When we were young, school would close two or so days before Christmas, and remain closed until after New Year’s. Christmas was already an adrenalin shot for kids, but the week off from school seemed like Bonus Paradise — the natural order of the way things ought to be for a kid.
If there was one thing that would not happen during the holiday break from school, it was that kids would remain in their houses. For Mister Boomer and his neighbors, the week was mostly spent outdoors. There would be cold and, most often, lots of snow. That presented both logistical issues and play opportunities.
Dressing for the cold when you expected to stay outside for several hours meant layering was of the utmost importance. Many a boomer can attest to the dreaded clothing gifts from mom and dad. These items were practical in nature, so there weren’t many kids interested in the crew socks, underwear, scarves and hats that “mistakenly” got mixed in and wrapped with the “real” gifts, until they were put into service in the week after Christmas.
For many Midwestern kids like Mister Boomer, dressing for outdoors started with long johns. Consisting of a long sleeve cotton quilted top and separate bottoms, this was the first layer of defense against the elements. Next came jeans or corduroys and a shirt, followed by two pairs of socks. Mister B would have one pair of everyday socks covered with thicker wool crew socks before he slipped on his rubber galoshes. Boot purchases were planned accordingly.
After donning a coat came the hat — usually a toque style — and for some, additional earmuffs. A scarf was next, and two pairs of gloves. Making snowmen and snowballs was tough duty for gloves in the pre-Insulate, few-water-resistant fabric days. Most gloves were made of wool, cotton or leather, with a lining that stayed wet once the moisture got in. Two pairs helped delay the inevitable.
Looking like the kid from “A Christmas Story,” we boomers were set for a good four or five hours of outdoor fun. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, there would be snowman and snow fort building, and snowball fights, but a good portion of time was devoted to sledding. The city Mister B lived in built a sled run in a nearby park. This gave many of the kids the perfect excuse to try out their new sleds or saucers. Most of the kids had a traditional wooden sled with metal runners. Mister B and Brother Boomer each had their own. A couple of neighborhood kids had aluminum saucers. Mister B didn’t see the point to these contraptions, as there was little or no control of where you went or which direction you might be facing. He preferred the responsive handles on his sleek sled with the red runners. It was a Christmas gift sometime in the late ’50s or very early ’60s, and served him right through his school years.
The man-made hill was constructed with a gradual twenty degree incline, but the backside was closer to forty-five degrees. Naturally, kids weren’t supposed to sled down that side, but everyone had to try it at least once. Mister B was too fearful to attempt the run, especially after a neighborhood kid swooshed down it so fast that he hit a tree and cut his lip with his teeth. Seeing drops of blood red against that background of white was enough to dissuade Mister B, until the constant taunting from Brother Boomer literally pushed him over the edge.
There was no need to get a running start on the backside of the hill. After laying down head-first on the sled, a slight shove of the hands was all that was necessary as gravity took over. Mister B never felt such a rush, his heart pounding so fast he thought he could feel it in his throat. As if the steep incline and speed weren’t enough, there was a grove of trees at the bottom, so it required expert steering to keep the sled clear. Mister B had plotted a course before shoving off, but now he was fighting panic to the point that he was momentarily frozen. As the trees grew closer he regained his wits and pushed the handle of the sled to the left as far as it would go, leaning his body in the same direction. His ever-trusty sled didn’t let him down, literally or figuratively, as he zig-zagged through the grove and came to a stop. Brother Boomer came racing down behind him, yelling at him to steer, then when his sled came to a halt beside him, he asked him if it wasn’t a real thrill. Well, Mister Boomer didn’t find his thrill on this snow-covered hill. One trip was enough.
In addition to sledding, kids could ice skate on the frozen ponds that formed in natural depressions. It was here that Mister B learned the neighborhood’s version of hockey, which was made even more difficult by an uneven surface and not a rectangular piece of ice that resembled a hockey rink in sight. The creative side of Mister B liked the way water would freeze on the ponds in tiny waves, as if the wind blew it and it instantly froze. His ice skates were also a Christmas gift on more than one occasion, as his first skates were double-blades, then later, single-blade hockey skates. Mister B never became an accomplished skater, and all but stopped trying after spraining his wrist when he stupidly used a wall to stop when skating on an outdoor rink.
Whenever and wherever kids gathered, there would be the inevitable “What’d ya get?” line of questioning about Christmas gifts, but there wasn’t much thought about staying inside to play with the army men, construction sets or board games. Outside was where the kids wanted to be, as they knew soon they’d be back in their classrooms for two months before another break would arrive.
How about you, boomers? Were you outside looking in during your Christmas school break?