build houses for our Christmas garden.
Each of us played a special part in the construction. Daddy would design the buildings and cut the balsa strips. Then he would glue them into a frame held tight with straight pins. While waiting for the frames to dry, he would measure and cut brick-patterned paper to fit. He cut out doorways, which he then fitted with tiny balsa doors, and windows which Momma covered with colored cellophane. I would cut curtains for the windows from tiny lace scraps that Momma had saved from her sewing all year. As each house was completed, my little brother would put a dot of glue on some green material that had been cut out and paste it onto the house as landscaping.
Our Christmas garden was a sight to behold. It had a church with painted "stained glass" cellophane windows, through which could be seen rows of pews, an altar rail and a little altar with tiny candles all made of balsa by Daddy and Momma. There was a City Hall and a movie house with a marquee on which Daddy had cut out the message MERRY CHRISTMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR. There were paper and wooden airplane models of the latest vintage hung from the ceiling with sewing thread and a filling station complete with little cars at the gas pumps.
And, of course, we had train sets wending their way through the garden. Daddy even made telegraph poles on which he painstakingly entwined sewing thread lines. One year just after Daddy completed this arduous task, my little brother asked if he could run the trains. Up and up he nudged the dial on the transformer until the trains flew off the track, taking down all the telegraph poles and undoing all of Daddy's patient work. Daddy had to redo the whole telegraph system. My brother did live to see another Christmas, but he wasn't allowed to run the trains without complete supervision that season.
Each year saw a new wonder in our Christmas garden. One year, Daddy made a conveyor belt road that we could move with a hand crank and watch the little cars disappear through a tunnel at one end and reappear through another tunnel at the opposite end. There was the year he put a mirror on a record turntable and made a little skating pond with skaters going 'round and 'round. Another year, he built a frame of lathing which he stuffed with crumpled newspapers, then molded old curtain blinds with plaster over the base to form mountains which Momma painted. The following year, Daddy cut through the mountains and rigged a running waterfall, which he made with a recirculating pump and some carefully cut, shaped and painted tin.
Our home was always filled with holiday visitors come to see our Christmas garden. When we knew they were coming, Daddy would letter a holiday greeting with their names and put it on a billboard he tucked among the scenery. It was always a joy for us to see their happy surprise when they discovered it. But the biggest surprise for our relatives was the year they visited and found tiny models of their own homes, which Daddy had built and placed along the various avenues.
As the years passed, my own sons came to look forward to that special Christmas garden. Now, another family is building up memories in my childhood home. My sons are grown; my parents gone. There is no more Christmas garden for us . . . only the wonderful memories of those Christmases past.
Celeste Schimunek Breitenbach writes from Baltimore.